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My son Adam G. Watson born on January 8, 1989, died February 6, 2016.  He died from an accidental overdose due to the toxic street drug fentanyl.  Adam was raised in a loving, supportive  family. He went to Riverview School and then to Churchill High School.  He struggled in school and was overly sensitive.  When school was finished Adam worked jobs that led him to be an Apprentice Electrician.  He was presented with an honorary Journeyman certificate when he passed away, in recognition of his hard work, creative thinking and problem solving.  Adam did not want to die. He was only 27 years old and this was a preventable death.  

It is not that I blame anyone and, although it took years to not blame myself, I would like to share a few things that I now know to be true. 

Looking back, Adam was a normal teenager, he liked to be adventurous and tested the limits.  How does a seemingly normal young man turn to deadly drugs?  Was it the party where someone brought pills found in the medicine cabinet that started the very long journey ahead? I kept hoping it would just go away but the real scare came one morning when Adam approached me early in the morning before he left for work, “Mum, he said,  I have a serious problem, I’m addicted to oxycontin, an opiate”.  I was shocked and shattered.  I was not even sure what an opiate was and I certainly had no idea about the dangers of this addiction.  I immediately started the awful and humiliating task of trying to get help for his addiction.  Not much was available in 2016 and our health care system was ill prepared for the growing addiction crisis.  The Methadone treatment program helped him stabilize, and not to have to search out the street drugs.  The program did nothing to help him seek out the root causes and frankly, for Adam, the program just made his feelings of shame worse. The stigma of drug addiction is very real, and lining up to get a dose of methadone was humiliating. 

Lessons we learned:  

  • If you suspect someone you love has a substance use disorder, start with telling them you love them and you are there to support them as much as you are able.
  • Talk openly without shaming, without anger, asking how you can help.
  • If you suspect drug use, talk to his or her friends and ask them what they know, and if they are they willing to help.
  • Talk to the parents of his/her friends. Don’t be afraid or feel shame. Drug use is a real thing and it is not going away. Remember, it takes a village.
  • Talk to other family members about the addiction  and your fears.  Don’t try to do this alone, join a support group.  Self care is important.
  • Talk to the school or their employer. Don’t be afraid to talk to employers, they need to also be aware and they need to show compassion. Some have programs and counseling opportunities available.
  • Read and learn what you can about the causes and care, learn about the detox and treatments available.
  • Immediately learn how to use a Naloxone/Narcan Kit (opioid overdose antidote) and get one for your home and for your loved one. A Naloxone/Narcan kit and learning CPR is what can save a life.  Be prepared.
  • Do not be in denial – Harm Reduction is the one thing that can save a person from overdose and death.
  • Be prepared for the day your child or loved one asks for help… know who to call, know the waiting time, talk to your Dr. It is critically important that if your son or daughter asks for help they get it right away. The opportunity to access treatment/support can close very quickly for someone using drugs.  It is not their fault, they have a disease that needs medical intervention.

Since the time of Adams death I have researched and watched videos, I have joined support groups for my grief and groups that advocate for change in drug policies and that push governments for evidence based harm reduction. Know what Harm Reduction is…it is saving lives… it is Naloxone kits, the Good Samaritan Act, methadone programs, safe consumption sites, safe supply, decriminalization of personal amounts of illicit substances (support don’t punish), redefining recovery. 

Mental health and addictions services are part of the primary care with a focus on early identification, prevention and treatment options. So much could be done and much has changed since Adam died, but not enough!

There are far too many of our children dying within a system that lacks compassion, expertise and appropriate resources.  In our own community I know of 7 young people who have died as a result of poisoned street drugs. And there are several others that are struggling with addiction. The dangers of street drugs and addiction do not discriminate.

Our Health care professionals and those in the field of mental health and addictions are often not in touch with the latest research and protocols. There are not enough supports Provincially for mental health and addictions. There is no provincially led medical detox for opiate users, something that is so needed, as many will not go into detox because the pain of withdrawal can be a frightening reality.

The current privacy laws present roadblocks to recovery.  Parents, family members and significant others need to be part of the process and need to be involved. 

We need to be looking at the root causes of addiction. Much research is starting to present itself like that of Gabor Mate, a well documented scholar in the world of trauma and the long term effects. 

Criminalization of people who are using illegal substances does nothing to help them. The police and justice system need to look at the “support don’t punish model”. The stigma caused by criminalization prevents people from asking for help and choosing a life saving option. 

Many of our children died alone, and Adam was one of those children, driven into the shadows by a judgemental society. 

As caring and compassionate citizens we need to create spaces in our communities for both those who are addicted, as well as their support people. The isolation that so often occurs with addiction simply exacerbates an already painful and untenable situation. If we do not support each other in our community, eventually we all suffer in silence.

This is not an exhaustive list but is hopefully an article that will educate and connect people who want to learn more, or who need some kind of community support . Let’s open the dialogue about addiction  and what needs be done to improve services.  

I have included in this piece some of the resources that can help you or your loved ones. Although navigating a system is very difficult, it is very important that you take the time now and prepare yourself. Wait lists are a big issue for those trying to access a treatment program.

August 31st is International Overdose Awareness Day.. it is a day to remember our loved ones who have gone too soon.  A day to create awareness and educate yourself and others on the perils of addiction.

It is a day to tie a purple ribbon around your tree to show others you do care.