For a long time I kept a battered business card in the side pocket of my briefcase. On the back was scrawled an address in Oshawa, just east of Toronto, and a phone number. “Leave a message,” it said. “Angelica.”
In the course of writing about Canada’s opioids crisis, I have talked to all sorts of brave and remarkable people: a mother who had to revive her son over and over after he overdosed under the roof of her own house; a guy who kept the last letters his best friend and former cellmate wrote to him before overdosing and dying on his first night out of jail; a skilled electrician who was spending $300 a day on drugs before getting treatment for his addiction. But the one that made the deepest impression was the first.
I met Angelica Helpard in the conference room of an Oshawa addictions clinic. I was there to write about how the local hospital was changing how it treated repeat visitors – those who came through its doors over and over suffering from an overdose.
Ms. Helpard was one of them. She had had six overdoses in just a few months, ending up each time in the emergency department with her life on the line. A kind nurse led her down the hall to a special new clinic and started her on a medication, suboxone, that helps drug users control their cravings.
A striking woman of 30 with blue eyes, brown hair and strings of stars tattooed on her face and collarbone, she looked me in the eye and asked me what I wanted to know. I told her to start from the beginning. Speaking quickly and fluently, in a soft voice with a husky undertone, she told me about her life on drugs.
How she started taking tranquilizers for anxiety when she was 11 or 12. How she learned to get high on opioid pills in her teens, using them to soothe the pain of an abusive relationship. How she graduated to the needle by 16. How she got pregnant at 18. How she lost custody of her child. How the boy’s father died of an overdose. How she turned to sex work to get by.
She was frank and often funny about her troubles. She had tried every drug under the sun, from crystal meth to cocaine to heroin (“I love them all,” she told me), but drew the line at cannabis: It messed with her head. During one of her overdoses, she said, she was so far gone that she soiled herself. Medics had to cut off her pants. “I was choked, too, because they were brand new pants,” she said.
Now she was trying to get better. She was taking her addiction medicine and coming into the clinic to see a nurse. She had stopped doing sex work. She had a place to live, at a boyfriend’s.
Before she left, I asked how to get in touch with her if I had more questions. She borrowed a business card from the clinic and wrote her details on the back.
I used it to find her a couple of weeks later, when I went with a photographer to take her picture and hear more of her story.
She greeted us at the door in a grey T-shirt and tights. Apologizing for the clutter of the house and her “brutal” at-home appearance, she invited us in and sat cross-legged on the window sofa, a ball of knitting wool by her side.
Away from the nurses and support workers, she seemed less confident than she had been at the clinic. She told us she was still taking her meds and staying out of trouble. But it was tough. After years in jail or hustling to buy drugs, she didn’t know what to do with herself. Alone in the house while her boyfriend went off to work, she spent hours listening to music and drawing in colouring books with a set of markers.
Even the everyday routines of normal life seemed to be beyond her. “You forget: Get up, do your dishes, take your cup in there – little things like that, I’m struggling with,” she said. “There is no class for how to live again.”
That was more than two years ago.
Ever since, I’ve wondered what happened to Ms. Helpard. Full of vitality yet clearly troubled, bright and articulate but weighed down by self-doubt, she was one of those people that stay with you long after you meet, their words echoing in your mind. To me, at least, she came to stand for all of those who live in the shadow of the opioids crisis – never knowing when they might collapse from a deadly dose; surrounded by death to the left and the right; overlooked and often despised by the respectable world; struggling off and on to get sober, but then sliding back.
I looked at that old business card and wondered: Had she stayed on her meds? Had she kept off the streets? Was she even alive, a real question in the midst of a crisis that has killed thousands and has only grown worse since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic? This fall, I went back to Oshawa to find out.
I didn’t have much to go on. The clinic said she was no longer in their care. She had no phone when I talked to her. Her only presence on social media was a Facebook page that was last updated in 2014. The sole mention of her online was a startling report on a local news site from 2016 that an Angelica Helpard had been charged after ramming a police cruiser with her car.
When I went to the house where I had visited her, the family that was living there said they had never heard of her. So I called the number on the business card. It belonged to her grandmother, Betty Ouellette, who helped raise her.
Ms. Ouellette told me her granddaughter had been a great kid growing up – “no problem whatsoever.” The two spent a lot of time together after Ms. Helpard’s parents separated. “She was my little buddy.”
Now, though, Ms. Helpard was in poor shape. Only the night before I called, Ms. Helpard had visited her mother’s house, where her son, who is in Grade 7, lives. She was “completely out of it,” rooting through bags and tossing clothes around. It was nearly midnight before she left.
So now I knew something, at least: Ms. Helpard was alive, but back on the street.
How to find her was another question. Ms. Ouellette told me that her granddaughter spent her days walking “from one end of Oshawa to the other.”
Drug users in Oshawa are often on the move, tramping from drug house to soup kitchen to street corner. Their main gathering point is Memorial Park. I went there first. A well-groomed city block with a war memorial and a bandstand, it stands at the heart of the city’s historic downtown, steps from handsome old churches, a modern city hall and an art museum.
Many Oshawa residents avoid it. On the first day I visited, a young woman in sweatpants crouched beside a wall smoking something through a transparent pipe, then threw up in the grass. On another day, a rail-thin young man on a bad trip flopped on the grass like a rag doll. When paramedics arrived, he got up and ran away.
I asked everyone I met in the park about Ms. Helpard, showing them a picture on my phone. At first, I couldn’t find anyone who knew her. At the corner store across the street, I had better luck. Park regulars drop by Convenience Plus for pop, candy and single smokes at 25 cents each. The cashier calls them “dear” no matter how broken-down they look. A tall woman with a kindly smile, she said she knew Ms. Helpard, but that she was skinnier now than she looked in the picture and obviously using again.
Down the road a few blocks at Tim Hortons, the women behind the counter said the same. They knew the woman in the picture, but she was blonde now and looked rough.
That was hard to hear. Ms. Helpard seemed strong and fit when I met her, considering the life she had lived. But surviving on the street takes a toll. Many local drug users are out all night, sometimes for nights in a row, afraid someone will steal all their stuff if they fall asleep.
They take stimulants such as meth to stay alert, and “down,” such as heroin and fentanyl, to chill out. The risk of overdose is ever-present in the age of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid many times more potent than heroin.
A few days after visiting Tims, I found the first people who could tell me something solid about Ms. Helpard. It was after dark when I stopped at The First Light Foundation of Hope, a faith-based charity “for the homeless, addicted and marginalized.” It hands out pizza slices and meals in a cup every weeknight. A garbage bin on the sidewalk is covered with names of overdose victims: Armstrong, Traps, C.C. (Carla), Dominik, Black Tracy, Sonya.
A young woman sitting on the sidewalk with her boyfriend said she knew Ms. Helpard, but she was much changed from the photo. She was “super, super skinny” now and often looked a mess. She said Ms. Helpard took it hard when her boyfriend – the guy she was staying with when I visited her – died of an overdose.
Another young woman with close-cropped hair said Ms. Helpard had looked out for her when they were in jail. It was her first stint behind bars and Ms. Helpard kept her under her wing.
Dennis Kovacs joined in the chat. A slim man with an agitated manner and a backward baseball cap on his head, he said he knew Ms. Helpard well and “I love her to death.” She was always there to help him out if he got into jams. He looked out for her, too. He had “Narcaned” her several times – given her a saving dose of naloxone, a drug, often known as Narcan, that reverses overdoses.
He said his friend had gone downhill since getting out of her most recent stint in jail. She was always getting into scraps with people around her. “She’s really hard on herself and when she gets hard on herself she makes everyone’s life a living hell, because she’s hurting inside.”
He couldn’t tell me where she was. She was always on the move – “boom, going here; boom, going there.” Finding her was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
The very next night, I arrived in Oshawa around 7 p.m. and parked in front of a convenience store next to the Tims. There I met a leather-jacketed wisp of a woman named Danielle MacDonald, Dani to her friends.
Right off she said: “I know Angelica.” Ms. Helpard often bought her cigarettes, coffee or some other treat. Once, she said, Ms. Helpard surprised her by presenting her with a big bouquet of flowers tied up with yellow caution tape: the flowers because she was lovely, the caution tape because she was dangerous. Ms. MacDonald found that funny and sweet.
She said Ms. Helpard was always picking flowers and handing them to pals. She even saw her taking some from the planters in front of the police station. “She’s a beautiful girl but she doesn’t see it, that’s for sure.”
She, too, said that Ms. Helpard was a restless wanderer: there one minute and then, “poof,” gone again. So she might be hard to find.
Just minutes later she whispered, “There’s Angelica.” Ms. Helpard was walking through the parking lot with a man who was pushing an old bike. I went up to say hello. She recognized me and said she had heard I was looking for her. I bought her a soft drink. We sat on a low wall to talk.
She looked better than I had been led to expect. Thinner, yes, but well put together, with a patterned scarf knotted around her neck. Her hair was brown again, still swept to one side. As before, she spoke in a rapid patter, ending many of her thoughts with “Do you know what I mean?”
I asked her to tell me how her life had gone since we met. After I saw her, she said, her boyfriend started using hard drugs. So she moved out and started living on the street again. He came looking for her. When he found her, he blew up. Police arrived to calm things down, but let him go. He was found dead of an overdose soon after, just like the father of her son had been. (“I’m never going to get over that,” she told me when I first met her. “Never.”) His family wouldn’t even let her go to his funeral, she said.
Ms. Helpard went back to jail on outstanding charges.
Now she was back in her old life, sleeping “here, there and everywhere,” using drugs daily. Whenever she tried to stop, she told me, “I don’t feel normal, I don’t feel like the fog lifts.” After all those years of using, “I don’t know the sober me.”
She still had hopes, all the same. She said she would like to get into a treatment program or a decent shelter, but wasn’t sure she could cope with all the rules, especially the stricter ones that came with the pandemic. She would like to be more involved with her son and marvelled at how he was growing – “He’s a big boy, he’s so tall” – but admitted she had lost the right to be his guardian and was lucky just to see him from time to time.
She dreamed of escaping Oshawa and going to New Brunswick, where she had a friend who would put her up. But she knew it was a crooked path ahead. Whenever she thinks she is doing better, she said, “it slips so fast.” It had been that way for “half my life” and “I know that it’s going to be a life struggle.”
We talked for about half an hour under the glare of the streetlights. Then she started rummaging in her bag for cigarettes. When she couldn’t find them, she yelled at her companion to bring some. He came over on his bike. They got in a shouting match. With a quick apology, she stormed off into the night.
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