It has been seven years since the worst day of my life. I awoke the morning of March 19th 2011 at a family cottage with no sense of the pure calamity and heartbreak awaiting me. Not far into the day I got the call that would change my life forever, my brother Josh went to sleep and never woke up.
I honestly do not have the words to describe the deep emotional pain and trauma that followed that day. Not only losing my brother and everything that was incredible about him but watching my parents and other family members go through this pain too. After learning Josh’s death was caused by experimenting with the prescription painkiller hydromorphone at a party I felt a deep urge to do something. Too many people in our community and across Canada were learning about the opioid crisis in the worst way imaginable, by losing a loved one.
Nine days after losing Josh my family and other concerned members of our community held our first rally. We lined the streets with our signs to raise awareness and demand action. We called for increased access to addiction services and more responsible prescribing. It wasn’t long after I learned what stigma feels like. I remember standing with my sign which read “I lost my brother, help me save yours” while people walking by yelled things like “Nobody forced your brother to take that pill”.
When I began advocating I didn’t fully grasp that the stigma associated with drug use is so pervasive, it is one of our greatest barriers to effectively respond to the opioid crisis. For over a decade hundreds of Canadians were dying yearly from prescription opioid overdoses and even more suffering from addiction but action was slow or non-existent. Big Pharma continued to get rich and ¬quietly created a large market of opioid dependent people which organized crime was only too eager to capitalize off with illicit fentanyl. Watching the crisis escalate since Josh’s death is painful and often overwhelming.
I can’t count how many conferences or working groups I have attended over the past seven years with the focus of finding solutions to the crisis. It is very clear at this point what the effective and evidence-based interventions are, but policy makers continue to hold summits and meetings simply talking about the issue. This buys policy makers time, so they do not have to implement sometimes controversial but effective measures while appearing to act.
It’s more crucial than ever for us to have a variety of simultaneous responses. We must save the lives of those using now with accessible mental health & addictions treatment, harm reduction, and treating substance use as health issue not a moral failing. At the same time, we must prevent new people from being unnecessarily exposed to opioids through more responsible prescribing and increased education efforts.
What does provide me some solace is the army of advocates fighting for action on the opioid crisis and the front line workers who have dedicated their lives to saving the lives of others. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Our loved ones matter and their lives are worthy. Josh was a wonderful human being with a vibrant smile, incredible sense of humor, and a kind heart. He was a skilled arborist and a talented athlete. Seven years have passed, and I can still hear his contagious laugh in my head, a beautiful sound I will never forget.
-Amy Graves, Founder of GPDOTS