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Jean-Paul Michael

Jean-Paul Michael


I used drugs for about 20 years of my life. It became more profound as time went on, and the consequences of it became more profound as well. I had been in the ICU eight separate times, including at St. Michael’s Hospital.

Everybody knew I was really sick. People had offered to help and I rejected everything. I had never taken any assistance from anyone in my whole life. I’d always been kind of the breadwinner in my family and friends. I had a successful business background before and while I struggled with addiction. I had 100 people working for me at one point. But I had a confluence of legal problems and health problems, and by 2010, the business had been shut down.

I was profoundly unwell, homeless and unemployed. During my eighth ICU stay, a worker from Fife House, which provides affordable housing and services for people with HIV and AIDS, came to visit me.

Her name was Joy Vineberg, and she didn’t waste any time. Knowing I was on my eighth ICU stay, she said, “I’ve been doing my job for 23 years, and I’ve never seen anyone that’s been to the ICU nine times.” And she just kind of let those words hang there.

It wasn’t really a surprise to me; I knew I was going to die from this. It wasn’t a matter of “if,” it was a matter of “when.”

Then she asked me, “Will you let me help you?”

There was something about her. Maybe it was her authenticity. Joy wasn’t just another white coat coming to see me. My dad used to own taverns and there were always a few regulars that I had fun talking to as a kid—she felt like one of those people.

For the first time in my life, I said yes to getting help.

Joy made the world happen for me. I just found out I was HIV positive and my medication would be $2,000 a month. I didn’t know you get free medication when you’re on Ontario Works (OW), and so she got me on OW. She found me a place to stay at Fife House’s Transitional Housing Program. She knew I had legal problems, and she got me on legal aid and found me a lawyer. I really just followed her lead.

One day, Joy came to me with a peer training opportunity. I was one of those substance users who didn’t like to be high around others, so on the days that I did the training, I didn’t do drugs. And there were a bunch of little steps she kept throwing at me. I don’t know what the magic was, but I was using substances less and less. And that was the trajectory of it. I’m a product of harm reduction in every sense of the words.

Following that training, I engaged in both volunteer and professional peer support work, which led to my participation in a 12-week pilot program at St. Michael’s as a peer support specialist on the addictions team. The team never had anyone with lived experience working on it before, and I’m biased, but I can’t say enough good things about having that in the clinical work. It’s so valuable for patients to speak with people who understand their perspective because they’ve lived it.

Through intense work and training, I made that transition from patient to employee, and I was able to use my experience to help people who were on similar journeys. Due entirely to the unwavering support and encouragement of my incredible managers, who consistently challenged me and opened new doors of opportunity, I have embraced numerous roles and pursued extensive training. Their faith in me inspired my return to university to pursue a career as a case manager. I’m now an addiction case manager in the Emergency Department at St. Michael’s, working alongside some of the very same people who cared for me when I was sick, helping the same marginalized people that I was 10 years earlier.

It’s full circle.

In addition to my role, I proudly serve on the Board of Directors at Fife House and co-host ‘Captain Hooked: The Addiction Project‘ with an addiction psychiatrist. Our podcast delves into addiction topics, aiming to clarify substance use and dismantle misconceptions, contributing to a better understanding and empathy towards those affected. We’re raising awareness on topics I used to be clueless about in my old views.

I used to be this little right-wing guy who thought that anyone on welfare was a freeloader. And now, having viscerally experienced and witnessed addiction, I’m like this whole other person. Now I’m like, let’s give people a chance, like how I was given a chance by many people, including Joy.

Unfortunately, Joy died a couple years back, and I never got to pay her back for everything she did for me. But, at least in my work, I get to be for others what she was for me; I get to be the Joy.

Jean-Paul is an Addiction Case Manager in the Emergency Department at St. Michael’s Hospital.

As told to Kaitlin Jingco. Photos by Eduardo Lima. This interview has been edited and condensed.