The story of the opioid crisis, told on skin
Marcus Gee speaks with 10 Canadians who have lost loved ones to drug overdoses. For those left behind, tattoos keep them close
The opioids crisis is killing an average of 12 people per day in Canada, leaving friends and family struggling for ways to cope with a deep and sudden loss. One way is to record it on their skin.
Tattoos that show the name, signature, fingerprint or heartbeat of the person who died are becoming increasingly popular as the crisis grinds on. Some are ornate and rich with symbolism, others are strikingly simple. A few even incorporate a trace of the person’s remains by mixing their ashes with the ink.
“It’s like a talisman that a person can hold onto,” says Leslie McBain, who co-founded Moms Stop the Harm, which represents the families of victims. She has a raven on her right arm in memory of her son, Jordan Miller, who died of a drug overdose in 2014 when he was only 25. A trickster – smart, funny, sometimes loud and naughty – he had many of the raven’s qualities, she says.
For Helen Jennens of Kelowna, B.C., who has lost two sons to opioids and has memorial tattoos on both feet, the tattoos are also a way to shatter the stigma those suffering from drug addiction often carry. “If I am not afraid to brand myself in a way – to acknowledge I don’t have any shame – it’s showing that my boys had a chronic, relapsing disease, not a moral failing, and I’m not afraid to talk about it.”
The Globe spoke to people across the country about their tattoos and those that they honour.
Ms. Welz didn’t think she was the type for tattoos. “I am 57 years old. I am not a rebel in any shape or form.” But she felt the need for a connection to her daughter, Zoe.
Zoe was an A student, a fast runner and a keen soccer player. She loved to draw when she was little and always had crayons in front of her. But the family went into a tailspin when her father was diagnosed with cancer and his mother, Zoe’s grandmother, died. Reeling from the loss and suffering from low self-esteem, Zoe turned to drugs and left home. Her mother took every chance to warn her that fentanyl kills. Zoe always told her not to worry, “I’m going to be careful.” One day Ms. Welz got a call from the hospital: Zoe was on life support. She had overdosed from fentanyl in the hallway of the place where she had lived. She died on Nov. 7, 2016, aged 18.
Zoe’s heart, lungs, liver and kidney were donated, helping to save four lives. Ms. Welz says the heart drawn on her pulse point helps her to cope. “When I look at it or touch the heart I can feel my heart beating and that makes me feel closer to her. In that moment I really feel her life within me.”
Mr. Forget and his best friend, Luke Martin Kitson, “basically grew up together,” Mr. Forget says. On sleepovers they would build blanket forts and play video games. Mr. Forget says his best memories of his friend are from family camping trips to Massasauga Provincial Park on Georgian Bay. Luke loved sitting around the campfire and making s’mores. “That was his favourite part. We used to run around the fire and say: ‘My butt’s on fire, my butt’s on fire.’ His laugh was the best. It was contagious.”
The boys were separated when Luke moved away in high school. Luke struggled with drugs. One morning his mother went to wake him for church and found him dead. It was Mother’s Day, 2017.
“I got the tattoo on my side mostly because I didn’t need people to see it,” Mr. Forget says. “I just personally know that it’s there and that my opinion of him will never change, no matter the kind of stuff he got into. It’s not that he was a bad person, it’s just a bad world.”
In 2008 Ms. Jennens’s son, Rian, was in a motorcycle crash that crushed his leg from toe to hip. He took painkillers to get through the recovery and more drugs for insomnia and depression. Ms. Jennens would take him food, do his laundry and play cards with him. One day he didn’t pick up when she called. She threw a sweatshirt over her pyjamas and rushed over. She found him sitting lifeless on his bed with his computer on his lap. It was Aug. 21, 2011. He was 37.
Another son, Tyler, ruptured his Achilles tendon playing football, took prescription opioids for the pain and became dependent on them. When Rian died, he stepped up to heroin. After five years of extreme substance use, he was going to Alcoholics Anonymous and seemed to be doing better. Then one day he bought what he believed was heroin and used it in his ex-wife’s apartment. It turned out to be pure fentanyl. Ms. Jennens followed a fire truck to the apartment and rushed in. She was at Tyler’s side as paramedics tried to revive him. It was Jan. 14, 2016. He had just turned 40. Ms. Jennens, 65, is raising his two children: Mac, 15, and Talay, 10.
She has a tattoo on each foot, one for each son. The tattoo for Rian says: “A child of my heart you will ever be.” Tyler’s says “beloved son” in Thai. He learned the language while running a dive shop in Thailand. Some of his ashes are mixed into the tattoo ink. Ms. Jennens’s only surviving child, Brie, has a memorial tattoo of her own for her brothers.
“The loss of a child – the grief never goes away,” Ms. Jennens says. “It’s a permanent state. The best you can do is learn how to manage it day by day. I just wanted to do something to recognize that grief is forever long.”
Ms. Allen says her son, Tyson, was “quite a little devil” as a boy. “Right from when he could barely speak he was cracking jokes and making you laugh,” Ms. Allen says. He would always be climbing the highest tree and loved his Spiderman outfit. “I think he wore that costume for about three years.” Artistic and musical, Tyson learned to play a mean guitar and could perform Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven without a hitch.
When he was little, he had several surgeries. As he got older he suffered from anxiety and depression. For release he turned to marijuana, then crack cocaine and then liquor. He was 19 when he died of an overdose at a drug dealer’s place on Oct. 3, 2017. The drug was carfentanil, a synthetic opioid so powerful that veterinarians use it to tranquilize elephants.
Ms. Allen had her tattoo done this March 6 on what would have been his 21st birthday. It shows a blue gull feather because a gull was his favourite bird and blue his favourite colour. The line through the feather is Tyson’s heartbeat when she was giving birth to him. Ms. Allen went back to the hospital and was amazed to find it still had the fetal-monitor readout. The elaborate signature, which he created for himself, comes from papers she found in his room.
Ms. Sumann’s fiancé, David Powell, was a free spirit who spent years hitchhiking back and forth across Canada. Though he never finished high school, he taught himself to read music and play the mandolin. He had a knack for fixing things – cars, bikes, anything mechanical – and loved dogs. When the couple found themselves with no place to live one summer, they took the ferry to Salt Spring Island, set up camp in the bush and raised the puppies born to David’s dog Deliah. When they foraged for food, David taught Ms. Sumann to spot edible plants like lamb’s quarters and horsetail.
David had suffered from depression since his teenage years and often turned to drugs. He had been clean for five years when he relapsed and started using again. He ended up in a hospital psychiatric ward. He overdosed two weeks after being released. When Ms. Sumann couldn’t reach him, she sent police to his house. There was a kit with the overdose-reversing drug naloxone there, but no one to use it on him.
Ms. Sumann’s tree of life tattoo includes David’s thumbprint, because “he left his print on my soul.” The tattoo took several sessions to complete. Getting it was painful – “I have screamed, I have cried,” Ms. Sumann says – “but nothing compared with losing David. I tend to bottle things up, so this has been a way to get it out.”
Ms. Jennerich’s friend, Bria Rose Marie Magnin-Forster, was a gifted musician who could master any instrument she picked up, from bass to guitar to piano. She wrote poetry and loved acting. But she suffered from mental illness. Ms. Jennerich met her in a recovery program for addicts. They became instant friends. They fantasized about setting up house and getting old together, with dogs and cats and lasagna dinners – except, joked Bria, their house would have a brown picket fence instead of white.
Bria fell back into drug use and Ms. Jennerich lost track of her. When she finally found her in Vancouver and made plans to meet, Bria backed out at the last minute, rushing off a commuter train and telling a friend she didn’t want Ms. Jennerich to see her the way she was. Ms. Jennerich searched and searched but “she was just gone.” Days later, on May 2, 2016, her friend overdosed in a washroom. She was 30.
Ms. Jennerich says that 17 people she knows have died of drug-related causes. Bria’s death “was the last big bang for me, the one that hit me the hardest.” She got the tattoo as a promise to herself not to use again and a promise to Bria to remember their friendship. “I wanted to make sure I never forgot that day, that person, that everything.”
Applying the tattoo, the artist had to work around scar tissue from wounds Ms. Jennerich inflicted on herself in her troubled teenage years. The cascading cubes stand for the complexity and disorder of Bria’s life. Ms. Jennerich added a crescent moon because on the morning after Bria’s death she went to a lookout point in Victoria with a view of the sea, gazed out through her tears and saw a crescent moon hanging in the daytime sky.
Melissa and Amanda MacFarlane
Victoria and Pender Island, B.C.
Melissa and Amanda MacFarlane’s brother, Matthew MacFarlane, 29, overdosed in a Kelowna, B.C., hotel room on June 25, 2017. Amanda says her brother was a charismatic, “incredibly funny” man who would crack her up with impressions of her high-pitched phone voice. “You could be having the worst day and he would make you laugh.” She teased him when he showed up with a fussy leather man-purse that he called his “murse.”
Growing up, he struggled with mental-health problems and fell in with a rough crowd. He got into drugs and did a stint in jail. Melissa says Matt didn’t like the drug life and was desperate to escape it, but he just “never could dig himself out.”
Amanda’s tattoo shows a heart-shaped peace sign “because that’s all I wanted for my brother.” Melissa’s shows a guitar and a flying bird because Matt was a skilled guitarist who loved the Lynyrd Skynyrd song Free Bird. She finds meaning in the line: “For I must be travelling on, now, ’Cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see.” She says that “it just brings me peace to know that he really couldn’t stay.”
Ms. Ineese-Nash grew up in Toronto in a family from the Constance Lake First Nation in Northern Ontario, north of Timmins. Her mother struggled with alcoholism and, after a bad fall, prescription opioids. Parties at their house could go on for three or four days. Her big brother Conway, 11 years older, always looked out for her, putting her to bed when a party was raging. Once, when a mean drunk with a baseball bat was coming up the stairs, Conway stood in his way. “He would have my back no matter what.”
He showed her how to skateboard. He took her tobogganing, using cardboard boxes to slide on. When she was only five he taught her to play Metallica’s Enter Sandman on the guitar. Though he had a demons of his own, and spent time in jail, to her “he was like a big friendly bear.”
He encouraged her when she made progress at school. Ms. Ineese-Nash is working on a PhD in social-justice education at the University of Toronto. “He was the one who always believed in me,” she says. “He would always tell me: ‘You can do this. You’re so smart.’ ”
Conway overdosed from a mix of cocaine and methadone on March 29, 2018 at age 39.
Ms. Ineese-Nash and her partner, artist Nyle Miigizi Johnston, have been raising his two small children. She feels he is looking down on her as they struggle with their new responsibilities. Her tattoo, designed by Mr. Johnston, shows her standing with their family under a guardian tree, which is protecting them as he protected her. The stars stand for his oversight. “Those stars are always going to be there and he’s always going to be there watching us,” she says.
Mr. Brown started using drugs at 13 and went downhill from there. He was in and out of jail for offences ranging from car theft to bank robbery, serving about a dozen years in total. Two deaths sobered him up. His girlfriend, Ann-Marie Dodge, 32, died of an overdose in 2007.
Ann-Marie was “gorgeous – blond hair, blue eyes – just absolutely gorgeous.” A “kind soul,” she worked with animals and had four cats: three Siamese and one hairless Sphinx. Things began going downhill for her when her husband, a soldier, was killed in action in Afghanistan. Coming home from a weekend of partying, she kept nodding off while talking on the phone with Mr. Brown. He thought she was only tired out. “I was just happy she was home and safe.” When he called to check in the next day, her hysterical mother told him, “She’s gone, she’s gone.”
His brother, Trevor Sullivan, 30, died on Nov. 5, 2013. Trevor was a passionate fisherman who would disappear to the lake in rain or shine to cast his line. He was always asking his family: “Want a couple of trout?” He struggled with mental illness and overused drugs and alcohol for years. One day his parents found him dead in the basement. At the funeral Mr. Brown thought: “This is what it will be like if I die. I can’t do this to my family.” Now he works with drug users, helping them to fight their addictions.
The tattoo for Trevor on his left arm shows a simple headstone. The tattoo for Ann-Marie shows an angel because “she is the angel on my shoulder.”