Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Sobering look at life

Alcoholic seeks treatment after friend dies in blaze

They never played T-ball together, they didn't chase after girls in high school, they weren't born in the same city but on a summer day in August Malcolm Birbeck and Rick Gagnon would cross paths at an Ottawa rooming house.

During the next few months, they'd become friends until one died in a fire while the other got another chance at life at a time when all hope seemed to have been at the bottom of a bottle or the end of a crack pipe.

This is a story of how the loss of one friend's life motivated the other to reclaim his.

It was around 2 a.m. on Dec. 1 when tenants at 219 Daly Ave. were awakened by the smell of smoke that was billowing out of Gagnon's room.

Nobody knows what exactly started the fire but it's believed he fell asleep smoking a cigarette.

What is known is that the 42-year-old's screams could be heard throughout the old two-storey brick home that years ago had been transformed into a 16-unit rooming house.


"Save me! save me! I'm on fire!" he screamed from his room where he had barricaded himself in to escape the flames.

Tenants, led by Birbeck, tried to rescue him but they were pushed back by smoke.

He stood in the freezing cold watching firefighters remove Gagnon's blackened and lifeless body.

Hours later, Birbeck, 53, would explain what happened to the Sun. He said he was from Guelph and only came to Ottawa to get clean but hadn't and now lost a friend.

The day after the fire, Birbeck went to a newspaper box and grabbed the Sunday Sun.

He flipped through until he saw a story about how he tried to save Gagnon. The story ended with Birbeck saying he would never go back to the rooming house.

He said: "It's time to get sober."

For more than a month now he has kept that promise.

"I went straight to detox after reading that story," he said.

Enough was enough and he was tired of living as a drunk with a life that was turning him into a crack addict.

He tried to get sober in the past and it worked a couple of times, but something always triggered him to fall.

"But I always made the choice to take the first drink," he said, not wanting to pass blame onto those he's hurt -- and there have been many, including his 14-year-old daughter whom he loves and carries pictures of in his wallet.

The pain he has caused his daughter haunts him as he continues on his road of recovery.

Around Christmas 2006, after a night of alcohol and drugs, Birbeck said he blacked out and physically harmed his daughter.

He had just done crack cocaine for the first time and his daughter, who was sleeping over, confronted Birbeck in the morning because she was tired of seeing him drunk and out of control.

He said a few days earlier she asked him to get help but the verbal spat led to Birbeck being taken from his home in handcuffs. He was charged with assaulting his daughter and ended up serving four months in jail.

The assault was the darkest day of his life and his daughter has since broken off all contact with him.


Birbeck got out of prison on March 21. By May 25 he had sold his house and gave his daughter's mother nearly all the proceeds to set up a trust and college fund.

He kept about $10,000 and started blowing it on booze and parties until a week later his doctor recommended that he seek help away from Guelph.

The doctor said he should go to the Ottawa Mission and get into Lifehouse, a five-month treatment program for drunks and addicts.

"I came here an alcoholic looking to share his last drink and met crack addicts looking to kill for their next hit," he said about his first few days in Ottawa last June.

For two weeks, Birbeck blew the rest of his money and saw the darkest the city has to offer.

"I wanted to die. I told everyone I had thousands of dollars in my pockets. I wanted someone to kill me," he said.

Birbeck almost had his wish granted when he was staying at various Vanier hotels. There he met crack addicts wanting every dollar he had and when he would stop giving it to them they'd take it.

He was robbed in person and had his hotel broken into.

"They knew I had money and would kill to get it," he said.

At one point, he was tied up and tortured by a group of thugs until he gave them more money.

"Look at these marks on my legs," he said rolling up his jeans. The bottom of his left leg above his ankle has the scars from the attack and he's thankful he's not dead.

When all he had left was a quarter in his pocket, Birbeck went to detox for three days and then to Lifehouse, two weeks late.

He left four months later and moved into the Daly Ave. rooming house, where he met Gagnon at the end of August.

Going there was the worst idea, some told him, especially those trying to help him.

"We sort of lost him when he went to the rooming house," said Simon Brazier, manager of client services that overseas Hostel to Homes, an Ottawa Mission pilot project that is following 45 men, including Birbeck, over 18 months and tracking their progress as they try to get sober.

When he got to the house, he started to drink hard and used crack.

"That house was full of crack. It's everywhere here," he said. "I'd only tried it once before I came to Ottawa."

During the next few months, Birbeck and Gagnon became friends.

Birbeck even helped to carry out eight cans of garbage from Gagnon's room one day.

Gagnon never had it easy in life. He was born into a family with two older brothers when their mother was divorcing their alcoholic father.

When Gagnon was five years old, his mother moved the boys to Ottawa from Montreal.

Soon after, she was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and his older brother Hugh said the illness tore the family apart.

It was especially hard on his little brother who adored his mother.

"She would go to the Royal Ottawa Hospital and stay for a couple of weeks then return just to relapse again. Rick was very young and had to endure his mother screaming at the top of her lungs out the back door of our subsidized home at Rochester Heights that the Russians were coming or that Jesus was going to condemn us all to a painful death," said Hugh.

Hugh said when he was about 12, the Children's Aid Society gave the brothers a choice to either go to foster homes or return home to their mother.

"Rick and Christian, being all too young not knowing what worse could be in store for them with a strange family, decided to stay with mother," said Hugh.

Christian said it was hard on both him and Rick to endure their mother's relapses.

He'd move out when they were older but Rick stayed and fell heavily into drugs and alcohol.


In 2001, their mother committed suicide by jumping off the 14th floor apartment balcony.

Gagnon blamed himself for her death because he felt he drove her to it with his addictions and problems.

"I talked him down from more than one suicide attempt," said Christian.

Eventually, Gagnon moved into 219 Daly Ave. where he lived for the last few years of his life.

Only four people showed up at his funeral last month.

"I wanted to yell out the doors of (the funeral home) that my brother was dead in here," Hugh said. "Surely, he touched more lives than that."

He touched Birbeck's and his brother Christian, who he said was the closet person to him besides maybe his mother.

"I didn't imagine he'd die like this but I've certainly lived in fear of his death ever since mom died," said Christian. "His whole life was awful."

Hugh said this spring his brother's ashes will be buried with their mother's, who was laid to rest in a Quebec cemetery across from Fitzroy Harbour.

Birbeck couldn't go to Gagnon's funeral because after he went to detox on Dec. 2 he got into the Ottawa Mission's 30-day stabilization program for addicts.

Then, at around Christmas, he got into a recovery home for men battling alcoholism.

He's now attending daily group therapy at the Royal Ottawa Hospital and at the end of the month he finds out if he qualifies for Meadow Creek, an extensive local counselling and treatment centre.

Birbeck first started drinking at 14 and it became a problem by the time he was 18.

He then spent most of his adult life in the Canadian and U.S. armed forces. He doesn't talk about it much because he said around the time his daughter was born something happened while he was with the Canadian forces and he suffered a nervous breakdown. He said that triggered him to drink again after being dry for years.


For the 1 1/2 years he drank and then his wife threatened to leave him. He stayed sober for the next 6 1/2 years until his wife did leave him and he went back to drinking.

"I thought I was going to lose my daughter forever," he said.

Birbeck said he's trying to get his life back so that his daughter might one day be able to forgive him. He also hopes he can forgive himself.

"I am so ashamed," he said.

Birbeck has turned to God for support and guidance.

He said after the fire that he wished God had sent him to Ottawa to save Gagnon.

Now Birbeck knows that in Gagnon's death he might be able to save himself.

His only hope is to stay sober.

source: The Ottawa Sun

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