British Columbia·Audio

Kathy Woudzia kept her daughter's death a secret. Now she wants to tell the truth

Kathy Woudzia's daughter was a mother, a teacher and a secret opioid addict and now her mother is sharing her story in hopes that federal politicians will make mental health and addictions issues a priority.

Jessica Woudzia was a mother, a high school teacher, and an opioid addict

Kathy Woudzia says her daughter Jessica Woudzia was living with the trauma of being sexually abused in her early teens when she developed an addiction that would eventually kill her. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

At one end of her kitchen table, Kathy Woudzia placed her daughter Jessica Woudzia's birth certificate. At the other end, the coroner's report explaining how she died of alcohol and fentanyl at age 34.

In between, she placed all the evidence of what made her daughter both so special to her and yet so ordinary as to be just like anyone's child.

Kathy Woudzia invited the CBC into her Ladner, B.C. home to break the silence around her daughter's death, because she wants federal political candidates to commit to doing more for mental health and addiction this election.

"I wanted to find help for her, but there just weren't any solutions," she said. 

A collection of memorabilia from Jessica's life paints a picture of a studious and active child with a bright future. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Jessica Woudzia was a mother herself and a teacher at Sands Secondary School in Delta, B.C. when she died. She was also addicted to heroin.

Born into what Kathy Woudzia describes as  an average family that lives in the suburbs," Jessica Woudzia was a straight-A student who loved science class, rollerblading and the Backstreet Boys. But according to her mom, a sexual assault at age 13 triggered mental health challenges and then a struggle with addiction that killed her in 2018.

She left behind a two year old daughter and a mother who was ashamed to tell people she died of an overdose.

"We told people she was out clubbing and someone put something in her drink," said Kathy Woudzia.

Jessica posing with her mother on the eve of her high school prom. (Submitted/Kathy Woudzia)

Jessica Woudzia tried to overcome her addiction.

In the months before her death, She started a program that required her to take Suboxone in front of her local pharmacist. But she was terrified a colleague or one of her students would see her, so she quit. 

Kathy Woudzia paid for drug counselling, but her daughter could not even admit to a mental health professional that she was smoking heroin.

Jessica Woudzia loved figure skating as a kid. A photo displayed in her mother's home shows her with a pink costume and matching scrunchie in her hair. Next to this image are notes of praise from teachers and report cards full of A's.

But according to Kathy Woudzia, her daughter was living with the trauma of being sexually abused by a close family member when she was 13. 

"At the end of the day, that kind of messed her up. But I didn't really have the insight back then," said Kathy Woudzia, who at the time, was a single mother of three.

Jessica preparing for flower girl duty before a relative's wedding. (Submitted/Kathy Woudzia)

Kathy Woudzia said there was never any indication her daughter was doing drugs while she was a teenager or while pursuing a Bachelor of Science at the University of British Columbia.

"She had such high standards for herself," said Kathy Woudzia.

But at some point in her 20s, Jessica Woudzia tried OxyContin with her boyfriend Evan Ruel.

Ruel told CBC in a phone interview the pills were provided by a friend who had been prescribed the opioid by a physician.

After the first try, Ruel said he felt mentally lighter, like he was floating. He and Jessica did it more and more - until they couldn't stop. 

In 2012, Jessica Woudzia graduated a newly-minted teacher from UBC. In 2014, while teaching and hiding a full-blown addiction, she discovered she was pregnant.

Messages from Jessica's students at Sands Secondary School in Delta, B.C., after her death. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

After Jessica's daughter was born, Kathy Woudzia tried to help the new parents while keeping a close eye on their baby.

"My bar was always was she loved, was she bathed, was her diaper changed, was she fed," said Kathy Woudzia about her grand daughter.

The couple would eventually separate in an effort to get better on their own, because, as Ruel said, they had become each other's enablers.

But on  April 21, 2018 Jessica Woudzia was found dead by her roommate in the Vancouver apartment they shared. Kathy Woudzia said her final goodbye the next day when she identified her daughter's body. The cause of death was an overdose of fentanyl and alcohol.

Now, days before the federal election, she is breaking the silence on what happened with the hope that politicians will hear and help others.

"This opioid epidemic, it is exposing...just how bad the mental health crisis is today,' she said. 

Jessica Woudzia died of an overdose of fentanyl and alcohol. She left behind a daughter, then two years old. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

CBC reached out to the federal candidates in Kathy Woudzia's riding.

Randy Anderson-Fennell, NDP candidate for Delta, said there are too many stories like the Woudzias', with 11 Canadians dying from an illicit drug overdose every day.

"There are 11 stories a day that are similar to this one and that's unacceptable," said Anderson-Fennell.

Anderson-Fennell and Green Party candidate Craig DeCraene, told CBC in a phone interview they want the opioid crisis declared a federal public health emergency and drug possession decriminalized to reduce stigma.

Liberal Party candidate Carla Quatrough said in a statement the party will invest in community-based services and in-patient rehab beds. People's Party of Canada candidate Angelina Ireland said in a statement her party would like to see better provincial funding "to tackle their massive healthcare responsibility."

The Conservative Party candidate for Delta, Tanya Corbet, did not comment.

Jessica was so terrified someone would see her taking Suboxone in front of her local pharmacist that she quit participating in the treatment. (Submitted/Kathy Woudzia)

To hear the radio documentary, Jessica's Secret, produced by Jodie Martinson that aired on CBC's The Early Edition, see the audio link below:

With files from The Early Edition