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Winnipeg mother Christine Dobbs visits her son's favourite fishing spot in Churchill Park on Jan. 29, 2021.

Shannon VanRaes/The Globe and Mail

One cold Winnipeg morning in 2015, Christine Dobbs walked into her kitchen to make coffee and saw a note lying on the breakfast table. Her son Adam Watson had left it beside his cereal bowl before heading out for the day. Ms. Dobbs sat down to read it.

Adam was a hard-working young man with a big smile. As a kid, he loved to dance, shaking his long blond hair to the music. He fished for catfish in the nearby Red River. He rode his teal-blue BMX bike along wooded riverside trails. He cut grass and shovelled snow for spending money. He had a succession of pets: Hammy the hamster, Fluffy the rabbit, Karma the cat.

But one day in his teens he went to a house party. Kids were passing around pain pills filched from a family medicine cabinet. Adam tried one. It was the start of years of torment for Adam and his family.

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At first Ms. Dobbs didn’t know her son was using serious drugs. Adam always loved fixing things and got a job as an apprentice electrician after graduating from high school. He would leave early for work.

Then, one morning, she heard him moaning and pacing around the house. “Mom, I’m addicted to OxyContin,” he told her. Marketed by drug companies as safer and less addictive than other opioids, “oxy” had become a favourite – and highly addictive – street drug.

Adam tried many times to escape its grip. He tried methadone, a legal substitute often prescribed to drug users. He tried going cold turkey, sweating and shaking in his basement room while his mother held his hands. He took herbal remedies and hot baths.

Nothing worked for long. His parents caught him pawning their stuff – a camera, an iPod – to buy drugs. By his mid-twenties, he was desperate.

On that cold winter morning in 2015, Ms. Dobbs woke up around 6 to hear him pacing the house again. When she emerged to start her day, the note was sitting there, printed in pen on two pages torn from a small message pad. This is what it said:

Adam Watson wrote a letter to his parents shortly before he died of a fentanyl overdose.

Shannon VanRaes/The Globe and Mail

“Hey, Mom and Dad. I am so sorry. I’m out of control. I want to be the son you want and I have been crying all morning. I want to be better. I love you so, so much. I’m killing myself seeing what I do to you guys. You mean the world to me. I love you, I’m just trapped in a bad place.

“I’m not this person and I know that this is it – the end of the line. I need you guys more than anything. I’m so sorry. I want to do whatever I can to help you help me. I surrender. Just please help me. I don’t know how and I’m sorry that I am so messed up with this. I’m going to do whatever I can. Call me? You are all I have. Love you so, so much. Don’t give up on me, please. I’m scared!”

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Her heart breaking, Ms. Dobbs sat staring at the note, holding her face with her hands. “What can we do?” she asked her husband, Lang Watson. They called Adam at work and vowed to get him help.

At first they couldn’t get Adam a place in a detox facility, where users go to withdraw from their drugs in safety. When they did, he came home after just three days, saying he didn’t belong there.

He became more isolated and dejected. His mother would sometimes go fetch him at a local drug house and drive him home. “I couldn’t reach him anymore,” says Ms. Dobbs, who is 67 and retired. “I think he had just given up on himself.”

About a year after finding the note, Ms. Dobbs and Mr. Watson were on vacation in Jamaica when they got the call that every parent in their situation dreads. Ms. Dobbs saw her husband answer the phone and then fall to his knees. She knew instantly what had happened. Adam’s brother had found him dead in his room. A toxicology test later detected fentanyl, the potent opioid responsible for the lion’s share of overdose deaths. Back home, at the funeral parlour, Ms. Dobbs admired his beautiful, long eyelashes, so long that as a kid he once trimmed them with scissors. Adam was 27.

That was five years ago. The fifth anniversary – a tough one for Ms. Dobbs – is on Feb. 6.

The loss of her son turned Ms. Dobbs into an activist of sorts. She joined Moms Stop the Harm, a group of mothers like her that want drug use to be treated as a health issue, not a moral failing. She pushed for more addiction programs and better treatment of overdose victims at emergency departments.

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Adam’s note is powerful ammunition. She shows it to decision-makers to make the point that drug users are not ghostly figures in dark alleys but real people in terrible pain – people who need help and deserve to get it. The note was read out at Winnipeg City Council and entered into the record at the Manitoba Legislature. Many who hear it are reduced to tears.

Ms. Dobbs’s voice still shakes when she speaks about what Adam wrote. Even now, she is awed that he found the courage to issue his cry for help, a hard thing for a proud guy who liked to solve his own problems.

Ms. Dobbs keeps the note in a flowered file folder next to his ashes and his trademark aviator sunglasses. Every now and then, when the weather is good, she picks it up and goes down to the Red River. A bench there has a plaque with Adam’s name on it. She sits and tries to imagine him standing there fishing, casting his line on the water as the big river rolls by.

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