Tara Levis has short, sandy blonde hair and an infectious smile.
She is a 33-year old Victoria woman, who grew up in an upper-middle-class family that moved across the country. Her father was a doctor, and her mother stayed at home to care for her and her sister.
That is one chapter of Levis’ life. Unfortunately, the chapters get darker.
As a young woman, Levis struggled with mental health. She developed an eating disorder that she said laid a pathway for addictions in the future.
After Levis came to terms with her sexuality, she fell in love with a woman who struggled with her own mental health problems, and used illicit drugs to cope.
While they worked hard together to get through these issues, in the end Levis’ partner could not find an answer.
“She committed suicide, and that was the thing that tipped me over the edge,” Levis said. “I was the one who found her, and the trauma from walking into that, I ended up using drugs to cope.”
Levis worked at what is often the front lines of addiction, a homeless shelter. She had a home herself, and hid her drug use from her employers so she wouldn’t lose her job. But her loss and the using took its toll.
“I developed PTSD because I didn’t deal with the pain right away,” Levis said. “I lost my job and eventually lost everything.”
Levis ended up homeless for five years, couch surfing and staying with friends or local drug dealers.
During this time, she started using heroin. As the supply slowly became poisoned with stronger and stronger levels of fentanyl, she found herself addicted to the substitute. She said that after awhile, when she got pure heroin she couldn’t even feel it anymore because she was so used to fentanyl.
Almost 4,000 Canadians died from opioid-related deaths in 2017.
That statistic – released by the federal government in June – shows roughly 1,470 of those deaths took place in B.C. Both numbers are up from previous years and continue to climb.
Robbie Cunningham is one of the 2,978 people whose lives were cut short by an accidental opioid overdose in 2016.
He died alone, said his mother Jenny Howard, just like the 88 per cent of people who are found using what she calls a “poisoned drug supply” indoors, also often alone.
“He couldn’t share that he was struggling with heroin,” she said. “That’s got to change.”
In her healing, Howard found solace in reaching out to other families who had experienced a similar tragedy.
“That’s how I found support and understanding for what he was going through.”
On Aug. 29, to align with International Overdose Awareness Day, families, friends, partners and others will gather in Victoria for a public evening devoted to remembering those lost to the opioid crisis and educating the public.
The mission: to move people past the stereotypical language associated with drug use, and to reframe addiction as a medical health condition similar to any other health condition one struggles with.
“It’s going to take time,” Howard says. “Stigma is on every level of our society. It’s on a political level and that’s why we’re not seeing huge change. We see what it took to legalize marijuana. We’re pushing for decriminalization [of opioids] for a safer drug supply.”
“Robbie didn’t grow up saying ‘I want to be an addict. That wasn’t in his life plan.”
Levis still being able to talk about her life’s plan was no sure thing. She has overdosed many times, and watched her friends overdose, too. Sometimes she could revive them and other times they passed away.
“I’ve lost a lot of people to overdoses, I lost a friend last week,” she said. “It makes it hard to form relationships with people, one flip and they’re gone.”
She said that being revived from an overdose with naloxone is one of the most painful experiences you could have, since the medication blocks the effects of opioids and essentially puts people in immediate withdrawal.
“When I’m high, I’m in a comfortable and warm place,” she explained. “When I’m overdosing I’m not aware, and then all of a sudden you’re shocked and the world is bright and loud and my body hurts and my head hurts and I feel like I’m going to throw up and I’m sweaty.
“It’s like your worst case of food poisoning times 1,000.”
Levis said she would also wake up very angry. Despite just overdosing, she would often wander off to try and find her next dose to stop the pain.
Within the province, there were 134 suspected drug overdose deaths in July 2018, which represents a 12 per cent increase of the number of deaths occurring in the same time last year, and a 25 per cent increase over the number of deaths occurring in June 2018.
The number of deaths in July equates to about 4.3 deaths per day for the month. The three townships experiencing the highest number of illicit drug overdoses in 2018 are Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria.
So far this year, 88 per cent of illicit drug overdose deaths occurred inside private residences, etc., something which Sarah Sullivan, manager of Aids Vancouver Island for Courtenay and Campbell River said the organization’s outreach programs are hoping to assist.
“We want to work with the larger housing providers in the area and build the capacity within the community. There is such a stigma regarding illicit drug use, and that’s why so many people use alone.”
The International Overdose Awareness Day Victoria event, a collaboration between Moms Stop The Harm, and the South Island Community Overdose Response Network, is tied to a global day to raise awareness of overdose and reduce the stigma of drug-related death.
A collection of community agencies will be represented as well as an AIDS Vancouver Island storyboard project called “We Are Human” featuring the stories and images of loved ones lost. It’s goal is to put a human face to the struggle.
Attendees are encouraged to bring photos of their loved ones for a memorial table that will be created, while naloxone kits and training will be available for free.
“Youth are savvy about what’s out there,” she said. “What they’re not savvy about is how toxic the drugs are now that are on the street.”
The evening will also include a call to action and rally followed by a candlelight vigil.
“I lost my ability to fight for Robbie but I’m fighting for another mom’s child,” Howard said. “These are preventable deaths at the end of the day.”
Levis is hopeful overdosing is a thing of the past in her life, one she’s put behind her as she moves on to brighter chapters.
Things recently changed when she was able to find housing and get access to trauma counsellors and a detox program.
“I really couldn’t get myself together until I found a home; it’s hard to stop using when you don’t feel safe,” she said. “The irony is that the drug use kept me alive long enough to stop using, because I was so depressed and suicidal that it was the only way to stop the pain.”
Now Levis has found some stability. She has been clean for more than nine months and has been accepted into the nursing program at Camosun College. She hopes to become a public health nurse, inspired by the people in that role who have saved her life many times.
Like Howard, her hope is to reduce the stigma around drug use, instead creating passion and understanding.
“I’m not the voice of all drug users,” she said. “I’m just my experience. I always say, don’t judge my story by the chapter I’m walking on; when I was using it was the worst chapter of my life. It’s important to read the whole book.”
Victoria’s International Overdose Awareness Day event runs from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., Aug. 29 at Centennial Square.
— with a file from Erin Haluschak