Jenny Lynn has been living in addiction for more than 20 years. She is somewhere between 40 and 44, and says she started taking substances when she was around five years old—a family member sold pharmaceutical products which were readily available to her.
Jenny Lynn is a 20-year resident of Port Alberni. She has been living on the street this time for the past year, and only in the past few months has she been living in the trailers that Randy Brown has put up illegally—according to the City of Port Alberni—in the parking lot beside the Wintergreen Apartments on Fourth Avenue.
“Life’s not great in addiction,” she said. She has a 13-year-old son with special needs, and she relinquished her parental rights in an effort to give him a better life.
“He’s my only family I had.”
Jenny Lynn might debate whether she is one of the lucky ones—she has been in and out of treatment, her liver is shutting down and she’s tired—but the numbers of people who are losing their addiction battle due to drug toxicity are skyrocketing in 2020. In November alone, 152 people in B.C. died of drug toxicity.
As a society we’re quick to judge when we see someone in the midst of addiction. We don’t think of the people that are hiding theirs until something tragic happens. I was surprised to hear recently of an acquaintance who overdosed. They were lucky: they survived, and the incident was enough of a wake-up call that they got help.
Many aren’t as lucky.
The Community Action Team earlier this month put up a small memorial in front of the Salvation Army, of stakes with red ribbons representing the 46 mid-Island residents who died of overdoses or drug toxicity in 2020 between January and October. Add in Nanaimo’s numbers, which are tracked separately, and the number jumps to 83. Now that the November statistics are out, CAT vice-chair Ron Merk expects those numbers will be higher.
While homelessness, mental health issues and drug use all seem to create a vicious cycle, Merk said people on the street only represent 30 percent of drug toxicity deaths. “A good 50 to 70 percent of the deaths are people I would class as middle class,” he said. “They have semi-functioning families, they have homes, they have jobs.”
The coronavirus pandemic has amplified the numbers, he adds, but not the general profile of drug users in central Vancouver Island. “I’m more concerned about the man, 25 years old, a family man, doing drugs alone in his basement,” says Merk.
A BC Coroners report notes men between the ages of 30–59 years accounted for 80 percent of overdose deaths in British Columbia in the past year. “Think about that. Prime working age,” writes retired counsellor Ben Goerner in Overdose Blue Collar Blues, a blog post at ptalbcat.blogspot.com.
“These overdoses overwhelmingly occurred in private residences,” he wrote. More than half were employed in trades and transport, more than 20 percent in sales and services.
Not your typical street person, Merk adds.
Mark Braunagel could have fit the blue collar profile. Now 50 and advocating for a men’s addiction recovery centre to open in Port Alberni, Braunagel said he went to rehab five times before he was able to come out the other side of his addiction. Now he talks to others as a person with lived experience—he shares his story to show others that he was where they once were, and gives them a glimpse of hope that will be there when they’re ready.
Braunagel introduced me to Jenny Lynn, told me she had a story to tell, and I’m grateful.
Everyone living in homelessness or with addiction has a story. They don’t all have happy endings. Sometimes all it takes to gain better understanding of a person’s situation is to ask them.
Jenny Lynn’s story is going to stay with me for a long, long time.
— Susie Quinn is the Alberni Valley News editor. If you are in addiction and insist on using alone, please download the Lifeguard app on your smart phone and activate it—it could be the difference between life and death.