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Darrell Taylor: Things were looking promising as my son tried to beat his addiction, but were they really?

Darrell Taylor is a retired mental health professional who has lived in the NWT and Nunavut for 20 years. He is originally from Ontario and is a member of the North Bay/Mattawa Algonquins.

We are in an epidemic.

It’s not Covid. I’m talking about the opioid crisis and the overdose deaths. It is hitting us hard in the North. Parents and grandparents are worried. In my last article, I began the story about my oldest son, Gage. For years he struggled with heroin addiction. He got hooked after an accident. He was hit by a guy in a Jeep. One of his legs had to be reattached. He went from OxyContin, a prescription pain killer, to killer street drugs. This is part two of Gage’s story.

After his accident, Gage dropped out of university. He was living in downtown Ottawa. He was just minutes from the Parliament buildings. He could get any drug he wanted delivered to his door in 15 minutes. He had three contacts — drug dealers with a ready supply of dope. Gage was a high-functioning user. He held down two jobs and paid his bills. Any extra money went to drugs.

I used a “harm reduction” approach with Gage. I did not judge him. I encouraged him to be safe, use clean needles, eat good food, and stay connected to our family doctor. Gage and I kept our communication channel open and honest. My son also used methadone, which is a heroin substitute. He got it at a clinic. Methadone is a powerful opioid, but the addict does not get high.

The methadone prevents withdrawal symptoms. It allows an addict to function. It is used in methadone treatment programs. It kept Gage off the streets. He never had to resort to crime. When he wanted to get high, he used street drugs. The methadone program buys time. I did not pressure Gage to quit. He knew I was there for him whenever he wanted to stop using. Gage was a very safe user. I waited. I prayed.

Then something happened that changed everything. The drug scene got very dangerous. I read in the news that overdose deaths were increasing. This new danger was called fentanyl. Fentanyl is 100 times more powerful than heroin. Because it was so cheap to make, it was added to almost every illegal drug on the street. And it was deadly. I wondered if Gage would ever be safe again. I doubted that. My fears grew with every news report of someone’s son, daughter, mother, father, brother or sister dying from a drug overdose.

Things got serious

One day in Gage’s apartment he did some drugs with a friend. The friend wasn’t very safe. He injected himself and then slumped over on the couch. He stopped breathing and passed out. He was turning blue. Fentanyl! Gage couldn’t wake him. His friend was dying. Gage grabbed his Naloxone kit and saved his friend’s life. When I heard this story, I wondered if it was time to stop praying and take action.

Things got serious. I told Gage’s mother if our son died from an overdose, I would not attend the funeral. I could not handle it. If the phone rang late at night I wondered, “Is this the call? Would I hear my ex, or a hospital chaplain, or social worker telling me my son was on life-support and I better get to Ottawa because they were going to pull the plug? I had to listen to what my heart was telling me. It was time to act. But what should I do? What could I do?

I was living in Inuvik. I worked as a counsellor. No one is immune from what is happening today. It does not matter: young or old; rich or poor; northerner or southerner; brown, black or white. All families are at risk of losing someone to drugs. Many already have lost loved ones. Here is what happened to Gage.

Summer came and I was due for a vacation. I asked Gage if he wanted to go camping. This was a yearly tradition. Because I was getting more desperate, I thought on this trip I should try to intervene. I will confront Gage. Maybe he will reject me, and I will lose him. But if he dies from an overdose, I will not be able to live with myself. I had to try and reach out to him one last time.

We planned our camping trip. I flew to Ottawa. We loaded up the rental car with our camping gear. I remember it was a beautiful summer day. We hit the road. While driving through the Green Mountains of Vermont I asked Gage this question: “With fentanyl now can you really be safe?”

Gage was honest. His answer was, “No, not really dad.”

Then I asked, “Do you want to quit and come north? You can move in with me, sleep on my couch.” I really thought he would politely decline my offer.

Gage answered, “Yeah dad, good idea. I’d like that.”

I tried not to act too surprised and drive off the road. It sounded like Gage was ready for a change. Actually, he had been thinking about a change for a while. He was getting tired of being stuck in the same old drug rut. He had been an addict for years. Being “comfortably numb” was no longer very comfortable.

Thanked the Creator

My timing was just right. Gage made no excuses. That’s a good sign. He was being honest. He was not blaming others. He never did. He took personal responsibility for his using. Gage was saying all the right things. I know the positive signs when someone wants to change. Stop the blame game. Let go of the anger. Take an honest look at things. Take responsibility. In my heart, I silently thanked the Creator.

My next question was, “How long will it take to get your things together and come north?” Gage replied, “Oh, about two months. I got stuff I gotta do first.”

That’s great, I thought! He committed to a time frame. Two months. But I wondered if he would make it through the next two months. My God, what if he overdosed in that time? I’ll have to keep praying. When our camping trip was over, I returned to Inuvik. I waited. Two months turned into four months. Would Gage make it? Would he come north and get straight? Or was I too late?

Part 3 of Gage’s story coming soon.

—Darrell Taylor is a retired mental health professional who has lived in the NWT and Nunavut for 20 years. He is originally from Ontario and is a member of the North Bay/Mattawa Algonquins.