Shortly after the cops kicked down his door to find him dying on the couch with a gut full of sleeping pills and booze, Mike Brown checked out of the hospital and went drinking again. After every agonizing screw up — repeated job losses, car crashes, an aggravated assault charge, and that desperate attempt to rid the world of himself — another drink always helped soften the pain. But never for long. For more than half his life, Brown has been among the legions of people in Ontario and across Canada fighting a crippling alcohol dependency. “I’ve lost countless amounts of jobs, I’ve lost countless amounts of friendships,” said Brown, 39, a recovering alcoholic and drug user. “I put my parents through hell for 20 years. I’ve crashed cars. I’ve had legal issues. Suicide attempts. Numerous counsellors, psychologists. Probably three or four recovery homes, inpatient and outpatient. Psych ward visits. It ripped me apart.” While media, politicians, and social activists remain transfixed on the opioid crisis, alcohol has quietly continued to be the most used, abused, and deadly substance across Canada. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, it’s a leading cause of injury and death in the country. And its use is on the rise. I don’t have an off switch like normal people. I just keep going and going and going. Addictions specialists fear the provincial government’s loosening of regulations, from expanded LCBO and Beer Store hours to selling beer and wine in corner stores, will escalate alcohol’s destructive effects. “We spend a lot of time reading about some of the other issues around cannabis and opioids, and we forget sometimes how big a health concern alcohol is,” said Kathleen Morris, CIHI’s vice-president of research and analysis. “Some of that is because alcohol is well accepted in Canada. Four out of five of us say we drink at least sometimes. Most people do it moderately. But when it’s done to excess, it’s a very significant health issue.”
Kathleen Morris, vice-president of research and analysis with the Canadian Institute for Health Information.
Image courtesy of Kathleen Morris /
For most alcoholics, fallout goes beyond the physical, spreading its tentacles into every aspect of their lives. That could mean failed relationships, being fired from a job, or even a criminal record. For Brown, it meant all those things. Originally from London, he now lives in Windsor where he started a coffee shop and sober bar on Erie Street called Spiritual Soldiers Coffee Compound. Between London and Windsor, he bounced around to Montreal, Jasper, Vancouver, and Toronto, in constant search of fresh starts and better choices. He rarely found them. “I lived in Toronto for a few years, and things got really bad with the alcohol and the drugs.” He started drinking as a self-loathing 14-year-old stealing alcohol from his parents. “I snuck into their liquor cabinet and put a concoction together of whatever it was,” said Brown. “Probably Drambuie and vodka, and mixed it all together in a water bottle. At that time, we went to what was called bush bashes. We went to a bush bash and that was it.” The scared young boy, riddled with anxiety and deflated self-esteem, used alcohol to hide his “character defects” and muzzle the “inner dialogue” screaming inside his brain that he was trash. He was the problem. Alcohol was the solution. Still only 14, he started getting drunk every weekend. “I don’t know what it was,” said Brown. “It was just tough being in the skin of Mike Brown. I always say that I drank because I hated myself.”
Mike Brown, founder of Spiritual Soldiers, is photographerd at the Erie Street coffee shop on June 13, 2019. Brown is a recovering alcoholic and drug user. For alcohol abuse series.
Dan Janisse /
He was actually a popular kid and athlete with lots of friends. “But that was a social mask, what I wore on the outside,” he said. “On the inside I was dying. I was ripped apart. I just call it the social lubricant. My courage cape. It promised me things. It gave me the ability to dance at parties, to talk to girls. This false sense of pride. I kind of became the life of the party. And I’m not going to lie. I enjoyed it.” When he was 17, cocaine joined the party. “That just changed the game,” said Brown. “But it was always booze, always alcohol was included with me.” The cocaine helped him drink more. By 19, he was easily putting back 15 pints a day with shots piled on top. “Every single night,” said Brown. “I worked in the bar industry and the restaurant industry for a long time. To me it was just a social norm. Most people went out, had a beer after work. I didn’t. I’d go out and crank back 12, 15 pints and shots. That’s just who I was. I don’t have an off switch like normal people. I just keep going and going and going.” He checked into his first detox centre at age 21. “I was in complete denial,” said Brown. “I went into that recovery home thinking it was just for the cocaine. If I can stop that I can continue to drink.” The day after he left that facility, he got drunk. “I got out of that recovery home and continued to drink, and things did not get better,” said Brown. The addiction cut a swathe of destruction through his entire life. He lost friends and dismantled relationships. He crashed cars and got fired from several jobs. “I worked a job once, and I was hired and I got fired in the same day,” said Brown. “They hired me. I did some training. We did a wine testing. The guy came up to me three hours later and was like, you’re not going to work out here. It’s just what I did. I took it to the limits. I couldn’t stop. I had no handle on it.”
Bartenders serve up pints of beer but the numbers show alcohol may be a worse problem than the opioid crisis.
Dax Melmer /
By age 23 he had a criminal charge for assault with a weapon causing bodily harm. “I was drunk and I was hanging out with a rough crowd back then,” said Brown. “We were outside of a strip joint and something went off. I retaliated. Someone got hurt and I got charged.” He was given probation, which required he live with his parents. Still, the drinking continued. More destruction followed. “My dad always helped me out with cars,” said Brown. “The last car that he helped me out with, I just wrote it off. I had been drinking and I nicked a curb. The curb threw me up and I dinged a pole.” He climbed out of the wreckage, leaving the steaming hulk on the roadside, and went in search of more booze and another party. “My dad got a phone call from the police saying we think we have one of your cars on the side of the road,” said Brown. “He knew. He said yah, that’s my son. It became a normalcy to him, like there goes my son again.” I’ll never know the full degree of pain of what I put my parents through. On one of his darkest days, he took a fistful of sleeping pills and drowned them with alcohol. “I just thought enough was enough,” said Brown, who was living in Toronto at the time. “I called my dad and just said ‘the world’s a better place without me. Tell mom I love you, and I’ll just see you on the other side.’” His parents jumped into the car and raced to Toronto, terrified they might be going to identify a body. “My dad called the ambulance and the police,” said Brown. “They kicked my door open and they found me on the couch. Last thing I remember. I woke up in the hospital, my parents at the edge of my bed. When you do something like that, you’re supposed to reform. I think I was in the hospital two or three days, then I left. I just chalked it up to a bad night.” A day or so later, he was drunk again. “I’ll never know the full degree of pain of what I put my parents through, I don’t think,” he said. “I’ve always said that my parents are the true soldiers. They put up with me. They never gave up on me. It wasn’t until the bitter end that they both said ‘we’ve got to wash our hands a little bit. This is insane.’”
Spiritual Soldiers Mike Brown, founder of “sober bar” Spiritual Soldiers, is photographed at the Erie Street coffee shop on June 13, 2019. Brown is a recovering alcoholic and drug user.
Dan Janisse /
Brown tried a host of different approaches over the years to stop or decrease the drinking, from Googling strange Amazonian roots and herbs to just trying to avoid the hard stuff. It never worked. “When I start, I can’t stop,” said Brown. “Once I put that mind-altering substance in my mind, that’s it. It’s go time.” Alcohol by the numbers Each day in Canada, 217 people are hospitalized directly because of alcohol, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information. Ten patients die in hospital daily from substance use. Three quarters of those deaths are from alcohol. From April 2017 to March 2018, there were 156,108 hospital stays in Canada for harm caused by substance use, according to CIHI. More than half of those, 82,740, were from alcohol. Opioids caused 19,279 hospital visits. During the same period in Ontario, 50,863 hospital visits were tied to substance use. Alcohol was responsible for 26,952 them. Opioids accounted for 6,012 visits. An earlier CIHI report stated that in 2016, about 77,000 hospitalizations in Canada were due to conditions entirely caused by alcohol. Heart attacks caused about 75,000 hospitalizations. The problems stemming from alcohol cost Ontario about $5.3 billion annually, including longer and more expensive hospital stays for alcoholics, More than $23 billion worth of alcohol was sold in this country in 2017/2018, according to Statistics Canada. The amount Canadians spend on booze has been steadily increasing. In 2013/2014, it was about $20.5 billion. He even tried the medication Antabuse. It causes the effects of a hangover, including violent vomiting, immediately after a person drinks alcohol. “I still drank on it,” said Brown. “It makes you violently ill, but there was nothing in my path that was going to stop me.” Finally, after two decades, he hit the wall. “I reached out to a friend and said this is it, I’m done, I need to do something. This has been 20 years of hell.” He checked into a 90-day abstinence program in Windsor. He arrived in the city carrying his possessions in a hockey bag. “I found something that works,” said Brown. “It’s a 12-step program and I stick to it. It’s not for everybody. Other people have different methods. Some people can utilize medicated services. Other people can use harm reduction. I think that’s amazing. Whatever is progressing your life to be better, I think is awesome. For me, I had to be honest with myself and I was just done. Completely cut it out of my life.” Looking back, he said, putting down the bottle was the relatively easy part. “It’s now figuring out how to live life,” said Brown. “When I say I integrated booze into everything? Everything. At 16 years old you go tobogganing. It turns into toboozing. You go out with the boys to play some pickup hockey, there’s a six-pack with you. I go out to golf, I’m drinking a beer a hole. It was always an excuse to drink. Someone’s birthday. There was a wedding. Until it came to the point where I stopped getting invited to places because I was just sloshed. I was a mess.” Now clean and sober, he hopes his coffee shop can be a place of friendly refuge for others as they sort through the messes in their lives. “I showed up in this city and I owned a hockey bag,” said Brown. “Now I own a coffee shop. I suffered in silence for so long. I want to be able to be a voice, even if it helps one person.” firstname.lastname@example.org