Our youngest child Danny died from accidental drug poisoning in 2014. Danny was 25 years old.
Danny was in recovery when one more pill, which he thought was a fake OxyContin, but was in fact Fentanyl, took his life. We did not know about the increased risk in recovery, when the person’s tolerance for the drug is lowered and when they are less informed about the scene and dangerous drugs. He was one of the early victims, before Fentanyl made the news, and before there were any health warnings. Those came several months after his death.
After Danny died we decided to be open about the cause of his death. We wanted to end the silence and the stigma. Friends and family, and his workplace were surprised. Danny did not look like an “addict” - a word I don’t care for much. How does a person who struggles with substance use look like? In most cases, it is an invisible condition. When Danny died, he had been in recovery for a year and a half. He was a chef in one of Edmonton’s best restaurants, and he lived in a downtown apartment.
What worked for Danny was opioid agonist treatment with Methadone combined with counselling, which we paid for privately. The only thing the public health system offered at the time was a list of 12 step groups, that are not evidence based and would not have taken him on methadone.
What did not work was the fact that both he and we were keen to have him “drug free” and he did not stay on the Methadone long enough to be stable.
For a while it seemed that we had the old Danny back, the kid we knew before he became dependant on drugs. On the outside, he looked like a successful young man, but he was struggling. His addiction started as his way of dealing with his severe social anxiety, but there were other risk factors: A learning disability, being gay, working in an environment were drug use is prevalent. Being impulsive and risk seeking.
He told me once that after he took an opioid he could just walk into any room and be himself, and I wondered if being yourself is too much to ask. Should we not help people to deal with their mental health issues, before they turn to drugs?
What I have since learned is that one of the greatest barrier to providing more effective supports is the stigma of mental health and substance use.
It is because of stigma that people, like Danny, use and die alone.