(First published in the Airdrie City View on August 10, 2017)
Two local mothers are bringing awareness to the rippling effect drugs leave on families by sharing the stories of their own children enveloped in the throes of addiction.
Opening a public discussion about drug addiction is how mothers Shawna Taylor of Airdrie and Christina Sackett of Crossfield first connected.
“There are so many families being affected,” Taylor said. “I think the stigma is so incredible that people are embarrassed to come forward. It took us a long time.”
Taylor has been married to her husband Jeff for 23 years and said the two raised their daughter, Kenedee, and son, Nathan, to respect curfews and stay away from drugs.
“I was super naïve,” she said. “I thought because I told them that, and they listened to me for almost everything else, that they wouldn’t try anything.”
In May 2015, however, Taylor said she began noticing changes in her 17-year-old daughter. She was out a lot, falling asleep often, but Taylor thought it had to do with getting a new boyfriend and stressing about graduation.
Kenedee became noticeably thinner and began distancing herself from the family, spending a lot of time in her bedroom, Taylor said.
“She just kept blaming everything on depression,” she said.
Suspecting drugs, Taylor said she took her daughter to the family doctor a few times but was told it was probably just “teenage angst.”
The truth, however, wouldn’t be known until May 25, 2016. While waiting for the results of a urine test at Rockyview General Hospital, Taylor said her daughter looked to her from her hospital bed and finally said, “They’re going to find something. They’re going to find fentanyl.”
“There’s a point in your life where it will never be the same,” she said. “That was the point for us.”
For Sackett, there was no suspicion her 15-year-old son, Myles Card, was using drugs before she found evidence of opioids in his room.
Myles struggled with mental health issues and Sackett said the family was so focused on getting him help for that, they had not realized he already started to self-medicate.
Soon after, Sackett said her son’s demeanour changed as the addiction worsened.
“It was horrible,” she said. “Like most parents, I didn’t know a lot about drugs or any of that kind of stuff. The more I reached out for help, the more I got turned away.”
Her son’s drug addiction was “played down” by numerous medical professionals, Sackett said. This included doctors telling her opioids were difficult for adults to get so there was no way her son could be doing that type of drug.
Sackett also claimed a mental health worker helping Myles dismissed needles she found in his room as merely a means to kill himself instead of being linked to drugs.
“Myles was a kid who came across as very polite and very well mannered,” she said. “He’s not what a stereotype of a ‘junkie’ would look like.
“(His addiction) got ignored for so long until it was so bad that he was basically on death’s doorstep.”
The Taylors experienced a similar disconnection from help.
Kenedee was released from hospital only one day after discovering she was addicted to fentanyl because the doctors claimed the withdrawal wouldn’t kill her, Taylor said.
“I don’t know much about addiction,” she said. “I thought, now that we know, she’ll just stop doing it. I was still in denial.”
Kenedee tried to confront her addiction through the Calgary-based Aventa Centre of Excellence for Women with Addictions. By the start of 2017, however, Taylor said her daughter began using again.
On the night of Jan. 14, Kenedee began what Taylor feared was an overdose.
Taking her daughter to Airdrie Urgent Care, Taylor said she experienced a less than helpful interaction that caused her to drive Kenedee to the Peter Lougheed Centre in Calgary herself.
After seeing her daughter need two doses of naloxone to stabilize and a third four hours later made her realize she should have called an ambulance in Airdrie.
Aventa then informed the Taylors of a treatment using the opioid suboxone to treat opioid addiction. Taylor said her daughter has since gone through three months of treatment and has applied to move into the second stage of recovery.
“When you’re in the throes of addiction, you barely get through 24 hours,” Taylor said. “I’m looking to the future and so is she (but) I don’t go too far. I’m just glad that my child is alive today.”
The stories of families struggling with addiction, however, do not always end on a positive note.
Myles was eventually placed in a residential program for mental health and addiction at the age of 16 through the Calgary-based Hull Services in fall 2013.
Sackett said a placement agency looked throughout Alberta for a placement centre that could address both his mental health and addiction problems but were unable to.
Since the residential program was voluntary, she said her son was free to come and go as he pleased. Though he was continuing school and holding down a job, Myles continued to use drugs and died of a methamphetamine overdose in November 2014.
The loss of her son has often made Sackett reflect on all the people in a system meant to help who turned Myles away. She said she wonders if they would have done anything differently if they knew he would be dead of a drug overdose only a year and a half later at the age of 17.
“I would hope that it was just a lack of education and that’s why he fell through so many cracks,” she said. “People need to understand what’s going on and realize it’s not just a parenting issue or a kid acting out. There’s more to it and they need to take it more seriously.”
Drug addiction continues to hold a stigma in society. Sackett said she didn’t want people to know what her son was doing, not because she was embarrassed as a mother, but because she knew people would judge him.
“It’s everyday people like you, or me, or your son, or daughter, or your brother or sister,” Sackett said. “If people can start relating to the people who are dying or becoming addicted, then maybe they’re going to start realizing that could happen to someone they know. It’s not just the bad families or people with problems.”