The Atlantic Catholic
By Nicole Myshak
Through its work with those suffering from addictions, Talbot House is able to provide an opportunity to recognize and encounter Christ amongst us. Accordingly, the efforts of this Cape Breton based ministry — and the more than 50 men served there annually — are indeed a fitting focus of one’s prayer, fasting and almsgiving this Lent.
Father Paul Abbass, who has ministered as the executive director for the last 11 years, describes Talbot House as a “residential recovery home for men with addictions.” He explains that the Frenchvale home serves men experiencing a variety of addictions with a majority of these clients being “addicted to more than one thing.”
“We will take anybody,” he says.
Since Father Abbass’ involvement the average age of men within the community has changed. Presently those served are typically between 30-35 years of age with the youngest man being in his late teens and the oldest in his 50s.
“On average it’s a younger crowd and that, we believe, is a very good thing because the goal is to break the cycle while the person still has the opportunity to move on into healthy living,” he says.
Father Abbass acknowledges that the work of Talbot House is not so much “on the addiction” as “with the person to try to help them” cope with life and its issues as well as in “reclaiming some sense of their own goodness and their own selves.”
“You lose all that through addiction,” he states.
“You just think of yourself as nothing but an addict. Or you had to do some things you’re not proud of in order to support your habit and you’ve probably lost connection with family and other loved ones,” he continues. “You’re not feeling very good about yourself so we would be doing a lot of work around that as well.”
Those who come to Talbot House largely do so through “professional referrals” from detox centres across the province or they go on their own, on account of the reputation of the program.
After arrival there is a type of “come and see” wherein the men have between two weeks and one month to see if the program is a fit for them and their needs. Father Abbass notes that this process of discernment is mutual because Talbot House will also consider if the newly arrived client fits the program’s profile and goals.
Following this a man will be assigned a mentor who is another client within the program who has been there for a longer duration of time. He will participate in one-on-one help through addiction services as well as the daily program of the home that will involve several meetings. It might also be deemed helpful for the man to be referred for mental heath support and a number of the men might attend school, whether at community college or university. “We’re trying to help them to open some doors up,” says Father Abbass.
Although “the program is open ended” — and is therefore “running all the time” — Father Abbass says the minimum stay requested is three months with men staying an average of eight. During this time a collective decision between Talbot House and the client may be reached concerning how best to move forward.
Father Abbass notes that following their stay at Talbot House, several of the men often decide to resettle in the area “even though they might not be from here” so that they can participate in the aftercare program and benefit from all the services the home offers.
The director of the program adds that many clients periodically “come home” to Talbot House, whether just for a few days or a weekend. They continue to be a member of our community, he affirms. “They’ll always be a member of our community.”
How it began
Last September Talbot House marked its 50th anniversary with a celebration of “the gift of recovery.” Father John G. Webb, who is buried on the grounds of the home, founded Talbot House in 1959 and served as its director for the first 17 years.
Father Abbass marvels at the “courage and determination” of his predecessors and what they were able to accomplish with very little by way of resources and funding. “Father Webb started this place before there was a detox so in his day he would take men in who were actively using and detox them himself,” he recounts. “I couldn’t even imagine trying to do that today.”
Additionally, Father Abbass stresses that “in the early days of the foundation” of Talbot House the Sisters of St. Martha “were very much a part” of the ministry.
“They have continued their relationship today,” he adds. “They’ve continued to be an influence here.” This ongoing involvement includes personal spiritual direction that is offered to the men by a Sister of St. Martha.
Role of spirituality
While Talbot House is named after Venerable Matt Talbot, and its work is sponsored through the Diocese of Antigonish, Father Abbass notes “there’s no denomination” or “an institutional church basis” to the work they do or the spirituality they offer. Rather, residents are assisted “to find, name and live a personal relationship with a higher power.”
The Catholic priest explains that this spirituality “influences almost everything” including the way the community lives and the values it holds. “Spirituality plays a huge role in our work,” continues Father Abbass. “We would describe our program as being really rooted in spirituality because it is all rooted in the dignity of the human person and the absolute fundamental belief that on your own you cannot do this but with the help of a higher power all things are possible.”
Asked about the number of clients who would associate this higher power with Christ, Father Abbass says he and the staff “wouldn’t ask that question.”
Living in freedom
Father Abbass proposes that Talbot House is important because “we live in a highly addictive society” in which a majority of families are affected by addiction in one way or other. Therefore he believes it’s crucial to have “a voice in society” like Talbot House which proclaims that addictive substances and behaviours aren’t needed in order “to live a life of dignity and freedom.”
“No one should be enslaved,” he asserts. “People should live in freedom. We were created to live in freedom and dignity and addiction strips you of that.”
During more than a decade with the ministry Father Abbass has perceived a trend whereby each drug that becomes more common in its abuse ends up replacing the other, with each one being “more powerful and addictive.”
“More of concern” to Father Abbass is that he’s witnessed a great diminishing of the age at which young people are becoming “fearfully addicted to some of these substances.” “That’s frightening,” he admits.
Despite these unsettling realities, Father Abbass greatly values his involvement with Talbot House and says the experience has contributed a great deal to his life and understanding as well as his sense of himself and his spiritual development.
He adds that residents of Talbot House are “extraordinarily real” because “it’s very hard to hide when you’re completely broken.” As a result of “working, living and entering into friendship” with the men at the home, who “tend to be very real, open and honest,” Father Abbass has experienced an invitation to live a deeper level of personal authenticity.
“I think that my time among the men of the community has certainly helped me to be really more in touch with my own sense of brokenness, vulnerability and need for honesty,” he says.
Those motivated to support Talbot House may do so in many ways. First Father Abbass recommends that people “can pray for greater awareness of the power and presence of addiction” in society. As well he suggests others can support the “men by praying for them.”
If individuals feel inclined to direct almsgiving to this ministry, Father Abbass assures that financial support is also needed. “They can always remember us in that way,” he says.
Even though many of the clients are assisted in paying for the $1,000-a month-program through t he Department of Community Services, Workers’ Compensation or their work’s insurance company, there is often a budget deficit at Talbot House that can be overcome through personal donations.
Father Abbass also notes how several parishes hold annual drives for some of the items men need but which the home isn’t necessarily able to supply for them. These include new towels, sheets and bedding as well as toiletries such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, deodorant and shaving cream.
To have such items in “every room as the man arrives” or to “be able to put new sheets on beds when new people come” and to “give them a brand new set of towels” does indeed play a big role in affirming “human dignity,” says Father Abbass. He stresses that this communicates to the man that somebody thinks he’s “worth something.”
Should parishes or individuals wish to donate such items, they may contact Talbot House for a list of items needed. Additionally, residents of the home are available to speak at public awareness sessions whereby they share about addictions to increase understanding and “put a personal face on the disease.”