Jennifer Howard has a warm smile and a nice laugh, but her bright blue eyes tell a different story. There’s a deep sadness behind them that comes out when she talks about her son, Robby.
The first thing you see when you walk into Howard’s home is an IKEA book shelf Robby used to own; scattered among the shelves are a couple hats, photos and mementos of his. There’s a photo of him being kissed by a sea-lion, one of him with his foster brother and another of him, smiling proud, holding a puppy. Robby loved dogs and had two pit-bulls — Prada and King.
“We used to walk the dogs together and that was when he would really share what was going on in his life,” Howard says. “It was kind of our mom and son time together.”
Robby was 24-years-old when he died.
In the months leading up to his overdose Robby stopped sharing his life with his mom. Howard recalls a dinner at White Spot about a month before his death, where she expressed her fears for him and asked him to get help, or at least, let her get him help.
“He got up and shouted ‘you think I’m an addict,’ it was heartbreaking.” Four weeks later she got the call. “He’s one of those statistics that died alone, using in the privacy of his home.”
The coroner’s report said the drugs in Robby’s system were 100 per cent fentanyl. Howard later found out through his friends that Robby had started using heroin, never intending to take fentanyl — his drugs were tainted. According to Howard, up to 80 per cent of overdose deaths happen alone, in the privacy of the home, due to the shame around their using.
“I remember saying to my husband, just crying in those early months, ‘I am not going to survive this’,” she says.
For those entrenched in substance use, there’s a deep rooted stigma that hangs in the air around them. That stigma is what has left massive holes in the system of support, says Howard. The stigma attaches itself to families struggling to help their loved ones as well.
“I remember spotting, in the news, a clip of a dad who lost his daughter two weeks prior to Robby and I reached out to him.” Howard and the dad met for coffee and talked for over an hour about their children. “I remember thinking — I need more of this.”
A year after Robby died, Howard found Moms Stop the Harm, a network of families across Canada focusing on harm reduction within the overdose catastrophe that has gripped the nation. She created Healing Hearts, a bereavement group for families who have lost a loved one to substance use and runs a meeting once a month. In the two years the group has been running Howard has had to add a second group because the number of family members wanting to attend was getting so high.
When Nancy Murphy’s daughter Tara was in the grips of her addiction, living on Vancouver’s East Side, Murphy never stopped hoping her daughter would make it through. Tara struggled for four years with substance use, during that time she would tell her mom, over and over, how hopeless she felt, not wanting to carry on the way she was.
“I just said I’ll hold your hope until your ready,” says Murphy, who runs another support group with Moms Stop the Harm called Holding Hope. “We gave it back and forth many times over those years and I’m grateful because right now she’s holding it.” Tara has gone two years without substance use.
Holding Hope supports and educates family members in the Greater Victoria area who are supporting their loved one with substance use challenges in a safe and confidential space. There are three groups — one in Victoria, Esquimalt and on the West Shore.
“If you’re a family member, you’re struggling as well because you’re holding their hope, but you’re also holding their pain,” she says. “You feel so helpless and alone.”
While Tara was in the grips of her addiction, Murphy sought support through other groups. She recalls attending one, sitting in a circle with a group of tough-looking guys. “I thought, they all must be friends coming together, isn’t that nice,” she recalls with a small smile. When everyone began sharing Murphy quickly realized the group was from Wilkinson Road jail, incarcerated for drug-related offences. When the meeting was over, as Murphy was leaving, one of the men followed her out the door needing to tell her something.
“He said don’t give up on her, because everyone gave up on me and look where I am.”
International Overdose Awareness Day
International Overdose Awareness Day is a global event that aims to raise awareness and reduce the stigma surrounding a drug related death. The day acknowledges the grief felt by families and friends remembering those who have died or had a permanent injury as a result of a drug overdose.
Hosted by the South Island Community Overdose Response Network, the Victoria edition of the event will see the largest annual Naloxone training along with a drug testing station, information booths, a memorial activity and live music.
The event takes place on Saturday, Aug. 31 at Centennial Square from 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m.
In addition to the event there will be a Candlelight Vigil of Remembrance, planned the same day at St. John the Divine Anglican Church at 7 p.m.
For more information on International Overdose Awareness Day visit bit.ly/2ZhicI4.
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