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.
"Thirty" by Megan Wilson
I’ll admit I’ve been avoiding its eyes and the call for self refection in its gaze. Can’t we do this later? I’m busy.
Thirty was always a distant marker in the sand. Raising her hand to her forehead, squinting her eyes against the sun.
She turns her head away and makes her way towards the water. It’s deep and cold and all consuming. It bites against her warm skin as she throws herself in deeper and deeper until her toes no longer graze the soft and comforting floor. She kicks into its vastness.
I crossed the threshold of my thirties peering back at my twenties with the warm fondness reserved for a small child. A tender sigh when they stumble on their own feet and drop clumsily to their hands and knees. Okay, come on now. Upsy daisy we have somewhere to be.
I’ve crossed the threshold of my thirties carrying with me a much different perspective than I did in my twenties. It’s lighter to carry. At times I wish I could return to her, stop her in her path, and trade perspectives with her. Here, take this one. It’s easier to hold. I’ve got this one, it’s fine. No really, I got it.
But if she wasn’t forced to carry it herself, where would she be today? So, I don’t stop her. I let her walk on by without so much as a cursory nod. I turn around to watch her go – because what else can I do but know. Know that her hurt and her mistakes will swallow her whole. Know that she’ll turn her back on loss and pain, stuff it into a box and push it into the corner, buried beneath the clutter in a long-forgotten space. Know that loneliness will be an acquaintance she doesn’t care to be acquainted but who will continue to knock at her door and see himself in. Do you want a glass of wine? I have a bottle open. She pours a glass and brings it to her nose. Still good.
Know that her triumphs and glories and moments that will carve out the shape of her soul will come. Know that she’ll find a world with arms so wide that she can close her eyes and throw herself backwards into it. A world so sweet she’ll continuously run the tip of her tongue across her bottom lip just to make sure the sweetness is still there. It is. It’s still there.
As I take these first few strokes into this foreign body of water, I ask myself what I intended to ask myself all throughout my twenties. Does thirty look like what she envisioned? What she wanted? Well?
But before I can catch my breath, a new question bubbles up to the surface. Does it matter? No, it doesn’t. What matters is what thirty feels like.
I feel loved and am full of love. I feel proud of what I’ve done and a drive to do more. I feel spontaneous and adventurous. Rooted and nestled. Healthy and whole. I feel filled up by the living I’ve done and charged up for the living ahead. I’m full to the brim with laughter and remember whens.
Happy tears come easy these days. I stand in the corner of a light-filled room, balancing on my toes, my friend leaning into me in giddy anticipation. I look around at the happy faces of my friends and family, gathered in the name and act and spirit of celebration, and the world slows down just for a moment as I think to myself – when did we get here? The infinite conversations and decisions and efforts and complete and utter chances that tip-toed us towards where we are today. I feel grateful.
I want to grab onto these moments. Lodge a stick into the wheel of the universe and hold them in my hands. Turn them over. Feel their softness on my fingertips.
Truth be told, I don’t know how thirty looks for me or where that image stacks up against whatever cultural metric of success. Whatever staircase of social constructs. What I do know is that I feel happy.
I can feel the bottom again - the murky mud beneath my toes.
"Thirty" by Meghan Wilson.
Meghan Wilson was born and raised in Ottawa. She has a degree in business from Western University and works as a management consultant in Ottawa.
I just wanna hold your hand,
Sitting in the pink sand
Before we see the sunset,
After the crowd dies down
Sit down with me, sit with me
“Just hold my hand”
At the party I see you
And when I see you my eyes glisten
And every time,
I get nervous
Because of the fact you are the one
The one I get so nervous for
I just wanna hold your hand
Before life takes over
In the Bahamas, the trees
Best dream of my life
To be here with you
Before life takes over
“Just hold my hand”
Things happened unplanned,
But back when I saw you by the sand
A spark helped me keep going
Through all of this
I was there with you
Please come hold my hand
As time passes
The return of broken grief
As it passes by,
My thoughts then subside
For someone in a day of need
I then had the courage
Without discouraging thought,
Talked to her briefly
She came in as swiftly as the leaves fell in coming winter
Seemed even more far away
Then a flash of love and awe struck me
To as I was coming home
For home is where the heart lives
"Hold Me" by Claire Theis.
Claire is a creative writer/poet interested in submitting poems. She is a college student in Oklahoma working on a bachelor’s in biology health science.
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