Former teen fentanyl user on cross-country journey to understand root causes of crisis

A teen who overdosed on fentanyl is on a journey to understand not only the impact the drug had on her life, but the challenges it's posing for families in communities across the country.

Ottawan Leila Attar, 19, stopped in Edmonton on Monday

After Edmonton, Attar's next stop is B.C., which has declared a public health emergency in response to a ballooning death toll from fentanyl overdoses. (Leila Attar)

A teen who overdosed on fentanyl is on a journey to understand not only the impact the drug had on her life, but the challenges it's posing for families in communities across the country. 

With Via Rail's Canada 150 youth pass, Ottawan Leilia Attar, 19, is travelling by train from coast to coast, stopping to speak to people who are dealing with the escalating opioid crisis. 

"I was able to pull myself out of my own addictions, darkness. As I started to do that, I realized that everyone else around me is struggling," Attar said. "I wanted to figure out why and I wanted to help people."

Attar spent the first half of July in Eastern Canada talking to families who lost loved ones to opioid overdoses. 

On Monday, she visited Edmonton's inner city, where she said she gained a deeper understanding of related challenges, such as lacking resources for the homeless. 

"Even though Alberta's such a rich province, there are so many people who just don't get the resources they need," she said, adding that's becoming a common theme. 

'Fight for it and be determined'

Attar said she knows that she wasn't alone in her struggle with mental health and addiction, but she's just learning how far-reaching an individual's plight can be.

"Something I never really thought about is how families are impacted by people using. It's not just the one person struggling, it's the whole circle around them," said Attar, who left home at 16 and eventually found herself reliant on what she thought was Percocet.

"You don't know who your source is," she said. "That was the breach of trust that kind of opened my eyes.

"I either continue doing this and end up dying somehow or I have to get myself together," she added.

Attar said she's seeing how stigmatization and ostracization of drug abuse and mental illness can manifest in society.

"Everywhere I go, I hear people using the wrong kind of labels," she said, adding that those struggling with mental illness and addictions, like she was, have to decide to set out on a different trajectory.
Leilia Attar spent the first half of July in Eastern Canada talking to families who lost loved ones to opioid overdoses. (Leilia Attar)

"I always thought rehab or a perfect pill would make all these temptations go away, but the reality is you have to want it for yourself and know that you're worth it and you have to fight for it and be determined."

Attar's next stop is B.C., which has declared a public health emergency in response to a ballooning death toll from fentanyl overdoses. She plans to visit Vancouver's infamous Downtown Eastside, as well as Victoria and Kamloops. 

She said when she returns to Ottawa, where she's a student at Algonquin College, she wants to use the insights she's gained to contribute to discussions addressing the root problems of the opioid crisis. 

"Right now, Canada's taking a very reactive approach to it," Attar said. "I think we need to be proactive and say, 'Why are people using and then prevent other people from walking down that path." 

roberta.bell@cbc.ca

@roberta__bell