A long road to addiction recovery, a path for others to follow

It’s hard to imagine that, not long ago, Brittany Baker spent her days in a black hoodie pulled up so no one would see her face, walking London’s streets, banned from shelters and getting sicker.

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The butterfly ring matches the butterfly latch on her purse.

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The red purse matches her shoes, belt, the cherries on her sweater and the beret that caps her flowing hair.

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It’s hard to imagine that, not long ago, Brittany Baker spent her days in a black hoodie pulled up so no one would see her face, walking London’s streets, banned from shelters and getting sicker.

“I didn’t want to be seen. I didn’t want to be touched. I didn’t want to be held. And I didn’t want to deal with the reason I was using in the first place.”

Baker wants to be seen now, as the artist she always was and for which she went to school, and as a grateful participant of the kind of help that is starting to come to London.

Baker recently donated two pieces of her art to CMHA Thames Valley Addiction and Mental Health Services, once two separate services, one offering addiction help and one offering mental health help.

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That merger reflects a new, larger effort in London, bolstered by a $25 million donation announced this week, that has more than 200 people from more than 63 organizations and groups working to reduce homelessness by combining addiction, mental health and physical health care with housing support.

Baker’s story shows the necessity of providing London’s most vulnerable citizens with many services at the same time.

“It takes a whatever-it-takes approach to get better. Doctors, counsellors, therapists, medication, treatment centres, recovery homes, meditation, caseworkers, I talked to everybody to get better.”

A “typical middle class kid” growing up in London’s suburbs, she was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder in Grade 4 and continued to struggle in school, Baker says.

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“It was actually the inspiration of my mother to stop focusing on the things that I couldn’t do well, and start focusing on the things that I did do well, and I was creative and imaginative. So, we focused on that.”

She graduated from H.B. Beal secondary school in 2000 and was accepted in the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto for material design.

Judy Baker hugs her daughter Brittany who thanks in part to the combined services of CMHA Thames Valley Addiction and Mental Health Services, is sober, social and back creating art. (RANDY RICHMOND/The London Free Press)
Judy Baker hugs her daughter Brittany who thanks in part to the combined services of CMHA Thames Valley Addiction and Mental Health Services, is sober, social and back creating art. (RANDY RICHMOND/The London Free Press)

It wasn’t easy, but she was doing well until the night in second year she was sexually assaulted, beaten and burned, Baker recalls.

“I left the hospital with burns, bruises, broken bones, and scars that will be with me forever. And I left with a prescription for opioid medication to manage my pain,” she says.

That was her “ticket to addiction for the next 10 years,” she says. “I’ve been kicked out of every shelter and flop house in London and Strathroy. I lived on the street for three or four months one summer.” Always using, always hiding, always lying, she remembers.

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The only way out of homelessness was the hospital.

“I had eight surgeries in eight years. I had endocarditis, MRSA, MSSA (two superbugs), Hepatitis C, been on dialysis, a ventilator, had three chest tubes and was sedated for six weeks, and then isolated for another six weeks with the MRSA,” she says.

She left the hospital one time with a list of medications and follow-up appointments, including for methadone and psychiatric treatment

But the methadone program came with no counselling to address her trauma, Baker says. “I lived two blocks away from the clinic and I couldn’t even make it there every day, because I hadn’t dealt with my reasons for using it in the first place.”

The psychiatrist gave her even more meds, she says.

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“I stopped counting how many times the hospital told me she wasn’t going to make it,” her mother Judy says. “She had kind of disappeared for a little while. When we did find her, she was on death’s door at Victoria Hospital. And that was really, really hard.”

At the time, addiction and mental health services were separate organizations in London.

“It was like trying to deal with an infected sliver in your finger while your arm is hanging by a thread,” Baker says. “It was difficult because I had both needs. There wasn’t one treatment centre that was going to take care of me. There wasn’t one place that could cover all my issues and give me support.”

In 2017, she entered the suboxone program at the Addiction Services RAAM (Rapid Access Addiction Medicine) clinic with skepticism and hope. It was either that or an out-of-town treatment centre.

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“I had just gone through a relapse. I didn’t want to be removed from my family and my friends, the ones that were good.”

The RAAM clinic offers quick intake, no judgment and individual and group counselling, says Barry Wong, manager of addiction medicine.

“If people have concerns with alcohol, crystal meth, or any opioid use, they can pretty much drop in and seek medication that could help with making changes to their use, whether they’re looking for abstinence, at reducing their use, or finding a safer way of using substances,” Wong said.

Three months after she joined the clinic and started suboxone, an opioid-blocking medication, and for the first time in 10 years, “I forgot I wanted to use,” Baker says.

“Suboxone got rid of that monkey on my back, that addiction that tells me to put poison in my body.”

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Addiction Services of Thames Valley and Canadian Mental Health Association Middlesex completed a merger in 2021. The merger and ability to treat addiction and trauma together was a “huge game changer,” Baker says.

Her addictions counsellor referred her to another counsellor to help her work through the trauma from the assault and the years of struggle after.

“All that stuff just came tumbling out of my mouth and my poor damaged little heart,” she says. “I had to change everything about who I was. I had to shed that old version of myself. I had to mourn the loss of that person wearing yesterday’s makeup and dirty clothes and track marks and black hoodies. I am who I am today, because I went through that.”

In January 2022, she started painting again and today, she is an artist again. Baker had a showing in the fall, and new shows in February at Wisdom Shop and Cafe, and at Blackfriars Bistro from August to October.

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The abstract gold-leaf and acrylic works donated to CMHA Addiction Services will hang in the waiting room on Queens Avenue, by a window where gemstones will catch the sunlight.

The waiting room is its own special place, Baker says.

“Open the door and there are people talking, sharing, laughing, looking at you with the understanding. ‘I’ve been where you are. You are welcome here.’ ”

Mothers with newborns, grandmothers, construction workers, health care workers, men in suits with briefcases, she’s seen and chatted and laughed with all of them in the waiting room, Baker says.

The two pieces are appropriately named for the feeling of that waiting room, the effort to recover, and the combining of services in London: Keeping it Together.

The separation of mental health and addiction services was “the great divide,” Baker says. “Once everything came together, I became so much better.”

For more information about the RAAM clinic, visit adstv.on.ca/programs-services/rapid-access-addiction-medicine-raam/, call 519-673-3242 ext. 281, or email [email protected]

To see more of Baker’s art, visit her Instagram account @brittanytbee

[email protected]


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