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How Carole James' son pulled back from the abyss

Carole James' son Evan was smart, sensitive and loved. He was also racing toward the abyss

On the sidewalk outside a Victoria detox centre, the son of one of B.C.'s most famous politicians knew he had to make a choice: Change, or die.

Evan James had been fighting alcoholism for more than 15 years. He'd made three attempts on his own life. The struggle culminated in that sidewalk moment, with empty beer cans he'd stumbled across lying at his feet and a sign from his famous mother looming nearby. It read: "Slow Down, Children at Play - MLA Carole James."

"My mom and beer right there," said Evan. "What can you do? I had those two distinct options."

Just hours earlier, his longtime girlfriend Bronwyn had told him she was pregnant.

It led to a burst of clarity for the 28-year-old, who'd first started drinking at 16 and who'd never been able to stop. He'd bounced between his family home in James Bay and the dark corners of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, all the while shunning his mother's public life, because he felt like a failure.

"I had this choice of whether I wanted to haul my socks up and do this thing, or keep running and die out there," he said.

He stood on the street, thinking.

Almost everyone in Victoria knew Carole James, the community activist-turned-school-board-chairwoman-turned-MLA and leader of B.C.'s New Democratic Party. In James Bay, her family's old house was a neighbourhood fixture. But few knew the family's personal struggles.

Evan was Carole's youngest child. Smart, but sensitive. "Born without the armour you need for everyday life," she recalled. The kind of kid who invited all his classmates to his birthday parties, because he couldn't stand hurting anyone's feelings.

Everyone acknowledged it was a warm and loving family home. Though Carole and Evan's dad, Chris, divorced in 1999, they remained close. Chris lived just down the road. Their daughter Alison was off to university and to study in London. Carole's political career was about to take off.

And at 16, Evan started drinking. "I can still vividly remember the first time I got drunk," he said. "That was the one. It was awesome. I loved it. From then on, I was looking forward to every weekend."

While his Vic High friends were able to party on the weekends, and then focus during the week, Evan was different.

"I can't remember a time when I wanted to have one or two drinks. It was always to get drunk," he said.

"It seemed pointless to me to get a buzz. I wanted to get to that point of oblivion."

His family noticed him struggling, but wasn't aware until years later of the extent of his drinking, which was combined with anxiety and panic attacks.

Evan left Vic High one course shy of graduating. In his early 20s, he made new friends, joined a band and started using cocaine and other drugs. But it was the alcohol he craved.

"It was spinning out of control, drinking more and more."

His mother, then chairwoman of the Greater Victoria School Board, could see he needed help.

"He'd see his friends who could consume more than him and who could cope the next day, who didn't have the cravings, who weren't having blackouts later, who weren't having the struggles Evan had," said Carole.

Evan rebuffed his parents' urgings for counselling, and moved out.

He'd managed to hold a job as an assistant manager at a pizza place, but that fell apart when he began missing shifts.

Evan bounced between Victoria and Vancouver, where he ended up on the city's infamous Downtown Eastside, amid a world of dangerous characters.

"There were some sticky situations, down on East Hastings. I'd end up down there sometimes dealing with some pretty shady people," he said.

"But I'd be liquored up and wouldn't give a ----. I'd got to the point where I considered myself fearless and didn't really care what would happen. But the truth was, I was just scared of living sober. I had no idea how to do it. And by this point, I was drinking every day."

Back home, his mother was quietly terrified. She dreaded getting a phone call that he was dead.

Despite her breadth of knowledge about the social welfare system, she was at a loss.

She set boundaries, but admits she was frightened about whether she was being too hard and forcing him onto the street.

So she paid his rent when he was broke, because she couldn't stand the thought of him homeless. But then she wasn't sure if she was enabling him.

"The biggest thing is you start questioning yourself as a parent," said Carole.

"You agonize. You stay awake at night and worry. My conclusion after this journey is: You have to do what you think is right, and there isn't a right answer."

Evan, meanwhile, was reeling. Morningto-night drinking, drug use, blackouts.

"I hated my life. I hated where I was at," he said. "I felt like I wasted it, and I felt guilty and ashamed of constantly lying to my parents, scams I was pulling. I was just sick of it but didn't know any way out.

"I had been doing this for so long I couldn't imagine the sober life."

The guilt and shame was mixed with fear. He'd associated his entire life with alcohol. It was part of his identity, he said.

"I couldn't imagine socializing without it. I felt awkward, like I couldn't talk to people without it," he said.

"I couldn't talk to girls. Everything was associated with alcohol. There was a total fear I couldn't live without it."

As his struggles deepened, his mom was about to become one of the most recognizable faces in B.C.

Carole James was voted NDP leader on Nov. 23, 2003. She inherited a party with just two out of the 79 seats in the legislature. The NDP had been almost wiped from the map in the 2001 election.

Her public job became rebuilding the party. But her personal turmoil about Evan's struggles was the untold story.

She's never spoken publicly about it until now, saying it was Evan's story to tell.

That frightening behind-the-scenes story included three crises that played out during her leadership.

Shortly after she won the leadership, Evan overdosed.

"He took a bottle of Tylenol and then he phoned to say, 'Look I really did something stupid and I feel at the lowest of low,'" Carole recalled.

She picked up his dad, Chris, and raced Evan to hospital to get his stomach pumped.

Then, in 2008, Carole was in a meeting with 33 MLAs when she got another call.

"I got called out of a caucus meeting to say you have to go to the hospital." Evan had overdosed on Tylenol again.

Only a small handful of advisers and MLAs knew what was happening when their leader raced from the building.

Carole wondered if her high-profile job was part of the problem. She offered to quit, if Evan would quit drinking.

"It'd be an easy thing for me to do. I probably said that to him five or six times."

But Evan wanted her to stay. The thought of her giving up a successful career would only have added to his guilt, he said.

There was a third crisis the day before the televised leaders debate in the 2009 election.

During intense preparations for the debate, her daughter Alison, who was her campaign executive assistant, burst into the room in tears. Another Tylenol overdose.

Carole immediately flew to Victoria to visit Evan in the hospital.

She returned to Vancouver the next day to face off against then-premier Gordon Campbell on provincewide TV.

She scored some key points, and was credited with a strong performance. Very few people knew about the family turmoil playing out off-camera.

Carole said she was able to compartmentalize her personal anguish before stepping under the studio's bright lights.

"You get your tears over with before you go in there, and then you have a good cry at the end of the day, which is what I did," she said.

"That was my job, and it wasn't going to help Evan for me not to do my job."

For his part, Evan said he was oblivious about the timing of his overdose.

"I had no idea that debate was about to go on, that's how disconnected I was from what she was doing," he said.

"I was so wrapped up in my pain and suffering, I had no idea what was going on in anyone's life."

His mom's public life stirred up mixed emotions.

"It was weird, she was almost premier and I'm out on the corner buying drugs," said Evan. "I beat myself up over that a lot, too.

"I felt that pressure to somehow not dirty her name ... I'd get arrested and the police would know who she was and I'd go, 'Is this going to make the news?' "

But the media and public never got wind of Evan's struggles, despite all the trips to the hospital. Carole said nurses and staff aware of Evan's overdoses would often stop to talk politics.

In the cutthroat world of public life, Carole knew her son's story might become ammunition for her critics, and braced for the possibility. But if her opponents ever knew, they didn't exploit it to score political points.

"It's a credit to the people who understand a parent is a parent," she said.

At the peak of Evan's addiction, Carole also fought back and defeated endometrial uterine cancer.

Some critics would accuse her of not being tough enough to be a leader.

"I'd get a chuckle every once in a while when people would ask if I'm tough enough for the job. It'd give you a little inside chuckle about what you go through as an individual."

By the time the NDP lost the 2009 election, Carole had more than the Liberals to worry about politically.

A group of disgruntled NDP MLAs went public with concerns about her leadership.

Despite a strong vote of confidence from NDP rank-and-file, the rebels - including Island MLAs Leonard Krog, Claire Trevena, Lana Popham and Doug Routley - refused to back down.

As James fought the insurrection, during the summer and fall of 2010, Evan was making progress on treatment.

He'd tried before, with mixed results. But each time he relapsed, he learned something valuable.

Evan had already visited Victoria's Pembroke Place, a 17-bed treatment centre for high-risk addicts who need 24-hour care. After his first stay, he lasted a week sober on his own during the Stanley Cup finals.

He'd also tried the Phoenix Society in Surrey, a residential treatment program. After the first 30 days, he relapsed and ended up back on the Downtown Eastside.

He got back in, and was sober 60 days before he planned a trip home.

"I made it to the [Vancouver] bus station and had an hour before the bus left to go to the ferry and there's that bar right there [in the terminal]," he said.

He walked in, and ended up back in the treatment centre.

"Every time something like this would happen, I felt so much guilt of letting the people down.

"But every time I relapsed, I knew what doesn't work or what I could have done differently."

By the summer of 2010, he was gaining a grip.

He had the support of his girlfriend, Bronwyn, and her daughter. He went into detox, and then Pembroke again. Carole said she noticed a difference.

"I saw a different kind of strength in him. It's extraordinary to watch. I've never seen such courage as people who are alcoholics and who struggle with those addictions and who manage it."

Evan had also reconnected with Gordon Harper, the executive director of the Umbrella Society, a local group that helps people navigate the complex treatment system.

Harper had been keeping an eye on Evan for years, checking in on him, and they began meeting more regularly for coffee. That personal attention, Carole said, helped save Evan's life.

On Evan's first day in Pembroke in 2010, Bronwyn came to tell him she was pregnant. It's always a pivotal moment in a young man's life, but especially for Evan.

He took a long walk outside to clear his head. He saw the empty case of beer and his mother's sign, and thought about becoming a dad. He went back into the stabalization centre with his mind made up.

"I definitely wasn't going to be a father when drinking," he said. "It just wouldn't happen."

He connected with Camosun College, upgraded his courses and started studying to become a long-term seniors care provider. He stayed sober, began one-on-one counselling and joined more group meetings, both at Pembroke and the health authority's main addictions centre at 1250 Quadra St.

"It all just seemed to come together and click."

And after all those years, it was now his turn to help his mother.

The rebel MLAs calling for James's resignation pushed the issue to a head in late 2010. She announced her resignation as NDP leader on Dec. 6. During her press conference, she was stoic. But when she mentioned her family, she started to cry.

"After I did my press conference, Evan's was the first email that I got that said, 'Province's loss, our gain.' A kid of few words but that said it all. That meant more to me than anything."

The party asked what kind of gift Carole would like as departing leader. She asked for a donation to help addicts at the Umbrella Society.

Evan's son was born in February 2011. "I get emotional just talking about it," said Evan. "The fact was, I was there for it, and not off on the streets somewhere doing God knows what."

It was also Carole's first grandson. Between that and her messy ouster from the leader's office, many thought she was done with politics. But they were wrong.

Carole considered quitting, but said she'd learned too much through Evan's addiction struggles to leave politics. She said she's closer than ever to being part of a government that could change the system for the better.

"There's nothing like a personal experience to give you some renewed energy to look at how you can make changes," she said.

In particular, Carole points to Umbrella for helping guide her and Evan through the treatment system's many options.

"It's not a huge government program, it's a little organization that saves people. It actually saves people."

More than two years sober, and now 31, Evan is speaking with at-risk youth groups about his addiction.

"I just tell them my story, what happened, the horrors of it, how horrible it was at the end and how I couldn't stop."

He also went public at Stigma Stomp Day, a mental-health awareness event earlier this year at Victoria's Centennial Square.

"People I work with will read this and know I'm an alcoholic and drug addict, but I've decided it doesn't make me weak," he said. "I don't live like that anymore.

"It's not a character flaw, and that's the stigma that's out there. If this can help people see that, that it's not a weakness, it's a disease. You are born with it.

"I felt guilty for so many years for this. I think a lot of people viewed it like I was out there partying and when's he going to get his shit together and stop partying. Literally, I'm dying inside, there's no party. I'm sitting there by myself with a bottle and bag and it's not a party, and it's not fun, and it's not an intentional thing.

"It's not a lack of character. It's not a lack of willpower. It's none of those things - it's just a disease."

Though each person's addiction is different, Carole said she's learned some lessons for family members who have a loved one struggling.

"It impacts families of all kinds, all economic and social types," she said.

"It's a common family story and in sharing Evan's courage and strength, I hope other families will keep the door open, keep exploring help, don't give up."

Treatment rarely works the first time. The key, said Evan, is to keep offering support to those you love.

"No matter how many times people go in and fail, never give up on them, always be ready to help them again," he said.

"Thank God I had people like that."

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