Compassion is a Free Meal

At first glance, TWC Kitchen Manager Mark Oliveria fits the stereotypical profile of an individual who knows his way around a cookhouse: a stocky frame encompassing European features with a look in his eyes that govern his environment more than words ever could. These are necessary qualities for a man that holds the weight of an entire facility on his shoulders from the minute he wakes up in the morning until the time he goes home to his family.

To describe Mark as focused is an understatement. His job requires a unique type of discipline and ongoing compassion in a way that few often encounter. From seven-thirty in the morning until whenever-the-job-is-complete o’ clock at night, the kitchen and the people in it are his. At quarter after one on a quiet Thursday, however, his strict demeanour softens and the words that spill out of his mouth are the only things I pay attention to. After all, as Mark makes abundantly clear to anyone new to TWC, everyone’s story is valuable in some way or another.

Casual drinking began for me around age sixteen. I was at a party one time after practise and since all of my buddies were drinking, I decided to try it too. You never want to be that guy who doesn’t follow the leader at that age. At the time I was very serious about my sports and academics alike and the drinking at parties thing only happened once in a blue moon. Nothing progressed for me until I turned eighteen and was plagued with career-ending injuries that left me feeling alone and futile. I never really accepted that I wasn’t able to play football anymore, and it led to a series of bad decisions that, for me at the time, were beginning to become clouded with some prescription painkiller abuse. I moved out of a really positive environment living with my mom and into a cramped, stressful, dirty environment with a girlfriend I had at the time. She did a lot of drinking and I went along with that. It turned into smoking pot, as it always does eventually, and my painkiller use increased simultaneously. Drinking and using the pills eased much of the discomfort I had, both emotionally and physically. I was living in a lifestyle and encouraged it within myself to continue the way I was going because I was already doing it. There was a sick acceptance in that. Money went to booze, drugs, anything to stay on the level. Rent was second for me.

The girlfriend became pregnant and while she had a child from a previous relationship, I wanted to be there for our baby and take responsibility for supporting them. This was short-lived and actually became a cycle of trying and failing even after my son was born. It went from good intentions to, “how are we going to pick up today and maintain throughout the month?” Don’t get me wrong, though. From time to time I would somehow get a good job and support my family and my drug habit for a while, but the depression always lingered. I knew deep down this wasn’t how living the rest of my life should actually be, but the progression of my addiction came at great cost and all at once.

My son had been born healthy, but in his most important developmental years my ex-partner and I noticed he was maturing in a different way than the other children. He rarely spoke and for the longest time he would only point at things he wanted. It wasn’t until age four that I decided to explore some developmental testing, and the results came back but the diagnosis wasn’t quite clear. In 2008 when he was seven years old, I made a decision to get off the prescription pills and move from Ontario to Vancouver for work and a better life. A geographical change, looking back on it now. I was running from problems I hadn’t even begun to think about solving, and I wanted the easiest way out.

With the assistance of a doctor in Vancouver I was off the pills and thought I was really on my way out of the lifestyle. I worked a kitchen job at the time and brought my family out to live here, and with them came a new opportunity for a proper diagnosis of my son’s learning abilities. I wasn’t surprised to hear that Aspergers was what he had, but it seemed to light a flame under my motivation I had never experienced before. Good or bad at the time, I’m not sure, but it was a flame.

I had broken the relationship with his mother because of infidelity and drug abuse, while at the same time continuing to drink and take MDMA until I found cocaine through a friend of mine. I lived without consequences and looking back on it now, it still stands as one of the most shameful times in my life. I had a son who needed a father and here I was making good money, destroying my body, and making promises I couldn’t keep. I was severely depressed and deluded. Something had to change, but it wasn’t bad enough for me quite yet.

Two major experiences come to mind when I look back on my life in addiction. The first being Christmas of 2011 when I had $1200.00 in my pocket and swore to myself up an down that I would give half of it to my ex-partner to buy Christmas gifts for our son. I blew it all on using, and when I saw him over the holidays he said something that would forever change me as a father.

“I didn’t want anything for Christmas except you, dad.”

I couldn’t even give that to him. Myself, of all things, he had just wanted his father, and I denied him of that right.

The second experience was later on at the lowest point I’d ever been in my life. I was living under a bridge and remember repeating to myself that things weren’t that bad. Winters would be tough, but summers would be better. Can you believe that? It was the best I could come up with at the time. That was it for me – this was going to be my life. I had resigned myself too it. I had utterly given up.

When a homeless shelter support worker in Vancouver helped me get into Together We Can, the interactions with my son changed invariably. As the most emotionally intelligent person I know, Manny (my son’s name) said things to me like, “I’m glad you’re back dad. I’m happy you’re better now.” There was no guilt, no shaming me with what I had done to him growing up. There was an altruistic effort that I had never known in my own life, and here my son was teaching it to me.

The support worker provided me with the ideal example of one addict helping another. He didn’t need to do what he did, but I consider him a major influence on who I am today. To show that love and compassion to someone when they’re completely down and out – it’s miraculous. There was no judgement, and I have carried this attitude with me into my job at TWC for all who walk through my kitchen door.

At one time in your life, just as there was in mine, there’s going to be a spot for you in the front row of loneliness and you’re going to need someone to tell you that you’re worth it. Somebody told me that, and I’m here today because of it.

I have Manny full-time now. I have met and become engaged to a spectacular woman that understands both my situation and Manny’s, and every day I wake up incredibly astounded that there is an unconditional love exhibited from her the way I’ve needed all my life. We live in a beautiful home where, yes, I occasionally do cook!

As for my son, I really have to take a moment to brag. He excels in creativity, visualizations, and in video games and puzzles he can out-do anyone. He creates his own comic books and mold clay and is extremely self-educated. He has the ability to watch a TV show – History Channel, National Geographic, and absorb the information as if its being imprinted upon his brain permanently. I consider myself so fortunate to have a son like him. I see other parents worrying about their children getting into fights at school or staying out too late at night and getting into trouble. He lives an honest life and doesn’t believe in lying or treating people badly. If he sees something wrong he wants nothing to do with it. He has a kind soul. He’s fifteen years old right now and I can’t say enough about him and the way I learn from him each day.

My idea of progression has changed, however the definition of compassion remains the same. When I see a guy waiting to dig into a meal, maybe his first in quite a long time, that has the same empty thousand-mile stare I once had, I know what to do now. We share more than food and plates and a seat at a table. There’s an understanding there and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Most importantly, I no longer have the urge to just be a dad for my son. I want to be the best dad there is, and without being clean and sober I would have never had the opportunity.

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