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Ian Rabb speaking to Remis speakers' forum

Ian Rabb’s story is well-known. As someone who had fallen as low as one can go, then managed to pull himself up – with the aid of others, Rabb’s story of falling into a life of  addiction and despair, then managing to climb out of the enormous hole into which he had dug himself, is truly inspiring.

On Thursday, July 18, Rabb was the guest speaker at the Remis Speakers’ Forum, held every Thursday, beginning at 11:45 am, at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue.
Normally, when I attend these events I don’t bring along a pad for note-taking, but I had never heard Rabb speak in person (although I had heard him on the radio). I knew enough about his story though to be intrigued to the point where I thought beforehand that it would be worthwhile to report on his talk.

When he did begin to speak it was clear from the outset that Ian Rabb is well used to giving the kind of talk that he gave. He spoke without notes – and without having to pause to collect his thoughts. And, as anyone who had heard or read of his story prior to this particular day, it was no surprise that Ian Rabb was brutally honest in describing his own story.
He began by introducing himself as the Business Development and Public Relations Officer at Aurora Recovery Centre, which opened in June 2016 (on the site of what was formerly the Misty Lake Lodge north of Gimli). Recently, Rabb noted, he has also worked with his brother, Jeff, at Alderman Capital (but he didn’t go into detail about his experiences working at that company).
Looking around at the audience though (which was made up mostly of older Jewish men like me), Rabb observed that “the people who need to hear me aren’t here.” He added that he wasn’t referring to people with addiction issues alone; it was just that he wanted to get his message out to the wider Jewish community. (Afterwards, I asked Rabb whether he had ever been invited to speak by Jewish Child & Family Service for their “Can We Talk?” series. He said that he hadn’t, but he would be glad to do so.)

Came from a good Jewish home
Continuing with his story, Rabb said that he came from a good Jewish home and was active in many facets of life growing up. (A check of our archives reveals that Rabb was publicity director for the Israel Pavilion for Folklorama in 1985, and was also involved with something known as Y.O.F.I. – Youth Organization For Israel, at the same time.)
Even before he became an addict though, Rabb said that he knew “there was something wrong with me”. Looking back on how his life spiraled into a hellish combination of drug and alcohol addiction, leading to arrests multiple times when Rabb was living in the U.S. (where he had gone to work as an optometrist – one of three degrees he holds), and time spent in prison, Rabb insists that “addiction clearly never has anything to do with where we come from”.
Referring to the loving home in which he grew up, Rabb said “no amount of love or compassion could have changed my life because I was given everything I could have wanted.”

So, what led to Rabb’s addiction issues?
One might wonder then, where did Rabb’s  problem with addiction come from, if not from a troubled childhood – which is what we are often led to understand is often the cause of addiction?
In Rabb’s view, “addiction is a ‘pereceptual’ disease. Those of us who are afflicted with the disease of addiction would be addicts even if we didn’t try alcohol or drugs,” he suggested.
“What happens is that when you see things not as they really are, the substance quiets the thinking…The drug or alcohol is not the problem; it’s a symptom” (of the underlying problem).
“Families tend to blame themselves” when children become addicts, he noted. “Yet, there’s nothing they can do. I wouldn’t have changed anything I did growing up.”
Rabb said to the audience that he’s often asked to speak to school students. He said that “I can go to a school and point to ten people who will be addicted just from the way they’re acting.”

Later, when he took questions, Rabb was asked to elaborate on that assertion – to explain just how it is he can spot someone who is going to become an addict.
He answered that there are essentially two types of personalities that are prone to addiction among school students: the “isolator” – “the loner with an inability to feel connected”; and the “class clown” – “looking for attention.”
And, it’s not always individuals who seem to be wanting to cut themselves off from mainstream society who become addicts, Rabb added. “Often, people who are highly motivated become addicted…I was a doer, always looking for activities to fill the void, such as sports or Chai…I was always looking for something to make me complete or whole.”
Yet, even as accomplished as he was (acquiring the three degrees, becoming a successful optometrist, and earning a good income), Rabb said that “becoming master of your own destiny was not enough any more.”
He entered into a pattern of criminal behaviour while living in Chicago, then Denver. (Rabb didn’t go into detail about what happened, but in a 2016 story written by Jennifer McFee for the Sou’wester, Rabb is quoted as saying, “ ‘I got involved in more aggressive drugs and ultimately organized crime and the sex trade. I crossed every possible line. I was arrested seven times in the United States. I became a junkie and basically lost my home in Chicago.’
“He moved to Denver to live with his sister and got involved in more criminal activity.
“ ‘In that process, I became the organizer of disorganized crime and at the end was looking at time in prison for racketeering,’ he said.”

At the Remis forum Rabb added that “I would leave jail and get home and within three hours I would be back doing the same thing all over again.”
The Sou’wester article continues: “His sister eventually threw him out on the street, where he continued to get into trouble. Ultimately, a drug enforcement officer helped save his life by pointing out that he didn’t belong there.”

How did Rabb recover?
Rabb credits his father, David, for helping him on the path to recovery. David flew to Denver “and took me back to Winnipeg – the last place I wanted to come back to,” he said.
It was when he returned to Winnipeg though that Rabb explained he came into contact with “an 82-year-old mentor who had helped addicts for 42 years.”
It was with the help of that man that Rabb said he came to the realization that “if I didn’t touch the stuff I would get better – but there was no hope.”
Despite his self-doubt, Rabb threw his energy into helping other addicts and, even though he admits that he will always be an addict, he said that he has now “been clean and sober for 17 years”.

Rabb explained  it was by understanding that the basis for addiction is a combination of several factors – which may include a genetic predisposition, but almost certainly includes some sort of childhood trauma (in 99% of cases, he later claimed) that he said he came to the notion that addiction is a disease of the “soul” (not in a traditional religious sense, he explained, but in a more Jungian sense).
According to Carl Jung, there are three ways for an addict to recover, Rabb said:
1. You can see a “white light”; you can develop a “new consciousness”.
2. Deep study and learning can solve the problem of “cancer of the soul” – a “religious” approach
3. “Honest communication with friends, protected by the wall of human community”
It was this third approach that has become the basis for all 12-step programs, Rabb explained, and which was pivotal in the work that he has been doing in helping other addicts since he came back to Winnipeg 17 years ago.

Two-ten Recovery and the Aurora Centre
“First I did ‘Two-Ten Recovery’”, Rabb said, finding homes for recovering addicts where thye “could go back to some sort of structured environment” and  where they would receive support rather than being left to fend for themselves.
Then, around 2012, Rabb began to develop the notion of creating a “recovery centre” – not a “treatment centre”, as most facilities that aim to help addicts are called.
The difference is crucial, Rabb maintained. “We all hear about treatment centres, as opposed to recovery centres. But, it’s a lifelong process. The essence of recovery is where you give of yourself freely to humanity."

Aurora Recovery Centre

Rabb didn’t touch upon the process that was involved in building the Aurora Recovery Centre, but a reference to other articles written about that centre mention some of the difficulties he encountered, including trying to find the capital to build the centre, and then, when it finally opened in 2015, being forced to shut it down a short while later, due to insufficient funds.
In the past two years though, with new leadership, (and with Rabb as the only holdover from the original centre) Aurora has established itself as a successful centre, Rabb said.
Aurora is a 70-bed facility “with full medical recovery,” he explained. “We have had over 600 people there in two and a half years.” (And, at a cost of $20,000 for a six-week stay, Aurora should be generating a healthy profit for its investors, although Rabb didn’t discuss that particular subject).
Prior to Aurora’s opening, however, there were no long-term addiction treatment facilities in the province. Now, Rabb noted, “60% of the clients there are from Manitoba.
By the way, currently the Province of Manitoba does not cover any of the costs of treatment at Aurora. While many might wonder whether the rather expensive cost of sending someone there might preclude its being available to anyone except wealthy individuals or families, Rabb said that “60% of the people receiving treatment come from middle class families searching for $20,000 to send their loved ones somewhere where their lives can be saved.”

The failure of both the provincial and civic governments to come to terms with the true nature of addiction is something that Rabb lamented. He suggested that the slogan made famous by Nancy Reagan to “just say no” was “like saying to a homeless person, ‘just get a house’ ”.
Also, “Don’t say to an addict: ‘You have a choice,” Rabb cautioned. “No one grows up thinking ‘I want to grow up to be an addict’.”
Further, within certain communities, especially ones that have arrived relatively recently in Canada, Rabb observed, “there’s so much shame around addiction.” He referred specifically to the Filipino and East Indian communities, suggesting that the first generation of newcomers within those communities “does not want to admit there’s a problem.”
The Jewish community, in contrast, “has reached a certain level of understanding” that addiction is a very real problem, Rabb maintained. He added, however, that addiction among young people within our community in the “15-25 age group” is quite a serious issue.

As I noted, Rabb took questions from the floor. The questions were consistently intelligent and they helped to flesh out some of the points that he had raised, but hadn’t sufficiently explored.
The first question was about peer group influence and how much of a factor that plays in addictions.
Rabb answered that “the person who is addicted is going to find their peer group” – not the other way around.
Another questioner asked about the high incidence of addiction within the native community.
Rabb said that “I had an ‘ah ha’ moment when it comes to First Nations addiction.” He went on to explain that “I was very sick as a baby. My mother was also very sick when I was a young child.” (See earlier for the reference to childhood trauma and Rabb’s saying that it plays a pivotal role in later addiction.)
Continuing his reference to First Nations, he asked: “How do you help an entire people that has suffered trauma?”
“We have three First Nations staff at Aurora,” Rabb noted. “We have drum ceremonies, we have smudging.”
“But,” he added, “isolating them to their own community is not going to solve their problems.

Someone else asked Rabb to describe a typical day at Aurora.
He answered that they have different groups in the mornings, then individualized treatment in the afternoons. Evenings are devoted to 12-step programs, Rabb said.
“Also, everybody gets two counselors,” he noted, not one: “a mental health counselor and an addictions counselor.”
“We’re the only treatment centre in Canada to offer this,” Rabb said. “All other centres treat addicts in groups; we offer individualized treatment.”
He explained that individualized treatment is important because “not all addicts want to be treated in groups.”
In addition, Rabb said, “Sunday mornings we have family groups because addiction is a family problem.”

Legalization of cannabis may not be all rosy
Rabb was asked about the pending legalization of cannabis. What were his thoughts?
He responded “It’s none of my business if you want to use drugs; it’s my business if you want to quit.”
As far as marijuana being a “gateway drug”, Rabb noted that “65 percent of the population at Aurora are still coming in with alcohol as the drug of choice. Forty percent of the population can have a joint once a month and not worry about it,” but he did point out that Colorado (where marijuana is legal) has begun to experience problems since it legalized pot, so we shouldn’t expect legalization to be a smooth ride here either.
“The number of people I see with severe psychosis from marijuana use is very disturbing,” Rabb cautioned.

Asked about the huge meth problem in Winnipeg, Rabb made this observation: “Gangs see that marijuana is going to be legalized and they want to get their customers addicted” to something else that they can supply.

Someone else asked Rabb whether Aurora’s treatment program is ‘holistic”.
Rabb agreed, but added “that doesn’t preclude the fact many people have issues that need us to ”combine our approach with traditional medicine…but he took great exception to the way “Xanax and other (benzodiazepine) drugs are handed out like candy” at other treatment centres.
“We’re not going to use benzodiazepine to treat an addiction,” Rabb insisted. “Our goal is always abstinence. Eighty-five percent of the people coming into treatment suffer from depression.”
But, Rabb added, “We don’t know how many are depressed because of their addictions” or are depressed to begin with, which leads to them taking drugs or alcohol – or both.

No matter what, it’s a long recovery process - based on the well-established 12-step program and Rabb, citing his own story repeatedly, acknowledged, during his talk, an addict can never be said to be fully recovered.

His message is inspirational – and hopeful. Rabb said that he gets “hundreds of calls a day” from people asking for help for a son, daughter, husband, wife, mother, or father.
Governments are still reluctant to provide adequate resources to treat addictions, Rabb noted. But, with an individual like Ian Rabb stepping up to do his part in helping the growing sector of our population with addiction issues, it would certainly serve our leaders – no matter whether they’re in government, in the school system, or even religious institutions, to ask Ian Rabb to speak to them the same way he spoke at the Shaarey Zedek. Everyone stands to learn a great deal by listening to someone who’s hit rock bottom, but managed to climb back up.

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