‘His life is a constant battle for survival’: Meet ‘Rabbit,’ a fentanyl user in Toronto

I visited Rabbit in hospitals, crisis centres and detox facilities, witnessing more tumult in a short time in his life than the average person experiences in a lifetime Manfred Becker, director of Saving Rabbit

UPDATE: Both Peter Saunders a.k.a “Rabbit” and Julian Sousa died in early November 2019. The producers of Saving Rabbit dedicate the film to their memories. If you or anyone you know is in crisis visit this resource to find out where you can get help.

Following Peter, also known as “Rabbit,” on his path from addiction to sobriety promised to have everything a compelling drama requires: a charismatic personality, a life-changing journey, goals, high stakes, countless obstacles and, potentially, a happy ending.

But life isn’t a three-act screenplay; it’s messy and contradictory, much like my relationship with Rabbit would turn out to be as I documented his journey in the CBC Docs POV documentary Saving Rabbit.

Building trust with Rabbit, a young man addicted to fentanyl

For the first six months after I joined Saving Rabbit as director, Rabbit and I just hung out, shared meals and talked about life — all without a camera present. It was a chance to build the trust needed for the documentary to be a success. We did our best to ignore that there were worlds between us: Rabbit was living with a fentanyl addiction that could kill him every time he used, getting through life one day at a time while coping with poverty and stigma, while I was living a comfortable, middle-class life where very little invites danger.

Early on, Rabbit asked me what kind of drugs I had been into myself. The occasional LSD trip 40 years ago was as high as I had ever gotten. Documentaries are supposed to give audiences insight into an unfamiliar world. If I, as director, was clueless in understanding what it means to stick a needle of potent drugs into your arm, how was I going to make the audience understand? That’s why it was essential to ask questions, listen, observe and learn.

One of the first things I asked Rabbit was if he could describe what it’s like to be on fentanyl. “Do you recall the feeling as a kid coming out of a bath and your mom wraps you in a warm cotton blanket?” he replied. I found that remarkable. An opioid up to 100 times more potent than heroin —  feels like a warm embrace of cotton and motherly love?

I followed up by asking what withdrawal felt like. “Imagine not being able to sleep for a week, and not eating anything because you can’t keep food down,” Rabbit said. “Your bones feel like they are on fire, burning from the inside.” When I imagined feeling that kind of agony, it seemed logical that going into detox — the necessary first step of recovery — was something he feared intensely. Rabbit made me understand that being high was his “normal.” And that the opposite, not being on fentanyl, would be an unbearable state of body and mind.

A witness to Rabbit’s chaotic life

In the fall of 2018, with some trust built between us, Rabbit opened his world to our camera, starting with the chaos of his apartment, which was merely a reflection of his inner state.

Watch as Rabbit talks about his addiction in his apartment.

He later introduced us to his parents and siblings, who had been living with a son and brother whose character had been dramatically altered by his addiction.

We followed Rabbit as he panhandled for the money he needed to score the fentanyl that would get him through the day, and he showed us how to “cook” the substance for injection in a public washroom. I carried several packs of naloxone on me, a medication that counters the effects of a fentanyl overdose, just in case.

Over 18 months, I also experienced Rabbit in various states of desperation, including anxious phone calls at 4 a.m. because he felt he was being stalked. I visited him in hospitals, crisis centres and detox facilities, witnessing more tumult in that short time in his life than the average person experiences in a lifetime.

His life is a constant battle for survival

Through the filming process, I realized that Rabbit couldn’t afford to hold on to the same ideas of truth and honesty most of us subscribe to. Some horrific stories he told me about his traumatic past didn’t pass a rudimentary fact check, and that led me to start to doubt Rabbit and occasionally mistrust him.

It took me some time to realize that his life is a constant battle for survival. This means coming up with stories, either about his past, so he can give his addiction meaning, or in the present day, to gather the money he needs for food or fentanyl. He’s controlled by an all-consuming addiction. For Rabbit, all of his stories are real and necessary.

Rabbit is a fierce advocate for harm reduction. He worked in a supervised injection site, staffed by professional nurses, that offered safe supplies to prevent communicable diseases. He knows how to respond quickly to an overdose. He told me that advocating for his community, helping others and saving lives is more satisfying than injecting fentanyl. Yet the Rabbit I observed while making the documentary was cascading from one drug-related crisis to the next. This was sometimes hard to reconcile.

Life is a dance of contradictions, with people often moving one step forward and three steps back. Rabbit’s story didn’t unfold like a movie script. By the time we finished shooting, he was no closer to getting off the needle.

But one day in September, after we’d finished and all but delivered the film, I received a phone call. The unimaginable had happened: Rabbit was on his way to detox and treatment. Perhaps he might just get that happy ending after all.

Watch Saving Rabbit on CBC Docs POV.