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My son’s death offers lessons for ending the overdose epidemic

Leslie McBain is the founder of Moms Stop the Harm, a network of parents who have lost children to drug harms, and provides guidance to the BC Centre on Substance Use as their family engagement lead.

On Feb. 4, 2014, my only child died – alone – of an accidental overdose.

Jordan's death was a shock. It still is. Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight, I can connect the dots that led our happy, outgoing child to become addicted to opioids. Each of those dots represents an opportunity missed, a lesson to be learned. It's time those lessons be applied.

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Today, Jordan's experience – and ours as parents – is, sadly and unnecessarily, a common one. At the time, however, we were lost in the uncertainty of how to help our son.

Read more: How a little-known patent sparked Canada's opioid crisis

Jordan was a happy baby, inquisitive and active. His early years were full of travel, adventure, joy, friendships and family. Once he started school, he was happy and social. He loved his teachers. He was funny and popular, becoming a leader of his peers. But the first troubling signs emerged. His antics disrupted the classroom, his reading skills were below average and he was not a team player. At home, he had occasional brief rages that consisted of yelling in intense frustration over a seemingly insignificant thing.

Come high school, Jordan began partying with his friends. It was typical behaviour except for the excessive amount of pot and alcohol he and his friends consumed. We did our best to talk to him about his substance use, and about the dangers of addiction. By age 19, he was an alcoholic and a cigarette smoker. He was also using cocaine.

This is where the dots began to accumulate and cluster. First, a three-month stay in rehab cut short at six weeks. His substance use began again soon after. Then, an injury on the job and a prescription to Oxycodone to manage the pain.

Alarmed, I reached out to his prescribing doctor, who ignored my pleas for some other, less addictive treatment. We watched helplessly as his business declined while his obsession with obtaining more of the painkiller increased, becoming all-consuming. His doctor cut him off from the medication without support for withdrawal or recovery. He was left alone to manage both his pain and his new addiction.

Jordan turned to the streets to seek opioids. Finally, we were able to get him into rehab for a second time. This time, detox for 12 days, after which he emerged still suffering from painful withdrawal. We could find no post-detox support.

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Seven weeks after detox, in a terrible state of withdrawal, Jordan relapsed. This time with fatal consequences. We are stunned by the loss of our son.

The dots are clear now: the untreated anxiety as a child that led him to self-medicate; the failure of Jordan's physician to find space to consult with and listen to his patient's family; the absence of support for Jordan post-detox, when he was most vulnerable to relapse and, therefore, most at risk of overdose.

The lessons are clear, too. We must empower families by increasing the inclusion of, and support for family caregivers of drug-dependent loved ones. We must increase capacity for rapid access to treatment in the province. Individuals who seek treatment need immediate attention. We must greatly increase capacity to train all health-care professionals in treating substance-use disorder and concurrent mental-health disorders, with evidence-based pathways.

We must make every effort to eliminate the stigma associated with substance use.

Lastly, we must work to decriminalize the possession and use of illicit drugs.

Four years ago, the path someone like Jordan took wouldn't always end tragically. Life would have continued on, shattered though it may have been. But the possibility of hope remained, however faintly it may have glimmered. Today, the increasingly poisonous drug supply is unforgiving. It has rendered addiction and substance use a life-and-death proposition. Every time a substance is consumed, the spectre of death hangs in the air.

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The stakes have always been high, but they have never been higher. One more death is no longer a lesson; it's a failure to act when we know what needs to be done.

Video: Ontario boosts funding to combat opioid crisis (The Canadian Press)
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