TORONTO, October 7, 2016 - It was five years ago and James Bennett was at the top of his game in the ultracompetitive world of high-end catering. His client…one of the most famous rock and roll bands on the planet, U2, was on tour in Canada. For one glorious week in July, when the band played two sold out shows at the Hippodrome in Montreal, Bennett was the executive chef for Bono, Edge, and a couple of thousand after-party guests.
James wasn’t drinking then – too busy working 20-hour days. He was as happy professionally as he could have ever imagined. What he could never have imagined then, was just how quickly his life would begin to unravel.
A year later, he was living on the street, literally. His entire life -- his marriage, his career -- turned to ashes. Lost in an alcoholic fog, James was dangerously depressed and filled with a toxic blend of anger and despair. He started getting into street fights…lost a front tooth…ended up in jail.
“I just felt like I was invisible and all I wanted to do was disappear,” he says about those days. “I felt I deserved everything that was happening to me. That this was all penance for all the wrongs in my life.”
It was then, at the age of 48, that James knew he was at a crossroads in his life. He knew he wasn’t going to be alive much longer if he didn’t seek help. He tried to convince his best friend on the street to join him in a mutual effort to get clean. His friend wouldn’t do it, couldn’t do it, and was dead within a year.
James went another way. He came to CAMH.
“I was really close to death” he says about his first days here. “It was sink or swim at that moment. I was suffering from pneumonia, exposure.”
It was here that his road to recovery began. While the clinicians at CAMH helped him address the addiction and mental health issues that brought him here, it was Dr. Paul Zung, Senior Dentist at the CAMH Dental Clinic, who helped make him physically whole again.
Zung has been restoring oral health to patients at CAMH for three decades. He describes our teeth as an archeological record of the life we have lived, the paths we have taken. Like so many of Zung’s patients, James had neglected his oral health for years and being a chef made it worse. Constantly taste-testing his creations throughout the day, in an industry where the hours are chaotic and dental coverage is rare, meant a lot of time in Dr. Zung’s chair restoring what James had lost.
“I didn’t care if I lived or died,” says James of his state of mind when he first met Zung. “But he made me feel so comfortable. He took me in and made me feel safe. Made me feel like I could still make a difference.”
Flash-forward to today, and James has his life back again. Off the street and gainfully employed again in the profession he loves, he feels better in mind and body than he has in a long, long time. The anxiety and depression that he believes was at the core of his struggle with alcohol, is still there. But he says he can deal with it now, and keep the bad days from getting worse.
Being able to show his face to the world again without feeling ashamed has been a big part of that.
“Dr. Zung fixed a lot of stuff not just my teeth,” says Paul. “Just being able to open my mouth again was pretty amazing. What he’s doing is a miracle.”
Through the generous support of donors to the CAMH Foundation, Dr. Zung has been able to move into a new and expanded dental clinic at CAMH. The official opening was on Wednesday. James did double duty at the event. He spoke to some of our donors about what Dr. Zung and his clinic has meant to him. And he did what he does best, cooking up a storm in the CAMH kitchen as the official caterer.
Thanks to the support of the Rotary Club of Toronto, Henry Schein Canada and the Bedolfe Foundation, Dr. Zung can now see twice as many patients. Helping people like James put their best face forward once again.