Hamilton

As opioid crisis rages, former Hamilton drug user launches overdose support group

Rebecca Morris-Miller is an overdose survivor. Now, she's trying to help people with addictions and their families navigate some of the hardest moments of their lives.

Rebecca Morris-Miller aiming to answer questions and provide guidance as death toll rises

Rebecca Morris-Miller is an overdose survivor. Now, she's trying to help people with addictions and their families navigate some of the hardest moments of their lives. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Rebecca Morris-Miller was coming down off fentanyl in prison when she finally got her phone call.

For days, she had been suffering through withdrawal symptoms. Through the intense sickness, vomiting and shivering, one thing was keeping her going — the thought of that phone call. A lifeline to a kind voice that could help her.

The hope that came with that moment quickly evaporated when she finally saw the phone.

"As I sat there trying to think about who I would call, I realized I had no one," she said.

"I literally had no one to phone. That was a really awful moment."

Now, the 36-year-old is trying to make sure no one else has to feel that alone.

She is attempting to bridge what she sees as service gaps through a nascent non-profit called Grenfell Ministries, which includes programs designed for at-risk youth, seniors, people in prison, and those struggling with addiction.

At the centre of these programs is the city's first overdose support group, which she is launching to help combat a problem that keeps claiming more lives year after year.

She has always had that helping heart.- Lisa Morris, sister

"I think we're facing an epidemic," Morris-Miller said. "People are concerned about the drugs their kids are doing, people are concerned about the drugs other people are doing. Things have taken a very vivid turn."

Grenfell Ministries is a passion project forged in the wake of several stark realizations brought on by her experiences in prison back in 2016 — including an attempt to take her own life.

Now out of jail for two years, living in Hamilton and no longer using drugs, Morris-Miller is trying to help Hamiltonians navigate the perils of addiction through her lived experience, rather than any formal training as a counsellor. She's doing so without massive funding, instead relying on grants and space provided by the Unitarian Church.

Rebecca Morris-Miller describes just how frightening it is to be revived from an overdose. 1:45

Established support groups exist in the city for narcotics, alcohol and other addictions, but this group was created specifically to talk about ways of dealing with overdose and the fear of overdose.

And it's not just for people with drug addictions. The group is also open to people who fear losing a loved one to overdose, or who just have questions about the opioid use that has become so prevalent in Hamilton.

"I just want to keep people who are in active addiction alive until they can make a better choice, because I don't want to rob our society of what they might have to offer," Morris-Miller said.

A rising death toll

That Hamilton is in the grip of an opioid problem is undeniable at this point.

Opioid-related deaths are increasing each year. According to the latest available numbers, 89 people died as a result of opioid use in the first nine months of 2018, which is already more than the 88 deaths from 2017. In that year, Hamilton's death rate was 72 per cent higher than the provincial average.

According to the city's latest statistics, paramedics have responded to 318 calls for suspected opioid overdoses so far in 2019.

Opioid deaths have surged in recent years both in Hamilton, and across Canada. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Hamilton Public Health has also distributed 4,757 doses of the opioid antidote naloxone this year, which has helped revive people who are overdosing 589 times, the city says.

As those numbers grow, so too do the number of people who find themselves dealing with a loved one who has overdosed.

Though the overdose support group's first proper meeting is scheduled for June 16, Morris-Miller has already met with about 20 people for counselling, she says. In many cases, people who have questions about their loved one's addiction find one-on-one counselling is easier.

Evan Carter is one of them. Her common-law husband died of an overdose in March. She heard about the services Morris-Miller is providing through mutual friends.

Rebecca now lives with her sister, Lisa Morris. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Carter said it was easier for her to talk to someone with lived experience who is a regular person instead of a therapist.

"I didn't feel completely safe," she said. "And I think this offers more support in the sense that there is no judgment, so I think it will be a lot easier for people to open up about their feelings."

Many hard questions remain for Carter, as she tries to cope with the loss of her partner — not least of all how to explain to her daughter what happened to him. 

"My daughter is almost ten months old, and I'm going to have to deal with what to tell her about her father," Carter said.

'You have nobody to call? Phone me'

Those are the sorts of questions that Morris-Miller wants to help with, as people with little to no understanding of drug use, or people who need help bridging a gap to their loved ones, come to her. 

"You're [in jail and] have nobody to call? Phone me. Your mom only has a cell phone? Call me, and let me bridge that for you, and for her. Let me give you some peace," she said. "I'm not trying to change the system, I'm just trying to help my people to make some of those transitions a little bit easier."

Hamilton Public Heath says it has distributed 4,757 doses of the opioid antidote naloxone so far this year. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Morris-Miller herself has overdosed twice, and the second time, it took three doses of naloxone to bring her back.

"I was terrified. I was scared, I was upset, I was disappointed in myself, I was all of those things," she said. "And as soon as I could move my arms again I did more dope.

"To me now, that is insane. But I know, at the time, it was the only option I could think of."

One would think that would be the moment that she vowed to make a change. But it wasn't until that final stint at the Central North Correctional Centre in Penetanguishine — on charges brought forth by her mother for forging a cheque stolen at her own son's birthday party — that something truly started to change inside her.

"The things that you do in that space are not things that you can remain proud of. That is part of the problem, because when you get sober, that comes crashing down, so the last thing you want to do is be sober. It's a weird, twisted thought process," she said.

"I've come to terms with a lot of these things, but they're not things I'm proud of, by any stretch."

In 2017, Hamilton's death rate from opioid overdose was 72 per cent higher than the provincial average. (CBC)

But things are improving. Her four children still live with their grandmother, but those relationships are rebounding after years of estrangement. Morris-Miller is finding solace in stronger relationships with her parents, and with her sister, Lisa Morris, with whom she now lives.

"When she decided to get clean, I was ready to just pick back up," her sister said. 

"She has always had that helping heart."

adam.carter@cbc.ca

About the Author

Adam Carter

Reporter

Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music in dank bars. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.

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