Helen Jennen's presentation to the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians

If I use the word, addict, many minds will conjure up images of a filthy toothless, dead eyed, man or women hiding in a back alley with a needle in their arm or begging for a few dollars on a street corner.I tell my story as a mother with lived experience to alter that image, to share the human side of drug misuse. To encourage you to believe although they have made a few bad choices, they do not choose this way of life. No one aspires to the living hell of addiction.

I have lost two sons to overdose. I cannot even begin to tell you about living life without your children, long nights laying awake, wishing apon wish to see them, hear them, hug them. The day after day reality that this will never happen.

My boys stories are quite different. Rian after 8 years of abstinence was hit by a truck while driving his motorcycle. He sustained horrific injuries to his leg. For three years, many surgeries,and countless prescription drugs, he battled chronic pain, depression and anxiety.

On August 21,2011, Rian died alone in his bed of respiratory failure due to an overdose of narcotics and benzodiazepines. I found him the following morning.

Tyler’s story is more relevant to the current opioid epidemic. Ty was living a charmed life. He was smart, witty, industrious, athletic, extremely funny and totally fearless. He had startling good looks and things came easily to him. He was a true adventurer. He climbed and went scuba diving in the most amazing mountains and waters in the world. He loved to travel and eventually settled in Thailand where he quickly picked up the language and soon had built himself a successful business and a happy life. Here he fathered his first child, Mac.

Tyler was caring and kind with a big soft generous heart . He was hailed a hero in the Canadian press for saving a drowning Thai boatman in the devastating Tsunami that hit the coast of Thailand on Boxing Day in 2004. That was not the first or the last time with no regard for his own safety, he saved another’s life.

After the Tsunami, with may friends lost and his business destroyed, Tyler brought his family home to Canada. We have no idea what impact that Tsunami had on Tyler’s mental state, but thought he was exhibiting signs of post traumatic stress. Starting over again was not easy, but Ty adapted quickly and in no time had his own masonry business.

In 2010, Tyler ruptured his a chillies playing football.. He underwent surgery and was sent home with a prescription of Oxycontin. With all the other components most likely in place, he developed a dependency on opioids. Tyler did not cope well with Rian’s death. Shortly after, his drug abuse escalated to heroin, it was far cheaper and much easier to obtain than oxycontin.

As a family we were launched into the search for help. We spoke to physicians, psychiatrists, outreach workers, treatment centres, RCMP and even to members of the clergy. Along with drug misuse, mental health issues develop. Personally, I believe addiction and mental health issues are dance partners, who leads depends on the day and the circumstances. With large gaping holes in the system, there were no clear answers, no concurrent care,so our lives became riddled with trauma and fear.

Totally unqualified, the spare bedroom in our home now became an emergency room, a detox, a rehab, a homeless shelter, a jail cell and on the worst of days, a war zone. Countless nights I sat on the sofa with my son’s head in my lap and we both cried for the man he had once been, the one we longed to bring back. Supporting his addiction, Tyler broke his own moral code and his shame and self loathing only added to the relentless drive to use.

Although treatment centres were virtually impossible to access, Tyler tried a number of ways to become drug free. In December of 2016 he joined a 12 step program. On January 13, Ty returned from a recovery meeting. He was in high spirits, even optimistic. He came around my bed and taking me in a big bear hug, he told me how much he loved me and how he could not live without me in his life, he then did the same with my husband.

The next day we left for work, for the first time in ages he was sleeping peacefully and we did not wake him. At work that morning I received an e-mail from an old friend of Rian’s. I had not spoken to Betty in well over a year, but she wrote, I am not sure what compels me to write to you today, I needed to let you know I feel Rian’s spirit so strongly and feel he is right there beside you.

As I left work that day, a fire engine with sirens blaring roared around me into on-coming traffic and flew up Pandosy Street. I ended up following that truck and when it stopped in front of Tyler’s ex-wife’s apartment, my heart plummeted.

I was forced to remain in the hallway outside the apartment as first responders worked feverishly to re-start my son’s heart. Finally they let me in and for the second time I layed down with my dead boy and whispered things in his ear I knew he could no longer hear.

I will never know what triggered Tyler to use that day, he died from a pure fentanyl disguised as heroin overdose. I try to convince myself that Rian did come to guide his brother to a safer happier place.

In a text to me a few weeks before he died, Ty wrote, Mom I just need you to know. It took me weeks to figure out it”s meaning and will haunt me until I die. What he wanted me to know was that he loved us all more than enough, but alone without the appropriate help, he knew he could not win this battle. Our constant messaging, well if you only wanted to stop, if you would just try, were so damn far off the mark. The standard advice of, he needs to hit rock bottom, or you need to practice tough love….I now see as utterly ridiculous. If we do not see the total destruction of ones life, the loss of family and friends, the inability to hold a job or support oneself, the never ending quest to stick a needle in your arm two or three times a day, just to escape your sad reality for a few hours is not rock bottom, we are blind. and as far as tough love,well the toughest love you will ever see is that of a mother trying to save her addicted child.

In February of 2016, I became a member of Moms Stop The Harm MSTH is a network of Canadian mothers and families whose loved ones have died from substance misuse. Our network calls for an end to the failed war on drugs. We envision a new approach based on reducing harm, where people who use drugs are treated with respect, compassion and support.

I am often asked, how do you do it, keep going, keep advocating. I do it for Rian and I do it for Tyler. I do it for Tyler’s children, for surely with their short history they are at high risk for mental heath and drug misuse. I do it to reduce the shame and stigma that surround addiction. To bring awareness and perhaps prevention. To help society recognize that these are medical issues, not moral failings. To have you all see it can happen in the best of families to the nicest people.

I can only imagine what you as emergency physicians are faced with on a daily basis. Hopefully my message will stay with you and remind you, they are not here by choice and that they have a Mother waiting fearfully for you to do what she has not been able to, for you to save her child. Whatever you are to learn here today, I implore you to implement it quickly. As you know, recent statistics show that in 2017 we are on track to lose 1300 people in our province to overdose.

Let’s abolish the stigmatizing word, addict. Let’s see them all as suffering human beings and let’s try without judgement to help them.

Helen Jennens,

Whistler, BC, June 3, 2017