The Crisis That is Up to Us to Solve
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.