“Rideauwood saved my life and gave me a life”:

Lisha di Gioacchino on recovery, community and running to build awareness around addiction support

“My life was clearly unmanageable.” For years, Lisha Di Gioacchino had thought about reaching out to Rideauwood Addiction and Family Services, a community-based treatment centre for people struggling with substance use, addictions and other mental health challenges. She finally contacted them looking for support following a serious health scare. “I’d heard about the Urgent Substance Use Treatment Program that expedited the process for people with severe opioid use disorder and acute needs.” This program evolved out of an initial response in 2017 to the increased presence of fentanyl and the increasing prevalence of Canada’s opioid crisis.

“I’m very confident Rideauwood saved my life,” Lisha says. “It also gave me a life, and the ability to connect with myself,” she adds. “They helped me first connect with myself and then connect with others. Their support went so much further than helping me manage cravings and withdrawal. They taught me the importance of community.”

Rideauwood’s range of programs supports youth, young adults, adults, parents and families. Their services go beyond treatment and also include education and prevention services, not only supporting people with substance use disorders but also other forms of behavioural addiction including gaming and gambling. 

Rideauwood implements co-led care plans and pathways to help clients reach their goals. They’re adaptive, collaborative and very compassionate along the way. “I never disappointed anyone for not getting well –  the door was never closed,” Lisha says. As she points out, when it comes to other health conditions, you’re not kicked out if your symptoms worsen or because treatment didn’t work the first time. You’re given more care. We need access to services like people with any other health condition,” she says. “It wasn’t something I knew how to stop doing. I needed people who could meet me where I was at,” and Rideauwood did.

The crucial role community plays in recovery 

“I’ve now been off opioids for three years. That’s something I never thought would be possible.” Now, as a new member of Rideauwood’s Board of Directors, Lisha hopes to use her lived and living experience to help the organization meet community needs through ongoing partnerships with people who access/ed their services. Core to this is the understanding that reaching your health goals is not always on a linear path, a fact no one should feel ashamed of. As Lisha emphasizes, “Even if you’ve engaged before, reach back out.” 

Having a community around you is critical for your general well-being.We’re social creatures, she says. “We want community, but with so much stigma against people who use substances, we often face major barriers to care and connection.” Lisha underscores how this stigma is isolating, “I often assumed people wouldn’t understand, but that’s a dangerous perspective. Some people don’t get it, but there’s a whole community of people who do.”

How the words we use can help or hurt those trying to get better 

There’s one easy way we can all start helping each other. “Use person-first language,” she says. 

“We’re not junkies, alcoholics or addicts, we’re people with substance use disorders, people who use drugs by injection. We deserve basic human dignity like any other person, and people are better understood when spoken of in a dignified manner,” she says. “I’m a lot of things. I’m not my health condition. I’m so much more than that. But if all I ever hear is substance abuser, I start to believe that.”

Lisha presented at a United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs side event in its 64th session on  the use of the word “burden” when it relates to supporting people with these health conditions, even in research and papers. This is something she’s noticed herself, as a researcher of almost 15 years. “Often people talk about the “burden” of substance use related to hospitalization, the burden of people with alcoholism… Why are we reduced to a burden?” She mentions how this fuels stigma, and creates a culture where it’s harder for individuals to reach out and get help. “The way we speak about each other is important.”

Getting back into running and creating a new support system 

One thing Lisha does call herself is a runner. Running has always been a large part of my life. My grandfather was very close to me and a big runner. It was something we shared. We always talked about going on a running hike in the desert, unfortunately, he passed before we could make it,” she says. “I remember how severely my respiratory system was impacted. Mentally and physically I was not in a good place, and I wondered if I would ever run again.” 

With the support and encouragement of Rideauwood’s team, Lisha is running, even making it to that run last April alongside forty members of her church. “I was afraid of running. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to have to start over… but my counsellor would gently remind me how much I love running,” she says, also noting the stress-relieving effects and healthy dopamine release you can get from physical activity like running. “Even though we didn’t do the hike together, I did it and felt closer to my grandfather,” she adds. “He would be really proud.”

Running with Rideauwood at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend

This year, Lisha is running with Rideauwood staff in the 2024 Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend in May, an effort to strengthen our community and the organization’s place in it. 

“It’s unbelievable that a few years after almost dying I’m now running with the counsellors and staff who helped me get well in support of my community. I hope our participation in the Ottawa race weekend gives more people knowledge about this kind of work and more hope for the future.” Lisha says. 

Part of this knowledge, Lisha adds, is also understanding what happens to your brain and your body. Rideauwood’s approach involves learning that there are various ways to cope with difficult situations. Being part of a community like this supports the idea you can build new memories, new coping mechanisms and neural pathways to truly live a fulsome life. “I had no idea that I could run to reduce my anxiety when I was young. Had I run every time I felt anxious, I would have formed different neural pathways to manage it. Similarly, if the response is taking drugs, that neuropathway gets formed instead.” 

How to support Rideauwood and seek treatment 

Rideauwood provides critical addiction treatment, education and prevention services.  Any donation towards the organization immediately funds urgently needed in-person and virtual programs and care. For those looking to support Rideauwood, Lisha encourages you to share the message of these services.

As for those thinking about reaching out to Rideauwood or seeking any support to reach their substance use health goals, Lisha reinforces: Just please do it. “Your community needs you,” she says. 

Sign up to fundraise for and run as part of Rideauwood’s Ottawa Race Weekend team here. You can also donate to their team here