Helen Jennens keeps an old photo of her sons - both sporting huge grins, their arms around each others’ shoulders - on her dresser, near to a metal sculpture inscribed with their names: Tyler and Rian.
It’s a looping infinity symbol and represents the way the two are forever intertwined - in death, as they were in life. Jennens affectionally called the pair who were born just 18 months apart “seek” and “destroy” as children. Their closeness lasted as they grew up to be “amazing guys” and as they developed drug addictions that ultimately killed them both.
To the world, they are statistics of an overdose epidemic first declared a public health emergency in 2016.
To Jennens, they are so much more - her much loved children, whose absence she will never stop grieving. Children, who in death, threw her into a lifetime of advocacy.
“We say at Moms Stop the Harm, we don’t do this for our kids,” she said, referring to the overdose awareness advocacy group that she’s a member of.
“It’s too late for them. We’re doing it for yours.”
There were 1,422 overdose deaths in 2017, a 43 per cent increase compared to 2016, which saw 914 deaths. Up until July of this year there have been 878 deaths, with 134 overdose being recorded in July.
Those deaths mark a 12 per cent increase over the same month last year, and a 25 per cent uptick from June. It equates to four deaths per day.
It’s a figure that should make jaws drop, but Jennens said she thinks the public is becoming desensitized to the death toll.
Instead of the shock she saw a year ago when discussing the crisis, people are almost indifferent. And the stigma that has sent so many people to misuse drugs in the dark corners of society remains intact.
It’s not surprising. Demonizing drug users, allows people to out the issue in the distance. They can say to themselves it’s not something they will face or that they need to understand.
It’s a dangerous misinterpretation of the reality.
“Did I ever think, at this age, my sons would gone — no,” she said. “Did I ever think they’d die of a drug overdose — no,” she said.
Nor did she think that the places her children went to heal from injury would be what led to their end.
“We had a lot of years of trauma and drama,” she said. “Rian, my oldest son, had a drug problem, and then he got into a recovery program and had eight years of being sober before being struck by a truck on his motorcycle,” she said. “The next few years he suffered through multiple surgeries, and the list of prescription drugs he was on was was terrible.”
He died in 2011 at age 37 from an overdose of prescription drugs. One day in 2011, Jennens went to his house with a pot of chilli and found him propped up on his bed with his computer on his lap.
“He was reading and he’d just stopped breathing,” she said noting that he’d been prescribed benzodiazepines, various drugs for insomnia and depression, and opioids for chronic pain while he awaited a second hip replacement.
He was 37 years old. Five years later Tyler died, at age 40. He had ruptured his left Achilles tendon in 2008 while playing football. A lot of surgeries followed and for the pain he was prescribed OxyContin.
“That’s when he acquired his opioid addiction,” she said. “When his brother died in 2011, he turned to heroin.”
The family then went through four to five years of “awful stuff” trying to help him. “We thought he was doing really well and then he picked up on Jan. 14 2016 … we have all the information in his phone… he thought he bought heroin, but it was 100 per cent fentanyl. I don’t know if we had gotten to him sooner we could have saved him.”
At that time, fentanyl was just coming on to the scene and Tyler was considered one of the first reported poisonings. There were no systems in place to catch him as he fell.
Today, there’s more hope in Kelowna for someone who finds themselves in his position. The city now has a mobile supervised injection site, there are public information campaigns aimed at reducing the stigma of drug misuse and the conversation about the risk of fentanyl have become louder, more pointed. Last year the Good Samaritan law was passed and it allows people who fear calling 911 while someone is overdosing a legal shield if they too are on drugs or in possession of them. “Kids were going to parties and they were afraid to call 911 when someone overdosed,” she said. “Now they can.”
For all those positive changes, however, there’s a lot more than can be done. Jennens has raised concerns about the legitimate practices that lead people into addiction and into acquiring an illegitimate stream of drugs. Jennens publicly decried common practices among doctors that she said led to the deaths of her sons.
Had doctors checked their drug histories in the real-time database PharmaNet, which links pharmacies and hospitals to a database that stores information on all dispensed prescriptions? The system is also available to physicians.
She also looks to legalization of possession illicit substances as the way forward.
“Look at what they’re doing in Portugal,” she said. In the ’80s, an estimated one in 100 Portuguese was battling a heroin addition. Overdose deaths were on the rise and HIV infection was the highest of the European union.
In 2001, Portugal became the first country to decriminalize the possession and consumption of all illicit substances. Rather than being arrested, those caught with a personal supply might be given a warning, a small fine, or told to appear before a local commission – a doctor, a lawyer and a social worker – about treatment, harm reduction, and the support services that were available to them.
The opioid crisis soon stabilized, and the ensuing years saw dramatic drops in problematic drug use, HIV and hepatitis infection rates, overdose deaths, drug-related crime and incarceration rates. HIV infection plummeted from an all-time high in 2000 of 104.2 new cases per million to 4.2 cases per million in 2015.
Reports say the culture around drug users changed, too. Instead of using the parallel word for “junkies” people started referring to “people who use drugs” or those with “addiction disorders.”
This, said Jennens, is a key piece of the puzzle.
“(Tyler and Rain) probably wouldn’t want me talking about it,” she said. “They were ashamed of what they were doing.”
If, however, they weren’t forced to hide in the shadows, in fear of labels there’s no telling where they’d be.
“We believe it’s a disorder, a medical illness, not a moral failing,” she said. “And we want people to treat it with dignity and respect, the same way as anyone with a medical issue would be treated. That is some of what we hope people will start to think about today.”
A full roster of the events that start at 9 a.m. and go until 9 p.m. can be found on the Moms Stop the Harm Facebook page here.
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