When Kristian Binder lost a third grandparent in the space of a few months, he was thousands of kilometres from home at a rehab facility in Alberta.
“It was a really tough time. I fell off the wagon and they kicked me out,” recalled the 37-year-old, who had exhausted all options in his hometown of Inuvik to help deal with anxieties that fuelled a reliance on alcohol.
“I started with the hospital, then I went to counselling and it wasn’t too effective for me, I didn’t really find it was helping,” said Binder. “So in 2016 I was referred to a place in Calgary.”
For Binder, Calgary was a mixed bag – certain aspects of the program proved worthwhile and others ultimately contributed to his ejection.
“Every night, before everyone went to bed, all the guys would sit around in a guided discussion and I felt that really helpful to be able to open up. That aspect was huge for me, being able to open up and say ‘this is what I struggle with,’” he said. “That was incredibly beneficial.”
But Binder’s obligations as a client also required him to venture into the city for outside programming and volunteer work, activities Binder found only aggravated his anxiety.
“You had to volunteer at a bingo hall twice a week to fundraise for the facility. One night I had a huge panic attack and I had to leave. It was super stressful,” he recalled. “I took away a lot of good things from Calgary, but some things were difficult.”
As a seasoned traveller, Binder would have normally embraced outside experiences, but rehab and the sea change he faced was the furthest thing from jetting off to attend a rock concert, one of his favourite pastimes.
“I’ve been overseas and travelled all the time, but for something that important and for lack of a better word, intimate, like going to addictions treatment, it was a lot to take in,” said Binder. “People were saying if you have to change your life, you have to change everything. It was a philosophy that didn’t work for me, and leads to me to thinking that if there were more services, or resources in Inuvik it would be easier to transition.”
Booted from the program in Calgary, upon returning home Binder slipped into old habits of dulling his anxieties with alcohol; a pattern of behaviour he developed at an early age.
“If I look back all the way to when I was in junior high or high school, I didn’t feel like I didn’t fit in. Of course I had good friends and got along with people well but I felt less and less comfortable in social situations,” he said. “That whole liquid courage mentality of having a few drinks before going to a party, it turned into more and more.”
In July of 2017, Binder attempted to kill himself by overdosing on prescription drugs.
“A lot of people thought I was flaky,” said Binder. “I didn’t want to be that guy … the whole suicide attempt was everything coming to a head.”
Today Binder feels more confident about managing his anxiety but acknowledges “the difficulties in starting the process of getting help.”
“After last summer, I started to see a doctor regularly who I talked to about my view of things and what I felt the problems were and he listened to me,” he said. “I started taking medication every day and did other things to minimize stress.”
Binder said he and his doctor monitored his progress on the medication, “we met and talked about it and how I was feeling. We decided that it’s helpful for me.”
These days, Binder spends his free time working at his photography business and speaking openly about his challenges on Facebook. Asked why he puts his feelings out on social media, Binder said, “Facebook is kind of an extension of being in that room in Calgary, and it feels great to get some things off my chest.
“It’s not my intent to make a statement, it’s my own selfish thing to put that out there because it helps me.”
Binder is also very thankful for the comfort and encouragement of friends and family, as well as backing he’s received from his GNWT co-workers. “Having the support in the workplace is important and my office was incredibly supportive.”
Reflecting on his time in Calgary, Binder said guided discussion groups in northern communities could go a long way toward reducing the stigma of mental health and addiction and provide a space where people can talk openly and learn each other’s experiences.
“They could have some local options, a place say once-a-month, to have an honest discussion where you find out other people are having similar struggles, where you can learn that taking medication isn’t a bad thing,” said Binder.
“A lot of people have told me they don’t talk about these things because of the implications it could have on their professional and private life and I understand that, but that’s what got me into trouble in the first place,” said Binder. “I have nothing to lose by being honest. What could people do to me at this point? Yeah, I have mental health problems, but so what. I’m dealing with it, so what could possibly be bad about that?”