Former addict turned poet releases book, donates all proceeds to charities that have changed his life.
Vancouver, BC—For as long as he can remember, John Oakley, 51, was told that he was worthless. Growing up with an alcoholic father and a family that fought constantly, by age 10 he decided that he might as well drink too. By age 13, Oakley was on drugs and had dropped out of school. Leading a rebellious teenage life, Oakley found himself in and out of juvenile detention and was on his own by age 15. Despite having success at maintaining employment for much of his life, the trajectory of Oakley’s existence became an all-too familiar story: a transient work life, three failed marriages, an absent father and decades spent battling drug addiction.
Today, however, Oakley is a different person. One year clean and sober and a graduate of Union Gospel Mission’s Alcohol and Drug recovery program, the Oakley of today is happy, gentle and kind—a complete departure from what he says he used to be. And his journey is reflected in a new book of poetry entitled Loving Blessings From God: Journey From Addiction to Freedom. This 64-page inspirational book of poems and photography was the result of a partnership between Oakley, who provided the poetry, and Alan Chiu, who furnished the book with serene and inspiring photographs.
The two are an unlikely pair. John is a recovering drug addict turned poet, while Chiu is director at a software company and hobbyist photographer. Despite their obvious differences, once introduced, the two clicked instantly and found in each other the synergy needed to make publishing possible. The book went on sale late October and is quickly selling out. Despite their personal investment and tireless efforts, both Oakley and Chiu have committed to giving away all book proceeds to the two organizations that have transformed Oakley’s life and will be sure to change many more lives—Union Gospel Mission and Saint Mary’s Street Ministry team.
Oakley says that even three years ago he wouldn’t have believed that his 24 year battle with addiction could end—and that he’d be writing poetry of all things! His life changed dramatically when he “got so ticked off with life” that he decided to go to detox and then a rehabilitation centre in Calgary. When he arrived he was “a mess”—doing crack and drinking to medicate the pain in his life. At 5’10, Oakley was a measly 136 pounds. Says Oakley, “I knew that if I kept going as I was, I’d soon be dead.”
It was there that a once angry and sarcastic Oakley gave his heart to God. In his then 48 years of life, nothing else had worked. He saw the fullness and joy in others around him, drawing further attention to the aching gap in his own heart. Finally, he asked those at the centre to pray for him.
What happened next is nothing short of remarkable. “I felt a sense of relief,” he says. “It was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders.” As they prayed for his heart, Oakley heard an audible “pop” and felt a thump in his chest. He began to sob as he felt God healing his broken heart. “It was at that point,” says Oakley, “that I finally knew what love was. I’d been married three times and had never really felt like I knew love until then.”
As instantly as the physical and emotional healing came, so did another gift. Poetry began to stream through Oakley’s consciousness. So he started to write. He wrote his first six verse poem in three hours, and the second one in 20 minutes. He began writing more and more, sometimes writing up to 10 poems a day.
Deciding that he had been instantly healed, Oakley began to depend less and less on God. “I read my Bible less, went out into the world more and drifted further from God,” he says. As a result, he started using drugs again. Oakley felt like a prodigal, leaving home and spending his inheritance. He got pulled deeper into drugs and ended up in Vancouver, trying to get himself together. His attempts to write poetry failed because of the distance he felt from God.
But God was not as distant as he seemed. One day, when Oakley was alone in his house with his crack pipe, a candle for light and the TV screen blaring obscenities, to his surprise, God showed up.
“Out of nowhere, I was physically thrown to my knees,” he says. “I heard a voice that said ‘John, this is not what I want you to do with your life.’” The voice was quiet and gentle, not strong and commanding like he would have expected. He cried with regret and resolved to change. He knew he had to do something. The very next day, he called a detox program. After 10 excruciating days of waiting, there was finally a bed for him. Once admitted, the only thing Oakley asked for was a Bible. He began praying immediately and his connection to God, as well as poetry, returned. He felt like the prodigal coming home, knowing that God had never left him.
On the fourth day of detox, Oakley interviewed for and was accepted into Union Gospel Mission’s recovery program. “The moment I hit the doors of UGM, I could feel the Holy Spirit on me,” he says. From day one, Oakley put his heart and soul into recovery and has stayed clean and sober. He says that God has lifted every bit of desire he had for drugs and alcohol.
The change in Oakley was evident to many people, especially once he started the UGM program. His counselor, Kumar Sundarampillai, explains. “John came to the program in a state of hopelessness,” he says. “He saw no reason to live. With the end of his third marriage and having lost all connection with two of his three daughters, John saw addiction as a way to destroy himself.”
But Kumar notes how that changed drastically. “Regaining an active relationship with God, feeling loved and accepted by God and the church family, was an incredible motivator for John. His poems are a way of expressing God's love, power and goodness towards him. He is simply grateful to God for saving him and restoring him.”
Since entering recovery at UGM, John has reconnected with two of his three daughters, and maintains a good relationship with the third one. He has also battled bladder cancer and today remains cancer-free. His book has “completely exceeded my expectations,” almost selling out in only a few months and making its way to Japan, England, Germany, China, Singapore and across North America. Oakley has now authored over 1,000 poems. Books can be purchased through the Canadian Bible Society Bookstore (700 Kingsway, Vancouver) or Pilgrim Books.
Union Gospel Mission has been reaching hungry, hurting, and homeless men, women, youth, and children for nearly 70 years. Through its 8 locations in Metro Vancouver and the city of Mission, UGM provides counseling, education, safe housing, and alcohol and drug recovery to those struggling with poverty, homelessness, and addiction. The heart of the mission is to demonstrate God’s transforming love, ease the burden of the most vulnerable, rebuild the lives of the broken, and offer dignity to those who feel cast aside. UGM is a proud member of the Canadian Council of Christian Charities. To find out more, visit www.ugm.ca.
14/01/2010Back to Media Centre