No one should die that way: a personal story of the opioid epidemic in Canada

Guest Post

Content warning: discussion of abuse, drug related death, attempted violence, trauma, mental health, loss. If you or anyone you know is in immediate crisis call 911. Those experiencing less immediate crisis can find help at Crisis Text Line.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lys Morton is a Queer Canadian writer who is learning to call Vancouver Island home. A Creative Writing student at VIU, you can find his work and what he’s up to on Facebook at Lys Writes Now and Twitter @LysWritesNow.

Let’s talk about abuse, the opioid epidemic, overdose, and the general tone of comments you see around these topics.

June was an odd little month this year. I’m in this part of PTSD healing where my brain goes “dude, you’re doing so well, you’re so much calmer! Here… process this” and then dumps a bunch of memories that have been sitting in the repressed bank for some time. The start of June found me shifting through quite the collection of these memories, much of them centering around one individual. We’ll call him Jack.

Jack and I were in grades 7-10 together, and he is the guy that created the “glorious” moniker of She-Man. I don’t quite remember when he coined it, but I do remember it spreading like wildfire in the school. And the various times teachers accidentally called me that moniker because they heard it more in reference to me than my actual name. And when I started responding to it instead of my name.

Jack also has the privilege of being the guy that introduced me to “Saved Your Life: Boss Level.” Sounds harmless enough, right? Everyone and their dog played “Saved Your Life” during my teen years. Push someone and then immediately pull them back, shouting “saved your life!” It was the hip Tide Pod challenge in my days.

“Boss Level” was Jack pulling this stunt when I was near stairs, at the busy intersection where the city buses rolled through, beside the car lift in mechanics class, operating the burner in science class, and numerous other occasions. On average it was a daily occurrence. Jack’s face has more traumas tied to it, but I’m not exactly ready to FB post that stuff.

As I said, June found me shuffling through a lot of these memories, coming to terms with them and doing that whole healing thing. As I’m doing this work, I get a message from an acquaintance who knew both Jack and I. Simple message, quietly informing me that Jack had died from a fentanyl overdose that month. Now, wasn’t that news met with a roller coaster of emotions.

I would be lying if I didn’t say that there was a strange sense of relief at this news, which was then promptly followed by frustration. Because yeah, Jack put me through some horrible things, but that does not change one very key fact in this world.

No one should die that way.

It’s no secret that we are in the middle of a crisis. You see it on the news, on Netflix, strewn across social media. Since the beginning of 2016, Canada alone has lost over 10,300 people to opioid overdose. And over 90% over those deaths were accidental.

Like many large problems in our world, there is no simple answer to this particular crisis. There are numerous factors that come into play, countless flaws in systems that people fall through. There is no “on/off” switch to any part of this crisis.
But one single fact stands. No one should be dying from an overdose.

We have tools in this war; harm reduction strategies, safe consumption sites, naloxone training, legalization. But people are too wrapped up in their scorn to even contemplate these strategies.

I don’t care how many times Jack put my life in jeopardy, he did not deserve to lose his this way. Not when there are tools that could have saves him. And if he didn’t deserve this, no one did.

My friends have lost too many of their friends in this epidemic. The list should not be as long as it is. And then they have to deal with the comments of people who refuse to sit for a moment and contemplate the scale of this crisis. The faces of it.

Better writers than I have noted how similar the opioid epidemic is mirroring the AIDS epidemic that started back in 1981. The similarities in people’s scorn for those caught up in this battle. The front line workers screaming for support. The governments that only seem willing to shrug their shoulders at this war. As a queer guy, this scares me. To sit and watch this story play out once again. Because I’m in a community still healing from the generation that was lost to AIDS and to people’s apathy towards it. How long will it take communities to heal from this loss?

As I said, there is an odd sense of relief I feel knowing that Jack’s never going to be able to hurt me again. But that’s my thing to work through, because that initial fact still stands. He should not be another number in this war. We have the tools and ability to end this crisis.

Can we get some compassion going so we can stop this?

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When going back to bed doesn’t work: sometimes “sad” is code for something more.

I miss when I was little and going to bed for a while or taking a bath was enough to reset. I am realizing though, that it probably wasn’t. I’ve had (at least internalized) anxieties and phobias as long as I can remember.

I used to ask my mom bizarre questions when we were travelling about falling off the side of the highway to our death, or the moon crashing into earth and killing us. I used to turn off my bedroom lights and run to my bed—even until age 16.

I’ve always obsessed and replayed traumatic events in my mind and reacted in outbursts from fear that presented as anger.

Today was no different. There was a moment where I had a very real fear of being t-boned by a car that was travelling too fast as we were driving. When we got to the parking lot I instantly wanted to cry, but shoved it down. Then as we walked through the store I was increasingly irritable, and almost had a melt down at the checkout for “no reason”.

When we got into the car, the only way I could articulate how I was feeling was, “I’m sad. And I don’t like it.” 

I’ve been “sad” for a while. I don’t like it. I’m “working” on it. Reality is, most people with mental illnesses learn to manage but don’t “get better”. I’m having a hard time grappling with this idea. I take more naps than I ever did before, but wake exhausted and weepy most days.

I’ve restructured my nutrition to remove refined sugars and empty carbs and replaced all that crap with stuff that grows in dirt or on trees. I’ve noticed a difference for sure, but still feel incredibly sad most of the time.

Sad is the only way I can describe it concisely. I am on edge, on the verge of tears, suffer from headaches and stomach issues related to anxiety. I continually have muscle spasms from holding my neck, shoulders, and legs in tension without thinking about it. I have excessive jaw pain caused by a dental condition that is exacerbated by clenched teeth when I sleep.

I am often afraid to sleep because I relive traumas with incredible vividness that I “forgot” had happened. I feel disconnected when I remember something and share it with my partner and then feel guilt and shame for bringing it up when I see the hurt in her eyes. I know intellectually that she is hurting because I am hurting and she cannot fix it, but emotionally I feel like letting her in harms her in some way. So I tell her I’m sad instead of how bad the storm in my brain is.

It’s true what the majority of articles say about support being the number one factor in living with mental illness. Without the support of a few key friends and my loving partner, I wouldn’t be here. In a city, and likely a country, where mental health and addictions are treated by the same branch of government and share the same funding, those of us who are high-functioning fall through the cracks. People like me are aware of our illness in intense detail. We are emotionally detached, not in recovery, because it’s the only way to survive.

We go to the physician or emergency services and calmly tell them we’re at the end of ourselves only to be turned away. The most common advice I receive from healthcare professionals is to “practice self-compassion”. When will invisible illness be taken seriously? Why do people have to “have a plan” to be considered at risk for suicide? Is thinking about it more than daily not troubling enough?

It is not troubling enough to make my partner get out of bed because I heard a noise at 3am and think that someone is most definitely in my house trying to kill me? Is it not troubling enough that I either cannot sleep or sleep 15+ hours in a day? Is it not troubling enough that I feel like crying for literal months but cannot manage a tear? Is it not troubling enough that I get such anxiety when we arrive at events I used to love that we have to leave right then?

For now, I just tell people I’m sad. I’m hoping one day, that a doctor will listen enough to how that plays out in my life to actually do something about it. Until then, I’ll be with Olivia and my cat.

Climate Change Anxiety is Real

A recent article posted on CNN dives into how climate change anxiety is a real threat and covers some ways to address it. “Paralysis caused by fear is a real problem,” the article says. I whole-heartedly agree with this. In a lot of ways, it doesn’t matter what outside pressure is causing the fear—climate change, racism, recent events in the US surrounding women’s reproductive rights—this fear is leading first to outrage and then to hopelessness.

Hopelessness is the common thread through various levels of depression. It begins with a sense of overwhelm and an inability to place exactly where the pressure is coming from. Many afflicted with high functioning depression seem to be healthy, or at least equipped with healthy coping mechanisms. What happens when the ability to cope is overwhelmed by the storm of hardships hitting survivors from all angles?

Lucas Wolfe, in his article When Your Depression Stops Being High Functioning on The Mighty wrote, “I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t hold a thought in my head. I lost weight, and the light of life drained from my eyes. I was a shell of my former self, and for the first time since the depression began, I couldn’t successfully hide my battles from those around me. Everyone could see something wasn’t quite right, but no one knew what was wrong.” He was paralyzed.

Contrary to the text I am plugging into my lap top right now, I am in the same place right now. Like Lucas, no one in my life knows what’s wrong—neither do I. Like Lucas, “I had made the transition from high-functioning depression to major depression, and it was shocking how little I could do.” I’ve spent the better part of six weeks in bed and avoiding texts, phone calls, and social interactions. I’m afraid that people will see me, like really see me—my fear, my trauma, my gross mess.

I’m constantly worried about finances, the environment, whether or not the world is even going to still be here before I pay off my student loans. I’m often wondering outloud to anyone who will listen what the point of it all is. What’s the point in making career goals when the world leaders are ignoring the facts and refusing to act to save our planet? What’s the point in working my ass off at a minimum wage job when it costs more to get to and from work that the sum of my weekly wages? What’s the point of getting out of bed when nothing about today is different than any other day? I am not alone in these questions.

Many of my peers have the same thoughts and voice the same fears. The two main themes emerging from our Creative Writing cohort were mental illness and environmental crisis. The two go hand in hand.

Andrea Marks Rolling Stone says, “The mental health impact of climate change is a one-two punch: There will be increasing anxiety about the future, as well as an increasing number of people undergoing the trauma of climate catastrophes like flooding and hurricanes” in her article How the Mental Health Community Is Bracing for the Impact of Climate Change. Marks went on to report, “A Yale survey in December found nearly 70 percent of Americans are “worried” about climate change, 29 percent are “very worried” — up eight percentage points from just six months earlier — and 51 percent said they felt “helpless.” Fifty-one percent felt helpless.

Just over half the population surveyed felt helpless at the current climate situation. We’re watching the world quite literally die before our eyes and our leaders seem more preoccupied with women’s wombs than whether or not there will be life on Earth in the near future. Liv Grant of the Guardian wrote, “Wild places dwindle, the animals and plants that live in them disappear. Climate change is now a certainty, and it will without a doubt lead to the loss of land, species, and ways of life. In the abstract this is disconcerting. Up close it is devastating. I worked on the BBC’s Climate Change: The Facts, presented by David Attenborough, and have felt this pain first-hand.”

So what do we do about it?

So far, all I’ve been able to find in my research is coping skills. Nothing solves the problem of climate related anxiety—nothing that is except for changing the trajectory of humanity. Western society is so dependent on capitalism and consumerism. These are the ideologies (where the dollar bill is more important than people, animals, and the environment) that are fueling climate change. When activists try to advocate for change the immediate outcry is “how will we make a living?”. My question is, how will your inflated bank account matter when we’re all dead?

Sooner than anyone wants to admit there will be global water and food shortages like human history has never seen before. Since my childhood, several animals have gone extinct. Bees are dying (they pollinate flowers to grow our food among other things). Unstable weather and forest fires are increasing. The science is there. Let’s stop ignoring it and actually do something.

Those with the power either need to use it or lose it. Vote like the environment actually matters.

Doubt: Watch Me

Doubt is a nasty germ. It creeps in subtly when things are going well and begins to breed in the background. First, it will show up disguised as rational thinking. Should I really be doing this? I know ________ is more qualified at __________ than I am. We begin to compromise. Before long, we avoid the things we once loved—things we know we’ve been good at before—for fear of failure.

I struggled for two weeks to write a short story in October. I am in fourth year of creative writing and have published several stories, poems, and non-fiction pieces. I was long-listed for a prestigious literary competition and have won prizes for my promise in writing. I’ve been paid for not only my own content but to create pieces for others’ websites as well. I’ve been solicited for publication from links I’ve shared on Twitter and been hired out for events due to my creative prowess. All this is true and I still struggle to create.

I’m not trying to humble-brag. If anything, I’m trying to remind myself that I am extremely talented at making something great out of thin air and sheer will power. I have three novels in progress but am terrified to complete them. What if they aren’t good? What if I publish them and only sell ten copies? Worse, what if I publish them and someone expects MORE? Doubt is a jerk.

I say to look doubt right in the face and say watch me.

When I finally buckled down and quit the debilitating habit of self-censoring, I produced a short story in under five hours that is already receiving positive feedback. It’s even spawning the idea for a chapbook of short stories unlike anything that is currently being done. It just might be that accidental best idea I’ve ever had. It was full of typos and a little rushed—I was outrunning doubt after all, and we all know doubt is a marathon runner.

That thing you love, that you miss, but you doubt you’re good enough/brave enough/_________enough to take it on again—it misses you. Tell doubt watch me. You’ll be glad you did.

When Thursday is a Monday

We’ve all been there before. Doing something that makes us sigh at our humanity. It keeps us humble and reminds us that sometimes we just don’t have it all together.

The holidays are a hard time for me. It’s dark out almost the whole say, thanks Canada. I am far away from my family that I haven’t seen in going on three years, even more than that for my brother–whom I’d like to say was my childhood best friend and I do not take that for granted. I don’t have the ability to be as generous as I would like to. My brain is exhausted from school and all the work I put in to be my best.

Needless to say when I pour the unground beans into the coffee filter making coffee this morning, I let out a sigh and almost cried. My exasperation was heard by my roommate on the other side of our modest apartment–and I poured the beans from the filter to the grinder and mumbled “I obviously need coffee more than I thought”.

I’ve lost the ambition to clean my house, because I don’t have the finances to host anyone. Showering and putting on pants today was my victory.

During this time of year, it’s easy to forget in all the fun and events those among us who have aching hearts. I miss my son whom was taken from me before his life got to start. I miss the mountains of my childhood, the children that call me auntie, and the familiarness of a place called home.

To cheer myself up, I started to think of all the things I am thankful for. I urge you to give it a try. Here’s my list:

  1. A Warm House– This might seem trivial. Lately, it’s been colder than normal on Canada’s West Coast. I have a warm house, with a warm bed, and a cupboard full of tea. There are many in Nanaimo who are trying to get by this winter on the street. They are literally freezing. I am thankful for enough support to remain housed and I’m thankful.
  2. My Roommate– Our friendship is deeper than that of most roommates. Part of it is that we are both followers of Jesus, but there’s more. We take care of one another. We allow space for brokenness as we both struggle through life with mental illness and trying to function in a world that isn’t kind to those who cannot work full-time and go to school. She blesses me more than anyone I’ve ever lived with, and in less than a year we’ve become family and I’m thankful.
  3. The LGBTQ+ Community– They accept my contradictory nature. I love Jesus; many of my rainbow friends have been deeply hurt in the name of Christ and I am no exception. Yet, they do not fault me for my faith. There is a deep respect in this family of misfits and I do not take it for granted. The group here in Nanaimo holds some of my greatest champions. They help me to get out of bed some days and give me an outlet for my creative side and I’m thankful.
  4. Young Adult’s Group– I attend a very open, accepting and loving Young Adult’s Group that is groundbreaking in their inclusion of myself as a LGBTQ+ person of faith. I’ve never been judged or limited in my ministry by them. The leaders of the group have endeavoured to create a safe place for me, including a no-tolerance of abuse mandate. I will never take for granted the bravery to stand with me when many church leaders do not and I’m thankful.
  5. Outreach– There are pastors and friends in the community whom build me up emotionally, spiritually and even financially. They’ve helped me through a very dark period of my faith journey. It would’ve been easy for me to give up on the church after some of the abusive actions toward me. These folks have reminded me that we are all human, we all fail at loving one another, but grace allows for a better way and I’m thankful.
  6. My Family– Though we are a total mess, though there are not many of us that are even speaking to one another, my mom and brother have helped me in this past year. It speaks to the healing that comes with maturing over time. We are there for one another as best as we can be and I’m thankful.

By no means is this an exhaustive list, but it sure takes the blow out of the silly humbling things I do each day. It reminds me to look forward and not dwell on the little tedious circumstances that threaten to steal my joy. What about you? What are you thankful for?

~Cheryl