Stigma is destroyed by courage. Stigma is destroyed with vulnerability.
This essay describes mature themes including opioid overdose and death.
My sister died, all alone, at 18-years-old. She grappled with her mental health, primarily with depression and anxiety, like so many others her age. She struggled with motivation and self-confidence, even though she was the most driven, passionate woman I’ve ever known.
Despite reaching out for help from her university and peers, she was brushed off, denied, shunned, and ignored. Desperate, she turned to drugs as a means to cope. However, the drugs she took were tainted with fentanyl, unbeknownst to her. As a result, her life ended, all alone, in her university dorm room.
Her name was Rachel.
Up until I said her name, Rachel’s story would have sounded no different from anyone’s. This story - Rachel’s story and that of so many others - is far from unique. Globally, but specifically in Canada, the opioid crisis is claiming lives at rates higher than COVID-19. One of the greatest challenges we face is that this epidemic is faceless; so many deaths and so few names. So few faces. So few answers. So few stories told.
Despite this lack of true visibility and clarity, coverage is not lacking. Every day, hundreds of news articles flood news feeds and websites about police reporting to ‘suspected overdose’ calls, and each headline makes my chest tighten. Every story means one family, just like mine, faced the worst day of their lives. For my family, that day was February 5th, 2019. I had been on campus killing time before my only class that day: creative writing. It was my absolute favourite. I received a text right before class started from my Dad: “Have you heard from your sister?”
At first, I didn’t think anything of it. I said no, but mentioned I would reach out to her. Truthfully, I assumed she was mad at our parents, for some reason, and that if I reached out she would respond, no problem. The last text I ever sent her was that morning, right before my 11am class: “Yo dude, how’s life?” She never responded.
Through my entire class that day, unease began to settle in my stomach. It was unlike anything I had ever felt before. I felt sick and anxious, like I wanted to hide under my bed and wait to hear back from her.
I returned home to my Mom’s car parked in the garage - a sign that she had taken the day off of work. I found her upstairs at her desk, hurriedly purchasing flight tickets to Edmonton. She had cried to me about how worried she was, about how we, Rachel and I, were her “whole world”.
This was one of the first of many times I would see my mother cry; a sight that every child hates to see. A sign that everything is not well. A sign that something was really, deeply wrong.
I tried to eat, but couldn’t. I tried to take a bath to relax, but was uncomfortable and gave up a few minutes in. I browsed social media, sat in front of an unread textbook, and paced my room. No matter what, I religiously checked my phone for a response.
Just after 2pm, there was a knock on the door, sturdy and strong, that snapped me out of whatever app I was browsing. Through my door, I could hear them. “Are you Mrs. Balfour?” and “I’m sorry to tell you this ma'am.” I knew, then, that it was over.
Rachel loved animation and art. She had a passion for drawing. Now, her paintings and sketches scatter our living rooms, framed for all the world to see. She had a passion for technology, and was notoriously known for her bustling, overflowing desk in her room. It held two monitors, a laptop, a tablet, a professional drawing tablet, a professional microphone, every cord in the universe, and an extension cord permanently fixed at the back.
Her setup was brilliant. She was brilliant. You could see it even in passing - walking by in a hallway, catching a glimpse of her workspace, hearing her talk about the things she was passionate about. She was incandescent and it was not hard to see.
People often ask what I would say to Rachel, if I had the chance. If I could say one last thing to her, just one more thing, what would it be? Most people I speak to seem to find the question difficult. For me, it’s easy.
“It’s okay. I understand. I love you. You’re not bad.”
Because she wasn’t bad. She was never bad. She was hurt.
Rachel was an active babysitter and volunteer. She was a straight A student, was on the honour roll every year of her life, and was accepted into every university she applied for with ease. She was majoring in computer science and minoring in business. She had even told us about her desire to become a Resident Assistant once her first year was over.
She was good. She was a good person, and her death doesn’t change that. Moreover, her death reflects a desperate need for change in our system.
And yet, nothing will change. Nothing has changed. Still, to this day, the opioid crisis is up to the hands of bystanders.
Prairie Harm Reduction, the only safe consumption site that has been opened in the province of Saskatchewan, was entirely funded by volunteer and fundraising efforts. The government did not fund the site, despite recognizing in public forums that the opioid crisis is a debilitating crisis.
In fact, during our provincial election, despite the fact that opioids were a major question in our leaders debate, they have done nothing. They acknowledge that it was a crisis, and that was it.
That is how this crisis is seen. Our government won’t help. Those in power won’t help. The people we plead to change the system refuse. So, now, we have taken it into our own hands.
Safe consumption sites are being fundraised and funded by donations. Regular people, like me, spend their free time speaking out and begging the public for a change. And when we do it, we recognize that our leaders won’t listen. We recognize that they will do nothing.
That’s why we continue to do it. Because now, this crisis is up to us to handle.
The opioid crisis largely remains faceless due to shame and stigma. Victims struggle to reach out for help and, if they do, are often isolated or ostracized. Opioids laced with fentanyl were not the only thing that killed my sister. The systems that fail to support those who need help contributed to it well before she sought her escape in drugs.
I share my sister’s story as an act of truth and rebellion. I share it because the narrative of the ‘suspected overdose’ is rarely nuanced by the media. Rachel’s story deserves to be heard and known, and the shame that contributed to her death deserves to be demolished. I want to start demolishing it by speaking, and raising awareness about the opioid crisis. It is time to let those struggling know that they are not alone. That they are seen and heard. That they are loved. That they are good.
Stigma is destroyed by courage. Stigma is destroyed with vulnerability.
My sister died, all alone in her university dorm room, at 18-years-old. Her name was Rachel. She was brilliant, she is loved, and she is good. And, in her honour, I’m going to change the world for the better. All I need to do is speak. All I need to do is try.
The Crisis That is Up To Us To Solve, Taylor Balfour
Taylor Balfour is a writer, poet, and journalist based in Regina, Saskatchewan. She is a lover of cardigans, coffee, and Taylor Swift. Taylor is most notably known for her activism and poetry in honor of her late sister, Rachel, and her poetry in the anthologies And We All Breathe The Same Air and Beyond Queer Words.
If it hadn’t been for the two hour line at Giordano’s, I may have never found you off a beaten path from the Tri-State Tollway.
I think often about our introduction, your Midwestern twang and my Northern vim and vigor; we made an odd pair -- we were never a pair to begin with. I knew you for less than a moment, I’ve thought of you every moment since.
To say that you were a muse would be an understatement. I think of you often as a kindred spirit, but I don’t think that quite fits either. Perhaps you were a soulmate of some kind, but one whom I was only privileged to be privy to for a few fleeting glances.
I remind myself of the way that your tongue pressed through the gap between your two front teeth as you spoke. The nasal tone that you exuded as you breathed light into a dull and deserted bar was enchanting in a way that eluded me then, and still eludes me now.
This isn’t to say that you were beautiful. In fact, you looked no different from any other young single mother from Michigan, expatriated to a Chicagoan suburb might look. Dark hair, half-lidded and exhausted eyes, with bags beneath a deeper burgundy than the red wine you spilled on my mother’s designer purse. You carried your weight in your hips, which I wonder about often, considering the burden you bore on your arms -- and the heavier burden on your heart.
I remember the glazed and empty look in your over-lined eyes as my mother asked just how dangerous Chicago was. You explained how your husband died, how he was shot in warm blood, not cold; instead of letting tears befall you, the words you used were antithetic, your tone monotonous, and your face blank.
It was then that I learned that pain doesn’t necessarily equal beauty. Instead, pain looks like a broken down bar with the best pizza north of Chicago, pain looks like the heel on your shoe that broke halfway through your shift; it looks like wage labour and beer spilled on your t-shirt as you hold back tears.
In the same way, beauty might just be the snow cherry toned lipstick smudged against your teeth, beauty might be hair so frizzy that no elastic can contain it; it might be the faded nametag whose contents I don’t quite remember.
Part of me wishes that I’d stayed, built a home for us in the liquor store parking lot across the street. Instead, I hold onto the ghost of you and the first stage of grief as I disappear back home down the I-94E.
Moretti's by b.pick
b. pick is a poet and creative non-fiction author based in small town Ontario. They currently study remotely at Western University, where they are heavily involved in LGBTQ2S+ and feminist activism. Their work has most recently appeared in SAPPHIC and Grubstreet Journal.
Sam winced from the whiskey. He stared down at Alice's white Adidas. She had her legs outstretched to the side of the table. The shoes were badly scratched five months ago, now they were more scuff than sneaker. She sipped from her hazy amber beer. The faded purple kiss of her lipstick marked the two empty glasses beside her.
Sam zipped up his jacket. Someone had engraved 'I think I'm losing it' into the table. The sky was a flat blue. It felt lower than usual. There was a candle burning between them. Sam hovered his left hand over it until he felt his skin start to burn. He took an ice cube out of his glass and let the cool water drip between his fingers and onto his jeans.
Sam finished his drink. He hadn't seen their server for at least ten minutes. Was she avoiding them? He put the ice cube back in his glass and swirled it around. The cocktail list was written out in purple and green chalk. A fifteen dollar cocktail with Earl Grey tea, an eighteen dollar drink with mezcal and grapefruit syrup. He looked down the list searching for the one with the lowest price and most ounces. 'The Gas Stove' had rye, cognac, vermouth and brandy; perfect.
A breeze cut across the patio and blew out their candle. Sitting there, Sam saw two Alices. Her red hair, cut short when they met, now down below her shoulders. Her cheeks were smooth where the smile lines that stretched from her cheek bones to her chin used to be. The freckles on her nose that blossomed in the summer sun were absent among the fallen leaves.
Alice turned her face towards him. He looked away at the scuffed sneakers, the engraved table, the suffocating sky. She let out a breath. He unzipped his jacket. He could see the server talking to someone at the bar. Sam drank the melted ice water from his glass.
“I'm going in to get another drink.”
“Yup,” Alice said.
Inside, electronic music played. An old soul sample crooned over a syncopated drum beat. Sam walked to the bar and waited to be noticed. The ceiling lamps were dimmed. Fake candles shined yellow electric light on the faces of the other drinkers. Sam leaned his arms against the bar and stared at the bottles of liquor. Patron, Hendricks, something called Arak. The server moved in front of him.
“What can I get you?”
“The Gas Stove.”
“Sounds good.” She turned away from him and grabbed a mixing glass. She filled it with ice and then looked back over her shoulder. “I can bring it out to you.”
“That's okay.” She shrugged. She took her phone out from under the bar, scrolled through it and tapped play. The music changed to an eighties sounding pop song. Big bright synths twirled over a swinging bass line. Sam liked it.
Alice was staring out into the street. She drank from her glass, swallowed and drank again. The waitress was wearing dark high-waisted jeans and a white bodysuit with black stripes. Her hair bounced against her back as she shook his drink. Her face was reflected in a mirror on the wall. She smiled big. There was a gap in her bottom teeth.
Sam could see her tongue dancing along with the bass drum. He looked out at Alice. She was nearly done with her beer. He looked at the beer taps and back at the server. She peeled a strip of orange rind, spritzed it over the cocktail and dropped it in. She mouthed along to the song. She closed her eyes when it got to the chorus. The synths swelled into a climax. The other guy at the bar was staring at her. His eyelids were low. His shirt was too tight.
“I'll settle up,” Sam said.
“Both of you?
He hesitated. Alice was scrolling through her phone. Her lipstick now a mauve. “Yeah, both of us.” She handed him a bill. He handed her cash. She turned back to the guy at the bar. His eyes got big.
Alice glanced up at him. He put his glass to his lips before sitting. He shivered just from the smell. She eyed his drink. He brought it to his lap. She went back to her phone. He looked at her face, the shoes, the engraving, the sky.
“I paid,” he said.
“I still want another.”
“I thought you were done.”
“I didn't realize.”
She let out a breath. Sam unzipped his jacket. Shoes, engraving, sky. He drank. He kept a straight face this time. He smiled. She was on her phone. A bus boy came out to clear their table. Alice tilted back her beer and handed the glass to him. There was nothing on the table blocking his view. He saw her in full as she was now. Long hair, smooth cheeks, faded freckles. He looked into her eyes and he said it.
Northwood by Jacob Dalfen-Brown
Jacob is a recent graduate from the University of Toronto who is trying to figure out this whole 'art as industry' thing.