The hallway in the lower level of Judy Johnson’s house is full of photos of her daughter, Gala Stewart. Gala died of an overdose in mid-October 2018. Photo by Jolene Rudisuela

Portrait of an overdose: “She doesn’t look like a drug addict to me”

Remembering Gala Stewart: Mother of Vancouver Island OD victim using tragedy to raise awareness

“Like Gala, this memorial and my eulogy is not going to be done in the usual way,” reads Judy Johnson at d’Esterre House in Comox on Oct. 27.

“I am going to use this time and her death to encourage you to see and work toward a different way of living. Because our systems ain’t working for us anymore, if they ever were.”

In mid-October, Johnson received the news that she had feared for years – the news that her 23-year-old daughter, Gala Stewart, had died from an overdose.

Johnson doesn’t know how it happened or why it happened – she is not even sure if it was on Oct. 13 or 14 – but those details don’t matter to her. She doesn’t want to put the blame on any one person, but she is angry that the systems – the systems that were developed to help people who are struggling – have let thousands of people die from overdoses each year, including her daughter.

A final family dinner

Johnson will be forever grateful for Thanksgiving 2018.

She remembers her sisters, their partners, some friends, family and Gala sitting around the table, enjoying Thanksgiving dinner and talking like nothing was wrong.

“I actually saw her again,” said Johnson. “She was relaxed and she laughed at the jokes I made … and all was right with the world.”

Johnson describes Gala as honest and straightforward. It was perhaps Gala’s forthright personality that resulted in a tumultuous relationship between her and her mother.

“She was like a perfectly formed adult right from the beginning. She was so mature and responsible, and when things had to get done, they got done,” said Johnson. “And then puberty. At 14, it was just like zero to hell in no time flat.”

Johnson doesn’t know exactly when Gala started using drugs, but guesses it could have been around that time.

“I didn’t really know what was going on. All I knew was just looking at her from afar, she was lost and didn’t seem to have a passion.”

Johnson picks up Gala’s Grade 12 yearbook, and flips past the signatures and messages from friends to find her graduation photo. Beneath the photo reads the quote, ‘Insincerity is always a weakness. Sincerity, even in error, is strength.’

“She doesn’t look like a drug addict to me,” said Johnson, staring down at the page.

Gala Stewart’s Grade 12 yearbook quote reads, “Insincerity is always a weakness. Sincerity, even in error, is strength.” (Facebook photo)

‘It was a long time coming’

Jericho Ridsdale met Gala at the swimming pool when she was around 11, but they didn’t become friends until years later.

“One of my best memories is just doing nothing but just laughing together about stupid stuff and talking about things that mattered to us most in the world,” said Ridsdale. “She really wanted to be prime minister. She was super motivated and determined to be the first [elected] female prime minister of Canada.”

Around two years ago, Ridsdale moved in with Gala in Vancouver. Ridsdale knew Gala was using substances, and it was slowly getting worse.

“I talked with her about it quite a bit, that it was really hurting people around her,” she said. “She was in denial for a really long time, that she didn’t have a problem, that she was functioning and living a normal life. But it was a long time coming.”

Ridsdale’s memory of Gala is not one of an addict; she remembers Gala as a supportive friend who pushed her to do her best. Gala told Ridsdale to pursue her passions for art and writing, and to never give up.

Though she was strong on the outside, Gala struggled to acknowledge her own need for help.

“She never wanted to let anyone down, and she just wanted to have a bright face on and that she was doing well,” said Ridsdale. “She didn’t want anyone to see that she was struggling or hurting … but it was a long time coming. She was just hurting for a really long time and didn’t get the proper help she needed for a really long time. She felt alone a lot and in her addiction.”

Ridsdale said there is not enough help for those struggling with addiction, and the stigma can oftentimes be deadly. She added that Gala wanted to get better and was determined to get better, but the judgment she faced prevented recovery.

“It’s just mass murder. Our youth shouldn’t be dying and our youth are dying so much faster,” said Ridsdale. “I never experienced death before the last three years. But now it’s just slowly, one by one, they’re getting picked off. It’s really just messed up.”

Jericho RIdsdale and Gala Stewart became friends in high school and later lived together in Vancouver. Photo courtesy of Jericho Ridsdale.

Help for addiction remains out of reach.

Days before Gala’s memorial, Johnson began to develop a skin itch that only got worse.

“The night of her memorial, it was just like –” Johnson gestured with her hands to show her racking her fingers across her skin. “I couldn’t stop, and I realized, addiction is like a powerful itch. And how many of us would not scratch an itch.

“Every single time I was scratching it, I was thinking OK, this’ll be the last time; this’ll be the last time, and then I’ll get out and try something else. And I tried it so many times.”

Johnson knows Gala was using OxyContin and Xanax, and it wasn’t until a couple of years ago, Gala finally admitted to using heroin.

“And the thing is, she claimed that she had gotten herself off of it. Gala was someone who, if she said she was going to do something, she would do it,” said Johnson.

“She would do what she said she would do and she was honest. Even though a couple of counsellors said, ‘That’s not something you get off of,’ I couldn’t dismiss that she hadn’t stopped.”

Johnson describes times she had tried to get help for Gala, including trying unsuccessfully to get her into rehab. She even described a visit to a psychiatrist who told Johnson her daughter was a “write-off.”

Sitting in her living room, Johnson points to a chair by the window and says that was the spot she would drag herself to for two years, wracking her brain for ways of helping her daughter.

She thought about whether Gala needed treatment for her mental health or if she needed help for addiction, but says, “What difference does it make whether she’s addicted or mentally ill? There’s nothing for either of them anyhow.”

READ MORE: Comox display a visual representation of lives lost to overdose

One of many

Johnson is not alone in this belief.

In 2017, Judith Conway’s son Matthew died of an overdose. He was a cross-fit trainer and managed a gym right up until the day he died.

His addiction started with a prescription following an accident and soon turned into something he could not control.

Matthew went to rehab but relapsed.

“It’s pretty desperate out there and the problem is, how do we get help?” said Conway. “I believe that the medical system needs to get involved, and start helping people come down and medically get treated, instead of thrown out and treated like they are not much better than garbage. You know, ‘You’ve done this to yourself,’ meanwhile, [the doctor’s] the one who gave you three months of OxyContin.”

While Conway tried to help her own son overcome his addiction, she has also helped other mothers with kids in danger of overdosing, and she has heard the desperation and the hopelessness in their voices many times.

In August, Conway erected an interactive display on her fence in Comox to show the number of people who had died from overdoses. She also added white flags for the number of people who are predicted to die from overdoses every week.

She hopes to take this display on the road.

“Let’s stop looking at history. Right now we have a problem; right now it’s right in front of our face,” said Conway. “This is an epidemic, numbers have tripled word-wide. This is not just a Canada problem – stop turning your heads. We must start facing this and we must start coming up with solutions.”

Judith Conway’s memorial on her back fence in Comox overlooking Guthrie Road. Photo submitted.

Overdose prevention site manager says more needs to be done

Sarah Sullivan has heard stories like those of Gala Stewart and Matthew Conway time and time again.

Sullivan is the manager of AIDS Vancouver Island offices in Courtenay and Campbell River. Though the organization specializes in helping people living with HIV/AIDS or Hepatitis C, it also offers harm reduction services. In the spring of 2017, it also opened an overdose prevention site.

She said the medical system is trying to deal with the overwhelming opioid crisis, but the level of response is not enough.

“I feel that we are trying very hard to respond, but the level of response from a national level has not been adequate because it’s requiring us to do some fairly radical thinking about substance use,” she said.

“The realities are that people take drugs, and the drugs that they are taking that are available on the underground market are poisoned. It’s not that we have more people taking drugs, it’s that the drugs they are taking are poisoned. And people are dying.”

According to the most recent data from Statistics Canada, between January and March 2018, there were 1,036 apparent opioid-related deaths in Canada, 94 percent of which were unintentional. This is an increase of 16 percent from the same time frame in 2017.

The rate of deaths in B.C. is consistently the highest in Canada. In 2017, there were 1,473 deaths in British Columbia – more than a third of the country’s total number. This has increased drastically from only 211 deaths in 2010.

The increase is attributed to the introduction of fentanyl into the drug market.

Sullivan said the opioid crisis is a complex issue that requires many different solutions, including ensuring safer drugs and supportive housing for people who are using drugs.

Aside from this, Sullivan said more resources are needed in every municipality so people do not have to leave their community to access the help they need.

“If someone’s trying to get into detox in our community, it can take a couple of weeks,” said Sullivan. “We’re getting more doctors coming on board who are prescribing opioid agonist treatment. But that’s one of the disparities is that we have services in bigger centres that aren’t available in smaller centres and definitely not rural areas.”

According to the BC Coroners Service, 79 percent of people who have died of an overdose had contact with the medical system in the year preceding their death, and 56 percent of those people were managing pain-related issues.

Sullivan said it is important to start a discussion early and build resilience in children so they don’t grow to develop problematic substance use as a way of coping with issues like chronic pain.

She believes a proactive approach to the opioid crisis should be brought to schools to raise awareness at an early age.

One of the main problems Sullivan sees is the negative stigma that continues to surround illicit substance users, further amplified by the normalization of substances like alcohol and tobacco.

“Alcohol is quite normalized and often celebrated – it’s part of our celebrations, and then we have the most deaths that happen from tobacco, which is totally legal as well,” she said, adding that there are preconceived ideas about people who use illicit substances.

“The reality is that it crosses many demographics, and many people who use drugs may not even use it habitually. There are many people who do, but there are also people who use them recreationally,” she said.

“There is a lot of denial still, I think especially in smaller communities because it’s not as in your face as in larger communities. So a lot of people think that’s a bigger city problem… They don’t think it happens here but unfortunately, we know it does, and we’ve lost many people to overdoses in our Campbell River, Courtenay communities.”

Each month, AIDS VI gives out 6,000 to 8,000 syringes and serves approximately 100 unique individuals.

AIDS VI offers free naloxone kits and employees are trained to prevent on-site overdoses.

Since the overdose prevention site opened in the spring, they have reversed 22 overdoses.

Mother calls for change

In Oct. 2017, after living on the mainland for nearly three years, Gala called her mother asking to be picked up, and Johnson drove to Princeton to bring her daughter home.

When Gala opened the door, Johnson’s heart broke. Gala had put on makeup, but it wasn’t enough to cover the pock marks on her face.

“When we got her, she was in pretty bad shape. I just let her sleep and eat for the first two months that she was here,” said Johnson.

Though Gala’s substance use had taken a toll on her body, she was still honest and straightforward, she still had aspirations and she still loved the colour pink.

One year later, Johnson is still thankful she always answered when her daughter called.

Johnson is determined to work towards changes in the health system, but further than that, she wants to see changes in how people treat each other. She wants to see stronger communities form and more respect shown for others.

“I just want to spread mindfulness and compassion and help. Just a new way of thinking about each other and treating each other and being with each other,” she said.

“Let’s link arms, hold onto me and let’s start walking. I don’t know where we’re going, but let’s start walking.”

Johnson is planning to start a scholarship called the Gala Nadine Stewart Memorial Award for students of social work and criminology who are committed to social justice and legal reform. She hopes to help students make a difference for the lost souls in our world.

More than that, she is going to continue telling Gala’s story, and continue to fight to improve the health and mental health systems until the people who are struggling have access to the help they need.

“The imagination is a powerful thing,” read Johnson near the end of Gala’s eulogy. “It’s a creative force that brings people and stories to life. So, you and I are not going to let Gala die. We are going to carry her spirit and do the work she wanted to do.”

Jericho Ridsdale met Gala Stewart when she was 11, but they didn’t become friends until years later. Photo courtesy of Jericho Ridsdale.

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