In conversation with Carol Landaverde

December 4, 2023
Carol generously shared the story of her cannabis addiction and concurrent bipolar disorder, and how the skills, support and connection she got through several CMHA Toronto addictions groups helped her get sober.
The transcript of this conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you first get involved with CMHA Toronto’s addictions services?

Carol Landaverde and her grandog, Bino

I had done a 12-week addiction group with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s concurrent disorder clinic. I was the only cannabis person there and I wasn't having much success with it.

Some people just assume that addiction is addiction is addiction. In my experience, it's not true.

I was referred to CMHA Toronto’s cannabis group but I was having a hard time regulating my emotions and moods. I'm also a person living with bipolar and I was really unwell. One of the facilitators noticed I was struggling and recommended the dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) group. I pulled out of the cannabis group and went to the DBT group.

I learned so many skills. After I finished the DBT group, I went back into the cannabis group for a second time, and I was much more successful because I could focus. I was still having difficulty with my mood, so I ended up going back to the DBT group a second time.

One thing I've learned is that taking the group just once is sometimes not enough. I got a lot more out of the cannabis group the second time. And while I had learned skills in the first DBT group, when I went back I could go much deeper into the group and the skills.

The thing that I really appreciated about the groups was the ability to openly talk about my addiction and the issues I had and nobody judged anything.

Why do you think the groups work as well as they do?

The core content is great but sometimes it was the smallest things that helped me and other participants. Here’s an example: I was so unmotivated, and one of the men in my group said ‘you know what, I have that problem too.’ I told him my routine was to get up, shower, get dressed, eat – the bare minimum. And then I'd stall out. I'd want to go somewhere but the process of putting on my shoes and getting my jacket derailed me.

He suggested that my routine should include putting my shoes on. He said that he had experienced the same thing but because his shoes were already on, he just had to grab his jacket and go.

For me, one of the reasons the groups are so successful is because of the peer support and the peer co-facilitators. It’s the small things; the sharing, and being able to ask a quick, simple question. Peers understand exactly what you're talking about because they have the lived experience. They can give you those little pointers, put things in perspective, and help you understand what's going on.

As someone with 30-odd years of experience facilitating groups in my previous career in development services I could see the facilitators gently encouraging people, and it really made a difference. People started to open up as the groups progressed, and I feel that happens because of the way the facilitators run the program.

I like to share and I try and help people out because I know that if I say something it can help others. For example, one woman started the group lying in bed every week. As the weeks progressed, one week she was sitting up and I said, ‘Wow, it's really nice to see you sitting.’ By the end of the group, she was not only up, she was showered, dressed, her hair combed. That kind of encouragement, I think, helps you feel part of the group, not just a participant but really engaged, giving information, making a difference for each other.

By the end, we really felt like a little family, a little group that has had this shared experience.

Tell us about the sense of community and belonging that develops in the groups.

The groups are by Zoom and I hope they never get rid of the Zoom sessions. There are so many people with anxiety who would never be able to get to the groups in person.

There was the ability to use the chat feature on Zoom, so I was able to really pump people up, even though I wasn’t a facilitator. I’d be able to say, ‘geez, you know, you're looking better’ and ‘oh, that's a really good idea’ or even put ideas out there and ask questions, like ‘has anybody experienced this?’

Because people are encouraged to participate, they start sharing resources. Everyone felt like they were important, and that their sharing mattered. That’s really important, sharing those small moments and suggestions. The suggestion I got about putting my shoes on as part of my morning routine was really just about sharing between participants.

I remember there was a young man in one of the cannabis groups who was really having a hard time just getting to the group. He didn’t have a sense of connection or belonging in his life. So I was able to support him. I asked him if he ever went to Routes [CMHA Toronto’s peer community space in North York] and suggested we could meet up there. It was an opportunity to create connection and continue sharing.

What does it take to be successful in recovery?

They'll tell you the physical symptoms will go away after a certain amount of time. I kept finding that in the literature but in reality it was something different.

Because it’s CMHA Toronto, there’s a good assumption that a large percentage of the group is living with diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health issues. Even when you pull out of the addiction, your meds might have been screwed up because of substance use. You have to be aware of that and get your ducks in a row. Make sure your psychiatrist, your doctor, your nurse practitioner, your social worker, whoever, are on board as a team, because you're going to need that.

Try to have supports around you to remind you of what you've accomplished. I was lucky because I have family who kept reminding me not to be so hard on myself. They’d say ‘it's only been this long. You've done all this.’ It’s good to have someone to remind you about all you've done.

Addiction is bad enough, but addiction with a mental health issue is like a mesh cloth that is interlaced. Pull on one string, it affects the others.

What do you think you were able to give back to the groups?

Because I am older, I was able to show that addictions can start any time. I want people to know this can happen to anybody, at any age.

I was very open and honest. I let people know that I had to quit three times before it stuck. It’s important for people to share their experiences with relapse so you have that information. And it’s also important to tell people that it's not going to be easy.

I started using cannabis because of chronic pain, but it doesn't matter why, the process is still the same. It doesn't matter what the journey is or where or when you start, you can still recover.

With relapses, it’s like riding a bike. How many times do you fall before you actually get it? Each time you learn something new. Quitting is the same thing. You quit for this amount of time, you relapse. But what did you learn? What do you need to do differently next time?

What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of just sticking to it. It's a hard journey. It can be scary. That expression ‘two steps forward, three steps back’ really does apply.

I'm still trying to learn who I am as a sober person. There’s a lot of grieving. You have to let a lot of things go. Having the groups helps to connect with people. You have to let go of so many people through this process, so many people. And you have to grieve.

You cannot go through this process and not be a totally different person. You’ll need to come to terms with who you are as a sober person, become comfortable with the new you.

I just want people to hang in there. It will get better. That’s the biggest thing: hang in there and you’ll get there one day. We’ll get there together.

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