As we shift from summer to fall, we move from Overdose Awareness Day on August 31 straight into September, Addiction Awareness Month. No matter what the calendar says, overdose is as important this month as it was yesterday.
Around the globe, in the middle of another deadly health crisis, moms, dads, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters are bowing their heads in recognition of these grim realities.
As a journalist, I need to write about them, of course. But not just to tell the readers that, according to the most recent report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, some 585,000 people died as a result of drug use in 2017. Those numbers have climbed.
Not just to tell them that, from 2016-2017, some 64,070 Americans died from overdose, either.
That grim total will move up, too.
Not just for my fellow Canadians, who know that there were just under 3,000 apparent opioid-related deaths in all of 2016, and the same in just nine months of 2017. Yes, those numbers are expected to be higher the next time the data is collected, especially after Covid-19 ravages the marginalized populations.
No, I’m not writing for some newspaper this time. This time my fingers tap the keyboard for me. This one hits close to home.
Addiction, and overdose, in particular, are major, stunning parts of my life.
Overdose killed my sister.
Gail was older than me by three years. When I was just getting into substance uses at 13, she was already deep into hers. Gail’s took her to syringes. Mine took me down more of a liquid pathway, with plenty of pills and powders and green and black organics thrown in for good measure. She was ahead of me, leading the way backwards.
I need to say, upfront, for me it’s impossible to separate addiction from mental health issues. Because Gail, for all the beautiful, silly, creative and salt-of-the-earth characteristics she possessed, was in a fight for her life for most of her time alive. A fight between her ears.
In that sense, her overdose was inevitable.
Like me, she had experienced physical, emotional and sexual abuse early in life. She had no way to process it. We grew up in and out of foster homes and, for Gail, institutions seemed more prison-like than safety zones for underprivileged children. Welfare and social workers were our lot in life. A father who abandoned the five of us when I was born. A mother with complicated mood disorders and an unquenchable thirst for alcohol. Violence. Screaming. Secrets. Gail ran away often, and eventually for good.
She often threatened to take her own life. Scared all of us regularly with those threats. I tuned them out. I thought it was just her lashing out. Besides, I’d heard our mom threaten to end her own life so many times, I’d lost count. As a preteen, I had more than once been down my mother’s throat, fishing out handfuls of meds seconds after she’d swallowed them down with gin. Gail learned from the best.
Most overdoses aren’t intentional, of course.
We use because we want to get somewhere. As close to the edge as possible. That’s where the magic moment is. Not too high, but high enough to not feel what scares you. What you are mad at. Sad at.
It takes some getting used to, this equation of how much, how often, with what combinations. But if you stay at it, you generally find it.
Until you miss the mark.
For me, being more into booze, missing the mark meant blackouts. Passing out. Somehow I didn’t choke on my own vomit. I kept coming to. Waking up.
So did Gail. Until she didn’t.
By 34 years old, she had lived on the streets. She had been beaten. She had seen a man shot laying beside her. She had done what was needed to put food in the mouths of three children.
It was they who found her on Oct. 5, 1989.
Until now, I haven’t written about it. I think, to some degree, I remain in denial. As if she will show up one day with that beautiful, lopsided grin, wrestle with me and pin me down like she did when I came home from basic training in the military, thinking I was so tough. She was much more a warrior than I ever was.
The mental health struggles were with her all her life, through the agony of our upbringing, through the violence of her marriage to a man who would also overdose, to her visits to the psych wards in the last years of her life. There were no answers for Gail that worked. She was given meds. She tried to get clean, and managed to stay off substances for a decade, thanks to her church. Until she didn’t.
Sprung from a psych ward in Kelowna, British Columbia in the first week of October, 1989, she drank and took all her pills. It was an overdose. Or was it a suicide? For us, there are no answers. We do not know. We’ve never seen a note.
Plenty of times, I watched my mom cry in her booze, pop her pills, and somehow get up the next day. Gail was not so fortunate. Psychiatric meds of the type she was prescribed were not meant to be consumed with alcohol. She drank too much, swallowed too many pills, and missed her mark.
The police, the pimps, the junkies, they saw her as one of “those” types. You know the ones I mean. Problematic. A burden on society. The stigma of addiction runs so deep.
But I knew her as someone very different. Someone fiercely loyal to her little brother, protective. Someone who was always happy to see me. Someone who loved her children profoundly. She knew not how to be a good mother; she knew how to not be a bad one. She vacillated between both principles endlessly.
Overdoses aren’t meant to kill us. We are not supposed to die that way, I believe. Meds are supposed to be helpful, and they are when used properly. The problem with Gail was not that she didn’t know better, it was that she only knew worse.
My answer to the problems of overdose is simple. Ask those who look like they need help what we can do to help. If they don’t want help, then we as a society must create a more comfortable existence for them. Supportive housing. Medical assistance. Treatment beds. We need to have compassion and kindness, not scowls and stigma.
Naloxone (Narcan) kits and training should be mandatory at all schools, in all workplaces. As individuals, we should have a kit in our cars.
Her nephew, Mark, a veteran Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) stationed in Alberta, told me this last week:
“We see overdoses, usually opiate, constantly. Until about five years ago, the number of times I had given Narcan in my career, I could probably have counted on one or two hands. It used to be interesting, almost exciting to get to give Narcan. Now it is common. Routine. Uninteresting.”
There was nothing uninteresting about my sister Gail.
My sister Gail was a warrior. A beautiful, funny, incredibly gifted singer and guitarist, one who would put you up on her couch any day rather than see you sleep outside. She fed me. Housed me when I was unlovable to myself, and always, always, encouraged me to break free.
The last time I saw her alive was the winter of 88. I was five months off booze and other substances and she had years off the needle. I attended meetings, she talked to her God. We played guitar, reminisced about dodging bullets, laughed and cried. She was so proud of me for having put down my weapons of mass destruction.
I’ve used her to remain abstinent countless times over the past 32 years, remembering the cost of her life, and death, when my resolve wavers.
In the end, Gail showed me what not to do, and that is half the battle. To this day, I cannot hear Fire and Rain by James Taylor, another man with a past, without choking up. She loved his style, his story, his faith.
And I loved her.
An overdose took her away. And her brother, her children and my siblings have never been the same.
- Jeff Vircoe is a father, a journalist, a Canadian Forces veteran and a man in long term recovery living on Vancouver Island, Canada. He is currently collaborating with Aurora Recovery Centre near Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Sana Lake Recovery Centre in St. Louis, Missouri to share their message of Recovery Oriented Systems of Care.