'Let's not hide from the wretchedness of it'
The social stigma around addiction and substance abuse disorders may be lessening, but it still exists. In the past month, three Canadian families chose very public forums to tell their personal stories of addiction in the hope that it will dispel the judgment that has kept some deaths from substance abuse hidden. They spoke to The Globe and Mail about why they did it
There were many obituaries in The Globe that Wednesday in late October, but one stood out because of its first line: "Patrick Conor Brady … In his 63rd year, after a long struggle with addiction."
John Brady says he did not hesitate to spell out what killed his older brother. "I would have been a hypocrite to write anything else," says Brady, a retired high school principal. "My brother died because he drank himself to death. We'd been expecting him to die for the past two years. … This wasn't sudden. He'd been building up to this for 30 years."
Conor's nickname was Mr. Fixit, because he could repair anything, from a broken radio to a leaky faucet. In the obituary, Brady described Conor as "a denizen of North Toronto … the handyman's handyman," who started his "business because, as he said at the time, 'I like helping people.' … If you were stranded on a desert island, he was your man – not only for his problem solving, but also for his genuine friendship and good company."
Ten years ago, Brady says his brother crossed the line from problem drinker to severe alcoholic. Whisky, beer, and cigarettes were his poisons. Conor insisted he could stop himself and promised repeatedly to do so.
Despite his best intentions, he could not. He stopped eating and barely worked. So in July, 2016, Brady took him for an assessment at Toronto's Bellwood Addiction Treatment Centre. Conor refused to be admitted. "He told me, 'I appreciate the concern, but I'm not suicidal.' I said, 'You're dying right in front of me.' Conor could fix anything. But himself."
Early on the morning of Oct. 22, Brady got a phone call. "His roommate, who had also tried everything possible to help, had found him. He was propped up against the wall, sitting on a mattress, with the TV on. The coroner said he was emaciated. He didn't die of natural causes. He died of complications from alcoholism."
At the funeral, Brady says three people came up to him and congratulated him for writing a lovely obituary, with one notable exception. "They said, I shouldn't have used that word [addiction]. That made me angry. What was I supposed to say? He died suddenly?
"My fundamental hope by using the word in Conor's obit is to help people understand that a person can be loved and appreciated, and be wonderful in many ways, but also an addict. One does not preclude the other.
"Unfortunately, too many people view addiction as a failure not only of the addict, but of those people around the addict, who did something wrong, or did not do enough," Brady says. "Therefore, the language is in code. This needs to change. We have to name this. People die of addiction. It kills them before their time. They suffer – too often in silence – and so do their families, because the subject is taboo."
Moments after his younger brother Kevin was taken off life support, Barry Bernard posted a photo on Facebook. It showed his brother in a green hospital gown, hooked up to various machines. The caption read: "Today, I lost my younger brother to drugs. My heart is heavy but he's in a better world." The lethal cocktail, the coroner determined, was fentanyl and morphine.
A little more than a month has passed, and Bernard does not regret sharing the picture of his 50-year-old brother, who loved the outdoors, especially fishing for salmon on the Skye River or Bras d'Or Lake. "He wasn't just a drug addict. He was also a fantastic uncle to his nieces and nephews, and he'd volunteer to help anyone in the community, pitching in to paint houses, or do outside work.
"It wasn't my intention [to cause a stir by posting the photo]. It was just the way I felt that morning, after losing him to drugs."
Angry, frustrated and incredibly sad, Bernard said a thousand words went into that one image. "It shows the devastating cause and effect of a disease that few people want to talk about. I loved my brother, and we tried everything we could to help him. But I couldn't hide what killed him. It was his addiction."
Kevin Bernard was a plumber. For many years, he had a steady job, which he loved, and was good at. At first, he dabbled with marijuana, but as his dependency grew, he moved toward harder drugs like crystal methamphetamine.
"He didn't have the willpower to stop, and he needed the rush of getting high," says Bernard. "He tried several times to get help, but he'd get back with that circle of friends, and soon he'd be right back where he started."
The photo garnered attention in his Mi'kmaq First Nations community of Eskasoni, N.S., about 50 kilometres from Sydney, the province's second largest city. But its impact went far beyond. Bernard's post had 50,000 views, and many – mostly supportive – comments.
"I finally stopped reading all the messages, but my wife told me some of them were powerful," he says. "One young lady showed the picture of Kevin to her daughter, who also abuses drugs. She told her, 'I don't know this guy, but he lost his brother from an overdose. That's what's going to happen to you if you keep on going.' Her daughter burst into tears.
"I did it because I was hurting," says Bernard, 57, who works for the Mi'kmaq Legal Support Network in Cape Breton. "Addiction affects me. But my family isn't the only one suffering. It affects everybody."
Only by speaking out, says Bernard, are people going to help attract more resources for those on the front lines trying to help people with substance abuse. "There is still so much stigma and shame attached to it," he says.
"But if it's put in the cupboard, not to be talked about, bad feelings fester. The shame grows. If one person who saw that picture gets help, then it's worth it."
She and her daughter had not been speaking, but Kelly always knew where her eldest was.
This time was different. None of her friends or neighbours had seen Jacquie, 25, a gregarious, fun-loving, artistic young woman who had been struggling with alcohol addiction for years. And Kelly, who asked that her last name not be used and her daughter's first name be changed, had a horrible feeling.
"We didn't know what to do. She'd gone underground before, but then she'd resurface, and we'd start the cycle all over again – counselling, outpatient treatment, AA. But this time, she'd been gone for a week. And we were desperate. I phoned the police and made no bones about the fact that she is an addict," says Kelly, who lives with her husband, Geoff, in a tiny community in Southern Ontario.
She and Geoff decided to cast a wider net. On Facebook, their post was brief:
"It is with utter disbelief and the heaviest of heart that I am posting this. You never believe that this could happen to your children, but this is our reality right now. Jacquie – our beloved daughter, granddaughter, sister, niece, friend – hasn't been in touch with any family or friends since Friday Oct. 13. Please in no way judge or devalue her status as missing by her addiction. Just share and hope and believe that she is somewhere safe and help us find her."
The post went up at 7 a.m. on Oct. 21, and Kelly says they found Jacquie at 10:30 the next morning at a friend's apartment. She was rushed to hospital, and doctors told her parents she would not have made it through another night. Kelly says Jacquie had been drinking vodka for nine days, with no food intake.
Their Facebook post received 37,000 shares, more than 5,000 comments and hundreds of private messages.
"A couple of families wrote us to say they wished they'd had the courage to post something like this – and if they had – perhaps their loved one might still be with them," says Kelly. "I hesitated to go so public, because Jacquie was full of guilt and shame, and didn't want people to know. But all my friends and family knew our situation. I never hid it from anyone. I refused to pretend her addiction didn't exist.
"I agonized over whether to post it on Facebook because it's Jacquie's story, not mine. But I made a call that would mobilize a whole different set of people. Her friends at Alcoholics Anonymous, and in the recovery community, were amazing."
Jacquie is now in a treatment facility about an hour's drive from their home. Kelly has since taken down the posts at her daughter's request, so she can recover in private.
Her mom doesn't know if her daughter will be able to hold onto recovery. "I don't know what her rock-bottom is going to be," says Kelly, 55. "I don't know if she knows."
But she has hope. Honest discourse with other people, she says, gives her support and strength.
One final post, before she removed it from Facebook, implored others to speak out: "You can't do this in isolation. Let's not hide from the wretchedness of it, but please reserve judgment and condemnation.
" Jacquie's story plays out every day. She has a loving family, awesome friends and has had a normal life with every opportunity afforded a regular middle-class kid. She is not 'just an alcoholic.' She is the face of your child, spouse, friend, niece or cousin."