The latest data released by the provincial government shows that since 2016, 741 Albertans have died from opioid overdoses. In Calgary alone, there have been 299 opioid overdose deaths in the same time frame.
These are the stories of three people who have tried to get help for their loved one, but felt the system ultimately failed them.
From: Crossfield, Alta
Who she lost: Christina Sackett lost her son, Myles Card, in 2014. He overdosed while staying in a partially government funded residential program in Calgary. He was working on his mental health and waiting to get proper treatment for his drug use. When he died, he was just 17 years old. Christina said the toxicology report didn’t show any opiates in particular in his system at the time of death.
“I saw messages in his phone that he had done fentanyl that day, but I don’t know,” said Christina. “It didn’t show up in the tests, but it was a mixture of other things that he overdosed on that night.”
Christina said Myles could have very well overdosed on fentanyl, but at the time, the testing for the opiate wasn’t as advanced as it is now.
The addiction: Myles turned to drugs when he was about 15 years old, having struggled with mental health issues his whole life.
“It just got worse and worse – his anxiety was out of control and depression and he started self harming,” said Christina.
Myles became frustrated with not being able to get adequate help and quickly turned to self-medication with hard drug use – heroin, fentanyl, whatever he could get ahold of.
“My son was an honour roll kid. He was in band, choir, he was a good, well-behaved kid. People didn’t believe he was doing the drugs he was doing,” said Christina.
“So many people tell me, ‘well my kid is so against drugs.’ You know what, Myles was too when he was 14. [At] 15, he’s a heroin addict.”
Myles never presented as someone who was taking drugs, says Christina. He wasn’t the “stereotypical junkie.” She only realized it was happening when she found needles in his room.
“He never missed school, he was home on time, he never had attitude. It could be anyone and it doesn’t matter.”
Getting help: Christina explained she first had to try to get him help after his first suicide attempt in 2012. It took eight months for Myles to receive a psych assessment.
“My son was an honour roll kid. He was in band, choir, he was a good, well-behaved kid. People didn’t believe he was doing the drugs he was doing.” – Christina Sackett
“Then the drugs came into play and it was sheer panic.”
She describes it as a nightmare trying to find help for Myles in the mental health system. She says when she approached his therapists after she first found out Myles was doing drugs, they dismissed her claims, told her Myles was “lying” to her and that there was “no way a kid his age was doing that kind of drugs.”
Then there was the issue of trying to find a place that would help Myles.
“In our time of trying to get him help, his drug use just got so bad. Everywhere you go, there’s waitlists for every program that we tried putting him in or they send you somewhere else,” said Christina.
“There was absolutely nowhere in Alberta they could find that would be a proper placement for him.”
In the two years of trying to get him help, it was a cycle of starting new treatment programs.
“Had we been able to nip it in the beginning, with a good, solid program, that could have made a difference.”
Christina and her husband argued over the best way to provide treatment for Myles. She felt shame and didn’t want people to know because she didn’t want anyone to judge Myles.
“I used so much energy just fighting to get him help, whereas that energy could have been used in the treatment process instead of fighting to get it.”
With incredibly long wait times, Christina was frustrated that Myles had the option to leave without completing his treatment, increasing the chances of relapse.
“With somebody with addiction, and they’re willing to get help, you need to get it to them now. You can’t wait five minutes because within five minutes they might not be willing or they could be dead,” said Christina.
“What are they going to do for four months? They’re not going to be in the same state of mind by the end of the four months.”
She says all Myles was concerned about from the very beginning was his mental health and wonders, if he had proper treatment in the beginning, then maybe the drug use could have been avoided.
“By the time he got in for the psych assessment, the drugs were so bad. He was at a point where he was almost at no turning back.”
What happens now: Since Myles died, Christina has been working with different groups to raise awareness and advocate for change in how mental health and addictions are treated. She says people need to understand addiction can happen to anybody.
Christina is currently taking an addiction studies certificate program at Mount Royal University and says she understands a lot more now that she wishes she knew at the beginning.
She says education is a key factor in trying to fight the current crisis.
“Since he’s died, I really want to make it so he didn’t die for no reason. Something good needs to come out of it.”
Who she lost: Alexis Samson lost her 24-year-old son, Steel, in January 2017 and the medical examiner has not yet released his exact cause of death.
Alexis believes he may have died from a drug-induced heart attack.
“His heart may have exploded and if that’s the case, are they going to put down overdose or are they going to put down heart attack?”
Steel left behind a four-year-old son.
The addiction: Alexis says when she first became aware of Steel’s drug use, which began around 12 years old, she reached out all over, from hospitals, to treatment centres and even the media, but didn’t get acknowledgement back.
He was suicidal and would self-harm and she described her son’s arm as “looking like a washboard, it was so rough from so many scars.” Eventually, he turned to drugs to deal with his mental health.
“When that journey began, I didn’t know anything about addiction really,” said Alexis. “But I was going to learn and I was going to learn fast because my son was going to spend the rest of his life stuck in that place and I had a front row seat.”
At the time of his death, Steel was using meth and heroin at the same time.
“If it was easy to get well, he would have done it. There is no doubt in my mind.” – Alexis Samson
She said he would use “one to come up and one to come down, trying to stabilize himself. Not to say he wouldn’t be using other things, the likelihood he would have gotten fentanyl instead of heroin is very, very high as we can see in our city today.”
“All that I suffered, my family suffered, we suffered nothing like he suffered. And I was close enough to watch it all.”
Getting help: Alexis refused to have Steel using drugs in her house and would tell him to leave each time she caught him doing so.
They tried different programs, including Narcotics Anonymous. Steel wrote in the book given to him for the program: ‘This book is a joke, it is not complete surrender. Any kind of push back is considered a failure.’
Alexis sold her car to get him treatment at a $30,000 private treatment facility in B.C. “You would sell your soul to get them help.”
Steel left that rehab centre without completing the program. On his way home, he was using heroin and ended up in a car accident.
“He put himself in the ditch, he broke his ribs he fractured his hip and he tore his lung,” said Alexis.
“They pumped him full of opiates first, I clearly told them he was an addict, they told me they would get him some social welfare help for that – yeah sure you will, I know where that gets me – and they put him out on the street.”
She was put into the position of whether or not to bring him home, full of the drugs he was trying to escape.
Alexis says she can’t count how many times she’s tried to get Steel help.
“I’ve asked for help, I’ve begged for help, I’ve been on the phone and called every place in the city on his behalf in tears,” said Alexis. “You’re desperate to do whatever you can do. Sometimes he’s willing to go, sometimes he wasn’t. Should that matter? His life’s in jeopardy.”
She also struggles with the programs that are available and don’t force the addicts to stay and go through with the treatment. She said she was ecstatic when she found out there was a way to help Steel with his withdrawals by taking suboxone. However, the process, she says, was impossible to navigate.
“They tell him it’s $40 a day and he has to go and pick it up, twice a day. He doesn’t have a job, he doesn’t drive, the clinic is in Bridgeland. Why would he choose to take the bus with no money, cause he’s got to borrow it to go get the suboxone, and he doesn’t have the $40 for the prescription and he has to go there twice a day?”
“Why would he choose to do that when he can call up buddy and have drug of choice at his doorstep at a very small portion of the cost. What’s the motivation to get well?”
“If it was easy to get well, he would have done it. There is no doubt in my mind.”
What happens now: Alexis has now found herself on a similar path she travelled with Steel, but now with her youngest son. He was the one to find Steel after he died, and Alexis says he struggled immensely afterwards, and still does.
“When I called to get counselling for him I was put on a six month waiting list, for grief counselling with Alberta Health Care services. How do you wait six months?”
Alexis also believes people have compassion for those suffering from addiction, but they’re “not willing to invest anything because it hasn’t happened to them.”
“I wouldn’t wish this loss on anybody because this is what you end up with in the end, a box of memories and I don’t think that’s enough to sustain a future on.”
From: Chilliwack, B.C. but now lives in Calgary
Who she lost: A recovering addict herself, Alexandra Unger lost her boyfriend, Merlin Saunders, on Dec. 27, 2016. On Christmas Eve, they both decided to take heroin in Saunders’ parents’ basement, which Alexandra believes was either laced with fentanyl or was entirely fentanyl. That’s when Saunders overdosed at 26 years old.
“They say four or five grains of salt [of fentanyl] can kill a grown man, and Merlin, he was 6-2, 220-pounds, he was a big guy. I thought if it was anybody, it was going to be me because I was smaller and didn’t have that history.”
The addiction: At 20, Alexandra tried cocaine for the first time, became addicted and it soon went downhill fast. She realized she needed to do something and first got clean in April 2015, after going to Narcotics Anonymous. However, she kept relapsing, so continued to go back to NA, where she met Saunders.
“He had much more of a harsh lifestyle than I did. We got along really well, but I didn’t understand because he was… he had a much harder drug addiction than I did. It was much longer – he had been using for four or five years and I didn’t really understand.”
Alexandra and Saunders dated for six months and then they both relapsed. Alexandra turned to Saunders’ drugs of choice – meth and heroin.
At the time, the couple was living in Saunders’ mom’s house in Chilliwack. She didn’t want them doing drugs there, but that wasn’t much of a deterrent for them.
“I was getting addicted to these things and he was going back into his old ways.”
On Christmas Eve, Saunders’ and his mom got in a fight about the drug use. After the fight, Saunders and Alexandra decided to use heroin in the basement. He helped Alexandra first.
“I had a bad feeling something was going to happen. We knew there was fentanyl, but we didn’t realize the scope of it. We knew it was out there, but didn’t think it would be us. He got it from someone he’d known for a long time, so he thought he could trust that person.”
Alexandra had a bad feeling, but because they weren’t mixing it with anything, she decided to use only a small amount.
She had asked him that night about what would happen if one of them overdosed. Saunders brushed it off, saying there would be enough time to go pick up a naloxone kit.
“I trusted him because he had more experience than I did,” said Alexandra. “This was a world I didn’t know of. I wasn’t a seasoned drug addict or anything.”
When he overdosed, Alexandra said she didn’t know what to do. She noticed him acting strangely and then all of a sudden, Saunders was on the floor.
“I tried to remember CPR. I called an ambulance and they were telling me what to do but I was screaming, yelling and crying. I was completely a mess.”
Eventually, Saunders’ mom and step-dad heard sirens and Alexandra yelling in the basement and asked Alexandra to leave.
“We both didn’t understand how strong fentanyl was. We’ve used before, we’ve been using for months and nobody had overdosed so [we thought] we’d be fine.”
Saunders was taken to the hospital and at first, Alexandra was denied access to see him. She thinks she had about an hour with him before he passed.
“That morning, they took off his life support. He did not have any brain function because he was about 20-minutes without oxygen before they brought back his heart,” said Alexandra.
“Unfortunately for addiction, it’s so strong that even death is not a deterrent enough and it wasn’t for me and I wasn’t even in addiction for that long.”
Getting help: Alexandra could speak mostly from her own experience navigating the system of trying to get help with her addiction.
She says addiction is still not widely accepted as a disease, which is preventing people from getting the help they need.
“They still see it as a moral failing.”
Alexandra is now on suboxone – a drug used to treat opiate addiction – but had a hard time gaining access to it. She wants the government to make it more available to those who need it right away.
“People keep dying and nothing is changing.” – Alexandra Unger
“It was really hard to find that. I would go online and look it up,” said Alexandra. “The only thing I could find was the Sheldon Chumir [Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre] and you can sign up for it, but it’s going to be a one to two month wait.”
She says at the time, it was frustrating because all she thought about was how much she needed it right away.
She also says, from her experience, it’s especially hard for women to find treatment. She needed something more than just NA and reached out to a lot of places, including Aventa, a women’s only treatment centre in Calgary which focuses on a holistic approach to treating addictions.
“I called in April. I still haven’t gotten a call back,” said Alexandra.
“I felt at a loss because there wasn’t any help. I wanted to get clean but I didn’t know how. I’ve done it before but I can’t last more than six months at most and that was with support and going to groups and everything,” said Alexandra.
Alexandra says she faced stigmas when trying to get suboxone through SafeWorks Alberta.
“When they asked me what my medication was and I told them, all of a sudden their attitude changed,” said Alexandra.
“I feel like even people through the government have that notion that people with addiction are bad and they don’t deserve help. Maybe that’s not what the person tried to come across as but that’s what I perceived it as. It was pretty crappy because I’m trying to get help, I’m not doing anything bad.”
Alexandra explains that it’s not that addicts are bad people, it’s more about how they are good people making bad choices.
“Yes, it is a choice to try drugs, but once you’re addicted you’re kind of out of control,” said Alexandra.
“I wasn’t a good person when I was using. Merlin wasn’t. Anybody I know isn’t. I needed help and couldn’t find it. I feel like a lot of people need help too, but it’s too late for them because they’re not here anymore.”
What happens now: Alexandra is now doing a lot of advocacy work by speaking about her experience. She still takes suboxone to help her handle her addiction.
“I’ve been connecting with a lot of mothers and fathers that have lost their children,” said Alexandra.
Saunders’ brother also started a group on Facebook called Fentanyl Victims – We Remember. Alexandra says he started it because he found there wasn’t support for people who have lost someone.
She says citizens can only do so much without the help of the government. They can educate people but they can’t call a national emergency or create more resources and treatment services.
“I feel like we’re doing more than the government is,” said Alexandra.
“People keep dying and nothing is changing.”
Editor: Jolene Rudisuela | firstname.lastname@example.org