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Long road to recovery

With a bottle of sniff stashed in his pocket, Marvin Sumner ditched the treatment centre in Sagkeeng First Nation after one night and hitchhiked back to Winnipeg to resume his life as a solvent addict.

Then, a few years later when Sumner's daily sniffing was starting to damage his ability to walk, he spent nearly a year in the Ka-Na-Chi-Hih solvent abuse treatment centre in Thunder Bay.

Marvin Sumner works to regain control of his legs in his inner-city apartment. After two failed attempts to quit sniffing, he finally went clean as a birthday present to his dad.

Marvin Sumner works to regain control of his legs in his inner-city apartment. After two failed attempts to quit sniffing, he finally went clean as a birthday present to his dad.

"I was a skinny little punk when I went in. I was 124 pounds. When I left I was 160 pounds and built," he said.

But that clean stretch only lasted a couple of days. When he returned to Winnipeg, Sumner went to visit his brother at the old Occidental Hotel, fell in with the same people and sniffed for another five years.

In the end, it was Sumner's dad who did the trick.

"When I was 30, I said 'Dad, I am gonna quit sniffing for your birthday present,'" he said.

"I never looked back at it. I just wanted to make my dad happy... I'd ask him 'How many days has it been?' It felt forever. Meanwhile, it had only been a week, two weeks. My dad would say 'You're doing good, my boy.'"

Now 37, Sumner has been basically clean ever since, living in a small apartment jammed with old television sets on Princess Avenue, where he calls bingo on the weekend, rides a moped parked in his kitchen and appears to know everyone in the tower. He's collecting pop can tabs -- he must have thousands stored in old pop bottles lined along a kitchen shelf -- to help buy a wheelchair for a disabled kid.

He still has trouble walking himself. He used a scooter for years but just got a new pair of leg braces that help him stay on his feet while he carefully moves around leaning on walls and counters and chair-backs or his crutches. He hopes to regain some of the muscle control of his legs, control he lost from sniffing.

Sumner is an energetic, if scattershot, storyteller with the mischievous, lopsided grin of a teenager. He said he started sniffing as a young teenager in Winnipeg because he saw family members do it. He even sniffed regularly when he was playing hockey for community league teams in the West End.

Back then, the top choice was paint remover. Today, lacquer thinner is more popular.

Though he lives near Main and Higgins, the epicentre of solvent abuse, Sumner says he's not inclined to start sniffing again. In fact, he hates the smell of solvents, even the sealant the Manitoba Housing maintenance staff used recently to caulk his new living room window. If Sumner smells solvents on someone on the street or in the lineup for lunch at Siloam Mission, he recoils.

"If I smell it on their breath, I have to light a cigarette or just get away from them," he said.

"They gotta know they are messing up their lives every day."

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 10, 2011 J5

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