As far as long-shot-beats-the-odds stories go, Derrick Forsyth’s journey is an Olympian-level triumph.
“Most of my life I’ve been either addicted to drugs or alcohol, or I’ve been locked up in jail,” Forsyth said. He’s seen the inside of dozens of jails and done “every drug you can name.”
The majority of his crimes were what he called “booze-motivated,” in pursuit of cash or substances to feed his addictions, an assertion backed up by his rap sheet. In total, Forsyth estimates having spent 13 years in federal or provincial correctional facilities.
“I tried several times on my own to straighten out.” He went to recovery centres, prison programs, 12-step programs and more. “Nothing worked.”
Born in Montreal, with three siblings, Forsyth speculated he may have gotten his first brain injury boxing at a nearby club when he was a kid. Whether that affected his ensuing life choices is impossible to know, but research shows more than 80 per cent of incarcerated people have had a brain injury, with the majority suffering their first injury in childhood. People with brain injuries are also more likely to have alcohol or drug addictions and experience homelessness.
“I tried several times on my own to straighten out. Nothing worked.”
Ironically, despite years of interactions with the health-care and addictions-treatment systems, Forsyth was in a federal prison in 2009 when first diagnosed and treated for injuries to his brain.
Three months earlier, he’d suffered a concussion after a truck crossed several lanes, colliding with the vehicle he was in. Forsyth said he was six months sober at the time and holding down a welding job.
Following the accident, he got stitches at the hospital and was released.
In the days that followed, he developed trouble thinking, walking and was emotionally erratic. He returned to the hospital where staff mistook his symptoms for drug use. “I wasn’t drunk. I wasn’t high. It was the injury. It was starting to take effect,” he said.
Within a week, Forsyth lost his job; his girlfriend kicked him out of the house “because I was behaving stupidly;” and he started doing drugs again.
His symptoms escalated, he was hearing voices – unrelated to the drugs, he said – and knew he had to straighten up. He did it the only way he knew how. “I’m going to do a crime. I gotta go to jail. I gotta get some help.”
He broke into a jewellery store, was immediately caught, charged, and released with a promise to appear in court the next week. Out for a day or so, he continued to use, entered a donut shop, grabbed the cash register, dropped it on the floor and walked out. On his second trip to jail within a handful of days, he stayed.
Forsyth was adamant this part of his story be told.
“The point I want to make is there’s no other place to get help immediately. On every single range in the prison, you’ll find at least one guy who’s there because he’s got no place to go.”
Sentenced to three years, Forsyth had barely settled in his cell in a Lower Mainland penitentiary when prison staff noticed he couldn’t do simple things.
“As soon as I arrived, they were like, ‘Hey, something’s wrong with this guy,’” he said. Forsyth couldn’t order food or manage his canteen; he walked with a limp and struggled to concentrate. “I was helpless.”
They sent him to the prison’s medical wing for an assessment.
“I was, ‘Put me wherever, I want to go to sleep’– at that time, I slept a lot.”
An MRI revealed damage to his frontal lobe and a crushed disk in his neck from the car accident. Almost all his symptoms were consistent with a brain injury.
So began a life-saving regime of physical, cognitive, occupational, and psychological therapy to help him relearn how to walk, talk, read, and think again.
“It was a long journey.”
After a year in the jail’s hospital, he transferred to a Vancouver Island minimum-security facility where he continued to receive counselling and began another crucial leg of his recovery – cognitive rehab with the Victoria Brain Injury Society, which reached out to inmates.
Forsyth holds mug shot from 2009 – his last stay in prison.
Nine months later, at age 43, Forsyth was released on full parole to live in a halfway house run by the Salvation Army. He continued to access support services until his parole ended. The end of parole meant the end of his funding.
“This is the rift in the system,” Forsyth said.
Around the same time, the insurance company paid him a cash settlement for the previous concussion-causing car crash. He tried to get into housing for the homeless but there was a long waiting list, he said.
His life fishtailed.
He relapsed, violated his parole, and got arrested.
When they asked why he did it, he said he told them, “Because I’m scared. I got no place to live. I got nothing. All I got is this money. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m not well, I’m still sick. I’m still hearing voices, hearing ringing in my head.”
The Victoria Brain Injury Society helped connect Forsyth with the Cridge Centre for Family in Victoria. If Forsyth committed to staying sober and followed the centre’s extensive treatment plan, he could stay in the Cridge housing for people with brain injuries, which includes a facility with 24-hour care, and an assisted-living apartment complex.
“For a year, I did whatever they said to do,” Forsyth recalled.
Road to recovery
His days were filled with cognitive and life skills rehabilitation, counselling, and eventually, job training and four days a week at an in-house work program. Access to a support worker and wraparound care guided him as he built the confidence and skills to advance through his recovery.
When he wanted a job but was on high doses of methadone, the Cridge enrolled him in a two-week detox program which helped him quit methadone as well as cigarettes, he said.
As his health improved, Forsyth grappled with not having a full-time job.
“Instead of letting ego – ‘I’m a man, I can work eight hours a day, I can do it’ – I have to say to myself, ‘Okay, you’re not ready,’ and accept it. Humble myself,” Forsyth said in A Change of Mind, a 2016 documentary on brain injury by Victoria filmmaker Hilary Pryor (narrated by Forsyth).
“The only thing that got me sober was I had proper support at the right time. It sounds strange, but if I didn’t get that brain injury, if I didn’t go to jail, I wouldn’t be here.”
Forsyth survived the knock to his ego and then some.
After three years in Cridge housing, he moved into a rent-subsidized apartment in the community.
That was five years ago.
“It sounds strange, but if I didn’t get that brain injury, if I didn’t go to jail, I wouldn’t be here.”
Since then, Forsyth bought a used truck and motorcycle, and recently completed nine weeks of training to become a paid community support worker.
“Without the Cridge, I’d still be probably in prison,” he said. “I am the perfect recipe for how a person can get out of that s–hole life.”
“I love my motorcycle. That’s true freedom, being on a motorbike entering the highway.”
Even after all this time and treatment, he recently felt himself struggling again.
His thoughts spiralled; he felt himself becoming negative toward everything.
“Thinking that what I’m doing right now sucks. I don’t have any excitement. I’m home on Saturday, like a loser. I don’t have a girlfriend. All those things come in my head. I mean, why am I staying sober?”
When those kinds of thoughts start crushing in on you, you have to act, said Forsyth.
“If you don’t do something with that, that’s going to do something to you.”
Thanks to his many years of 12-step work, he now recognizes when his thinking starts to slide.
“I don’t know if it’s depression. Sometimes I isolate myself. I don’t want to go out. It’s not healthy, but I see it.” Some people don’t see it until it’s too late, and they’ve already slipped into depression, he said. “They can’t get out of it.”
Trouble is, he no longer qualifies for free supports and he can’t yet afford to pay.
“It’s another problem that the system has. They put in all this money to help somebody and then they drop the ball after a couple of years when they think the person is okay.”
A little desperate, Forsyth asked the Cridge for help. The centre quickly arranged access to a series of counselling sessions which gave Forsyth ideas on how to change his “loop behaviour problem.”
With the sessions ended, what keeps him on track now are his regular 12-step meetings.
“If I didn’t have that, I think I’d be lost again. It’s really important to have ongoing support.”
A step program can be a lifeline at any point in recovery but is especially essential at the beginning, said Forsyth. When a person is starting out, trying to stay sober, they need to establish routines and purpose, and daily meetings can give that, he said.
“You drank and used every day.” So, in recovery, you need to go to meetings every day too.
Another element essential in long-term recovery is stable housing, according to Forsyth. “I’ve slept in the bushes. I’ve slept in hostels. I’ve slept in vehicles. I’ve slept every single place you can imagine just to stay warm.”
But nowhere is so sweet as the bed in his own apartment.
“If I didn’t have this apartment, I wouldn’t be where I am. It’s guaranteed.”
“The apartment is the most important thing,” said Forsyth. But people should prove they want to stop using drugs or alcohol for six months before they are offered permanent housing, he said.
“They have to show a willingness to stay sober.” Otherwise, they continue their behaviours, and the cheap rent just enables their addictions. They end up “spending their cheque on drugs, which causes problems in the building for the other tenants,” said Forsyth.
Forsyth’s view on putting sobriety before permanent housing is a controversial one at present. The Housing First strategy employed in B.C. and many other jurisdictions in North America is based on the reverse notion: permanent housing is offered to the homeless as an initial stepping stone to gaining sobriety.
Forsyth disagrees. He points to the lack of success in the last two years in Victoria and Vancouver where both city councils and the province moved people from the sidewalks and tents into hotels without support services.
“If you go to the people on the streets now, 10 per cent will really want help, the other 90 per cent are con artists,” Forsyth said. That’s why several rounds of putting homeless people into hotels hasn’t solved the homeless problem, he said, and in most instances, drugs, weapons, and prostitution just moved indoors and out-of-sight.
Show, don’t tell
“You have to weed out the people who don’t want help,” he said, citing the instruction of his 12-step sponsor: “Show me, don’t tell me.”
Instead, he said, homeless people should receive other supports and temporary shelter to help move them toward recovery, leaving the few permanent housing options open to the many people who have already begun their journey to stay sober and who will benefit most by getting supportive housing.
“I know exactly where to find these kinds of people,” said Forsyth. Any treatment centre or 12-step program meeting will have people who’ve been sober over six months and are struggling mentally and financially, he said.
“Then you can offer them an apartment because this is when the addict starts getting problems – he gets six months clean, finds a job, but then he can’t afford to pay his rent.”
At that critical moment, some will slip back into their old way of life.
“’I can’t pay my rent because I’m only making minimum wage.’ But if the person has low-cost housing, and a part-time job on top of disability, then they can see light at the end of the tunnel, ‘I can get myself, maybe, a used car; get myself a better job.’ It starts like that. They need a place to build and it’s in housing.”
Set up in an apartment – with support services for mental illness, drug addiction and alcoholism – they are then further incentivized to keep up their recovery or risk losing their new home. Fear alone won’t keep people clean for long, they have to want to be sober, he said.
“It’s so hard to get into these housing places; it’s an incentive to stay sober,” he said. “Once a person has that in their head, they’re willing to change. Even people with mental illness, because their survival mode tells them ‘Oh my god, this is such an opportunity I’m getting.’”
He was able to come clean, he said, because he bottomed out.
Early on, he almost lost his new apartment after smoking pot in his living room. Staff at the Cridge called him on it – one more infraction and he’d be evicted. “’If you cross this line you will lose everything,’” he recalled staff saying. “I was at the point where I didn’t want to lose anymore.”
Going to jail
“Going there now would hurt me a lot more than it ever hurt me before,” said Forsyth.
“If you can imagine, when I went into the jail – like 98 per cent of the inmates that go into that jail – they never really had freedom before they went into jail. They’ve always been locked up with their drug addiction, their alcoholism, their criminal lifestyle, stuck in the same little town, never went on a vacation, never really lived life at all,” Forsyth said.
“Then you’re in jail, and there’s life in jail. Now all of a sudden, you’re working, you’re part of a crew, you’re playing cards, you’ve got a social life, you’ve got a girl coming up once a month for trailer visits. You don’t really miss much (on the outside).”
These days, Forsyth has a lot to lose: he’s connected to a sober, supportive community of people, and he’s built a life he is grateful for and enjoys. “If it was taken away from me now,” he said, “then I’d be hurting.”
Ten years clean, Forsyth lives in a cosy apartment, with a full fridge, inspiring art on his walls, he paints and has friends he can rely on.
“My life is pretty good.”
“My life is pretty good. Not a lot of money in the bank but, you know, enough money to not have to worry about where I’m going to get my next meal.”
He works out a couple times a week and has a job helping other people. He’s gone from being a taker to a giver, he said.
The Cridge now employs him to help people navigate the difficult recovery path he still walks himself. Twelve hours a week, he spends time with them listening, talking, going for groceries, playing backgammon, or driving.
“It’s my dream job. It doesn’t even feel like work,” he said. “I got so lucky. I can’t believe how lucky I am.”