09/02/2012 05:00 EDT | Updated 11/01/2012 05:12 EDT

Sudden closure of Nova Scotia rehab centre like losing a home, says ex addict

Years of drug abuse left Brian Miles with a rap sheet so long that he can't remember exactly what landed him in a Cape Breton jail for 30 days three years ago.

But Miles never forgot the advice he received on his last day from a fellow convict: get clean and seek help from Talbot House, a now-defunct rehabilitation centre whose closure experts say underscores a troublesome gap in services for addicts in the region.

"I feel I was reborn," says Miles, who was shooting opiates and cocaine before he moved into the 18-bed house for men in rural Frenchvale, N.S., in 2009.

"I was a criminal. I was a mess. I would steal and rob and cheat. That was my life. I had no morals or values whatsoever. Talbot House taught me all that."

Miles, now 31, spent 14 months at the charming stone house located about a half-hour's drive from Sydney and the temptations more readily available in the city.

Unlike programs that use the synthetic opiate methadone to treat withdrawal symptoms, Talbot House required total abstinence from drugs and alcohol. It was the only facility of its kind in Cape Breton to offer a long-term, methadone-free approach to recovery.

Founded in 1959, the non-profit facility hosted men aged 19 and over from across Atlantic Canada. Its methods ranged from group and one-on-one discussions to acupuncture.

Most importantly, Talbot House offered a safe place for residents to call home and focus on recovery, says its former executive director.

"I am absolutely convinced that the reason people become well is that you give them something to belong to," says Rev. Paul Abbass. "You give them a sense of belonging because that's been lost through the addiction."

Talbot House closed its doors in March in the middle of an organizational review by the Department of Community Services, which then discontinued its funding.

The review, launched after a complaint from a former resident, concluded the facility hadn't been operating in compliance with provincial standards. The board has vigorously challenged the review's findings.

Dr. Linda Courey, executive director of mental health and addictions services for the Cape Breton District Health Authority, says men seeking the kind of help Talbot House offered have been left in the lurch in the six months since the closure was announced.

Cape Breton offers treatment for addicts on an out-patient basis and an addictions day program, she says, but nothing long-term.

There are a couple of treatment and recovery centres nearly 400 kilometres away in Halifax, but Courey says it's not reasonable to ask addicts to uproot and leave their families, even if a bed is available.

"People who need a recovery house need a recovery house," says Courey, a clinical psychologist.

"There's really not much else that we have to offer that can replace the experience of living in a supportive community with others who are going through the same experience. ... I would say that this is a serious gap."

Despite being clean for nearly three years, Miles says he found it comforting to return and stroll the grounds of the tranquil property.

The closure left him fearful.

"It was really scary for me because if something was to happen, it was like you can't go back home," he says. "Where am I to go?"

Abbass says he's kept in touch with a number of former residents, some of whom are doing well while others continue to struggle.

Despite the government review and the facility's closure, Abbass says demand for Talbot House hasn't dwindled.

"It's an incredible loss," he says. "Talbot House has an outstanding reputation in the life of that Cape Breton community. Everyone knows Talbot House."

Abbass says the facility's closure extended beyond its residents and staff and into the community. When Talbot House was open, residents were often invited by schools to share their experiences and educate youth about the dangers of drug use.

Last week, the provincial government announced it would extend a deadline for the volunteer board of directors at Talbot House to submit a proposal to resume operations.

The request for proposals issued in early August is also open to other organizations interested in offering addictions services off the mainland.

Progressive Conservative Keith Bain, who represents the area in the legislature, said the government should restore funding to Talbot House — about $400,000 annually — without forcing the facility to submit a proposal.

"The methods that they used in treating people with addictions worked for over 50 years, and I think people have to look at the successes," says Bain, the party's community services critic.

"I don't think people realized how significant a role Talbot House played until this happened."

The significance isn't lost on Miles, who now speaks proudly of his job as a lobster fisherman and the home he shares with his girlfriend.

"I mean, this all happened in a couple years," he says. "In five, 10 years, who knows where I'm going to be? The sky's the limit, that's the way I think today, that's the way I feel. Talbot House gave me that."