'I can't be losing another child': Mom who lost 2 kids to drugs wants longer-term services for addicts
'They never dreamed it would lead to their death,' says Manitoba mother
In the dark bedroom of her small apartment in Winnipeg Beach, Man., Lois Fridfinnson clutches her son's Boy Scouts uniform. It's one of the few things she has of his.
He sold almost all of his other possessions, including his prized guitar, to buy drugs.
Fridfinnson managed to keep this badge-filled piece of history safe. But she lives with the crushing reality that she could not do the same for her son.
Michael Johnson died of a drug overdose in May of 2010, at the age of 23. For Fridfinnson, it was the end of a nearly 10-year battle to save him.
Fridfinnson reaches over and lifts up a stack of colourful fleece pyjama pants. She holds them close as well. They are cozy and whimsical, with Winnie the Pooh characters and pink hearts. But they will never be worn again. She plans to make them into a blanket or pillow — in memory of her daughter.
Fridfinnson's harrowing war against drugs was fought on two fronts. And on March 28 of this year, her daughter Bricey died of heart disease brought on by dirty needles — needles she used to inject illegal drugs. Bricey was just 26.
Despite the overwhelming pain of losing her children, Fridfinnson wants to share her story. The 58-year-old hopes to help other parents living the same nightmare. She wants to draw attention to the need for improved services for addicts.
And she wants to make children aware that drugs can cost them their lives.
'It started changing his personality'
Her son, Michael Johnson, was born in April of 1987. She had been widowed and gotten remarried by that time, and already had a nine-year-old son, Keith, who doted on his little brother. Three and a half years later, the family welcomed a daughter, Bricey.
The siblings were close, and shared what Fridfinnson remembers as a happy childhood growing up in the area around Arborg, Man. — about 115 kilometres north of Winnipeg, in Manitoba's Interlake — surrounded by extended family and farm life.
"I taught him a few chords on the guitar and it wasn't long before he passed me," Fridfinnson said. "He would hear songs and just learn to play them."
By the age of seven, he was winning talent shows. When he was 12, he entered a competition at the Red River Exhibition in Winnipeg. A talent scout from the local theatre company Rainbow Stage spotted him, and he was asked to audition for the musical Big. Michael won the part of the lead character's best friend.
"It was like the part that he played was just like how he was, and he had the audience laughing. At the end of the night, he would just get a standing ovation," Fridfinnson remembered with a smile. "It was a magical time for him and our family — and he just did so well."
After Big was over, Michael got an offer to go to Toronto to appear in a musical there. But it wasn't in the cards. She thought he was too young to go alone. She had Bricey at home, and by that time her second marriage had dissolved and finances were tight.
"I guess there are times when I think I wish that I'd been able to do that, because his life could have gone in a different direction."
Although Toronto was off the table, Michael continued to thrive with his music. But it was a double-edged sword. He was in different rock bands and hanging out with older kids. He later told his mother that he had first tried marijuana at the age of 13. But she didn't find out until about a year later.
"At first I found a lighter in his pocket and I assumed he was smoking. I just kept an eye on things to see what was happening," she said.
"It started changing his personality and school started to be affected, friends started to change. You know, the signs were all there."
She reached out to the Addictions Foundation Manitoba for help. The leader of a parents' group there advised her to use tough love and to let him hit rock-bottom. She got him into an AFM-run rehab centre in Ste. Rose du Lac. But it seemed to have little effect on him.
Brushes with the law
She gave him an ultimatum — if she found drugs in his room again, she'd call the RCMP. And that's just what happened. Michael had to do community service and write an apology letter to his mother. But she says he didn't learn his lesson. Instead, he just got sneakier and more distant. And before he was 18, he was no longer living at home.
"I would say by 15 or 16, he was well into other drugs. You know, many say that marijuana is not the gateway for other drugs and for some that may be true, but for Michael it was definitely a gateway into other drugs."
That included cocaine, crack and meth.
Her son, who had always been a bit heavy, started losing lots of weight. He couch-surfed at friends' places, and the downward spiral continued. He moved to Selkirk, Man., but his brain had already deteriorated due to constant drug use.
"At that point, he was basically unemployable. He couldn't focus enough," Fridfinnson said. A mental health worker in Selkirk managed to find him somewhere to live. And the drug use deepened.
So did the brushes with the law. He sold drugs. He stole things.
He told her he was no longer getting high. He needed the drugs to keep from feeling sick. He was desperate for them. Michael ended up getting arrested and was sent to the Winnipeg Remand Centre. After his release, he stayed in Winnipeg, living in rooming houses or on the streets.
Fridfinnson got him into another 30-day AFM rehab. She felt it reached him on some level, but it wasn't long enough to give him the tools to change his life.
"He wanted it to change and he wanted it to be different, and he was ashamed for the things he had done," she said. But he ultimately didn't know how to cope with that shame, or how to rebuild a life without drugs. So he slipped back.
Glimmer of hope
Then he saw a glimmer of hope, and reached for it. In late 2007, he head a radio ad for Adult and Teen Challenge — a Christian-based drug treatment centre in Winnipeg. He phoned his mother and said he wanted to go. She was surprised, because he wasn't religious.
"It's very Christian-based. They have to learn the Bible. It's a year-long program but you can stay longer if you want."
But she was glad he wanted to go. So she scraped together the small fee. Teen Challenge also provided Michael with a chance to keep making music. Although he didn't love the kind of music — it was gospel — he stuck with it. He found a bit of perspective one day while performing at a downtown shelter.
"I remember him saying how odd it was, because he knew a lot of the people who were there, from being on the streets and stuff," said Fridfinnson.
But less than six months into the program, Michael snuck out. He had no money, and he wanted to get high. His mother's voice breaks as she recalls what happened.
"He went down to Main Street and saw a bunch of people and they're huffing [sniffing solvents], and he thinks, 'Oh, I want to try that.' So he did. And he was just, like, right out of it. He ended up getting a taxi with a couple of people he didn't know."
After an argument with the driver, she says the trio went into a gas bar. One put his finger in his pocket and said he had a weapon. They robbed the gas bar and ran off. The next morning, when he sobered up, Michael begged Teen Challenge to take him back. He didn't tell them about the robbery.
The program agreed, but said he had to serve a one-month suspension. Fridfinnson let him live with her to wait it out.
But he'd never get the chance to go back to rehab.
'I just wanted to hold him'
In June of 2008, the whole family gathered to celebrate Bricey's high school graduation. It was a happy time. But the morning after, they were awakened with a start.
"I remember Bricey screaming, 'Mom, Mom, the police are taking Michael.'"
Fridfinnson ran out to see him being loaded into a police car. He was arrested for breach of conditions, but spilled out a confession to the robbery.
He was sentenced to two years in Headingley jail. Fridfinnson said he called her every day.
"I would just listen and try to console him, try to be positive. And then I would just cry for hours every day after the phone calls. It just broke my heart — the things that happened to him there. The things that went on."
She says she'll never forget the day she picked him up after his release.
"He was broken. If I thought he was broken from using drugs, he was broken from being in there." He had gained 150 pounds. He hadn't seen himself in a full mirror since he first got to jail. He couldn't do up the seatbelt in the car. Fridfinnson said the shattered look on his face was something no mother should ever see.
"I just wanted to hold him and make it better like I did when he was a little boy."
But she knew he was far past that. So she took him home, made his favourite dinner and kept working on her next move to save him.
While he was in jail, Fridfinnson had arranged to get him into long-term rehab in Calgary. It was a registered charity so money wasn't an obstacle. But there was a different problem. Michael had to stop using an anti-anxiety medication he'd been given in prison before he'd be accepted to the rehab centre in Calgary.
Fridfinnson said they had to wait for Michael to get into an AFM program to detox from that drug. He was scheduled to start that it on May 3, 2010.
He died on May 1.
He had hooked up with someone he'd met in prison, went to a room on the Main Street strip, and drank a double dose of the acquaintance's methadone. His heart stopped.
RCMP came to break the bad news to his mother. She dropped to her knees crying.
When she saw his body in the morgue, she was struck by how peaceful he looked.
But her battle to save an addicted child was far from over.
A little sister's battle
Bricey Johnson was 20 when her brother died. By then, she herself was already in the clutches of addiction.
As Fridfinnson later learned, Michael had introduced Bricey to marijuana when she was just 14. Bricey also started to drink a lot. The young girl who had loved camping, animals, soccer, music and Ukrainian dance began to change.
"Her personality would just change completely. She got nasty and really lippy and mouthy," Fridfinnson said. "She'd walk over me if she had to leave. And that was so opposite of the person that she was."
Fridfinnson said her heart sank with the realization that a second child was also slipping away. "I thought, 'Oh my God, what am I going to do here?'"
She got Bricey into an eight-week AFM youth rehabilitation program near Portage la Prairie, Man. But Bricey said she hated it and left. Fridfinnson took her back, but she left the program again after only a couple of days. When she was older, she went to the Teen Challenge women's program, but again ran away.
"I really didn't know what to do. I just thought, like, 'Someone help me here, because I don't know how to deal with this,'" Fridfinnson said. "How do I stop it?"
Bricey went to live with Fridfinnson's sister, who runs a successful hair salon in Selkirk. Bricey also studied hairdressing in high school and things seemed to stabilze for a while. But she fell in with the drug crowd in town. With the help of a tutor, who went above and beyond, Bricey managed to graduate.
A 'horrendous' detox
She told her mother she wanted to go to Red River College to be a youth worker. Fridfinnson moved to Winnipeg to help make that happen, but the drugs just wouldn't let go. One day Bricey asked her mother to help her detox, because she wanted to go to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting.
"In a million years I would never have guessed how it would be for her. She couldn't sit still. She was bouncing on the bed, like all over the place. She was in the shower, like many, many showers a day because she's got the crawlies on her. She'd maybe lay down and sleep for a little bit, then up again, and at one point she tried to jump off the balcony," Fridfinnson said.
"I ran after her and I caught her, and she said, 'I can't do this.' I grabbed her and got her on the floor and just hugged her, and tried to soothe her. I went through three days of that and I hardly slept at all because I just didn't know what to expect — like, she ripped curtains off the wall. It was horrendous."
On the third day, Bricey finally started to calm and feel a bit better. She told her mom she was going to go to a meeting. Fridfinnson didn't believe her but Bricey left anyway. She took off and went using with friends.
Long wait times an obstacle for drug users
Fridfinnson looked into treatment at the Behavioural Health Foundation in Winnipeg. The centre is free, and some of the programs are longer-term — four to six months minimum. But Fridfinnson said a long waiting list was an obstacle.
"Because of the drama that goes on in their lives on a daily basis and that nothing is ever concrete, the time frame of when they are ready to go in is a short one," she said.
"It is one thing to wait a couple weeks and try to manage their addiction, but months is just too long for them. Trying to keep them safe, motivated to hang on, and deal with the highs and lows is all-consuming. This is why we need more beds available, so the wait isn't so long."
Bricey's relationships were based on drug use. She moved to Halifax for a while with a boyfriend who joined the navy. She attended college there and studied to be an addictions counsellor. For a while, she appeared to be doing well but then Michael died.
'She's not going to make it'
Bricey came home to Manitoba, but was still struggling. She was injecting drugs. And then one day, in early 2014, Fridfinnson got a call. Bricey was in the intensive care ward of the Health Sciences Centre. She had a serious heart infection because of using intravenous drugs.
"A doctor came in and said, 'I'm sorry but she's not going to make it. You need to let the rest of her family know.' And I was just, like, 'What? This can't be true. I can't be losing another child.'
The doctors agreed to send her to St. Boniface Hospital for heart surgery.
"She came out of surgery and they said they couldn't get the heart beating, so they put an external pacemaker on her, thinking it would start. But it didn't."
So they put in an internal pacemaker. "She was a sick little girl," Fridfinnson said.
Bricey's surgery also came with a warning from surgeons: if her heart became infected again, surgery likely wouldn't be an option to save her. This was her shot.
Medical staff tried to get her a place to live and get her into the methadone program. But she refused and returned to her old habits.
'They didn't have to say a word'
Fridfinnson warned that if Bricey continued the drug use and got sick again, that she wouldn't come. She didn't want to watch her daughter die, she said. But she relented when, about a year after recovering from her surgery, Bricey got sick again.
"She said, 'I miss you, Mom. I need you.' She looked so swollen, her face and her legs."
The heart infection was back. Bricey's kidneys were failing.
One day at the end of March of this year, Fridfinnson was house-sitting in Arborg and two of her sisters came to her door. She knew immediately they had grim news.
"They didn't have to say a word. It was like this old familiar feeling that took over my body. It just washed me in numbness. And my sisters held me up. And I was screaming, 'No! No!'"
Bricey hadn't felt well. She lay down for a nap and never woke up.
Her initial autopsy showed an enlarged heart and infection on the valve. Fridfinnson said the final toxicology report isn't yet back.
The family held a viewing but she couldn't bear another funeral. Bricey will be buried at a later date in a country graveyard beside her brother.
'There is no quick fix to this'
In Bricey's obituary, Fridfinnson requested donations go to the Bruce Oake Recovery Foundation. The foundation's goal is to establish a non-profit facility in Manitoba in memory of Bruce Oake, who died of addiction, and is headed up by Bruce's family, including his father, veteran CBC Sports announcer Scott Oake.
According to the fundraising website, "The facility will focus on measurable outcomes that address all the dimensions of the person, with no financial barriers to entry. Sobriety, mental health, employment, housing, a positive social network, and improved self-esteem are all factors in improved functioning, and are addressed in this treatment model."
Fridfinnson believes her children may have lived if they had access to such a centre.
"This will be start to finish, which is exactly what needs to happen. There is no quick fix to this."
Sheri Fandrey is head of the Manitoba Addictions Knowledge Exchange at the AFM. She says while community-based non-residential treatment is the model for helping most addicts who access AFM services, about 10 per cent of clients require residential treatment.
"Having the residential supports is absolutely key. I certainly don't disagree with the fact that a longer-term treatment could be helpful. We've actually done some research into clinical best practice around the area and it's interesting to note that there's not consensus about how long is long enough," she said.
"We couldn't find any national organization anywhere in Canada, the United States or Europe that would actually go out on a limb and say, 'This is what you need in order to have proper treatment.'"
Still, Fandrey said it's clear that some people do need longer care.
"It's not helpful in many cases for somebody to be in a residential environment, to have some success to start feeling better about themselves and feeling a little more confident, and then they go back into exactly the same environment that might have helped get them into that problem to begin with," she said.
Fandrey said anyone leaving an AFM residential program is offered aftercare and can have ongoing meetings with counselors. But she says AFM is starting to do a bit more.
"We've very recently implemented some longer-stay beds at our men's residential program here in Winnipeg. So there's 10 days or longer for somebody who has completed a [28-day] residential program and may just need that little bit extra time. It's new enough that we really don't have any great stats on how successful people are, but it's certainly something that some people indicate they would like to take advantage of."
Fandrey said she very much admires what the Oake family is doing.
"Speaking as a private citizen of Manitoba I think that it's great that people are working very, very hard to provide something that's not currently available, and I think might be less likely to be provincially funded simply because of the resources required to put it in place," she said.
"So I think it's a great opportunity for Manitobans to have something that hasn't been currently available."
Addicts face discrimination, mother says
Lois Fridfinnson believes one of the most important aspects of the Bruce Oake Recovery Centre will be staff who truly have time to get to know addicts as people. She says even in health care, there is still discrimination.
She said at one point when Bricey was sick in hospital, she pulled out her tubes and left. The RCMP went looking for the sick girl.
"Bricey told the officer who found her that one of the nurses was 'treating me like I was a piece of garbage on the street.' And she says, 'I may be, you know, I may be an addict, but … I'm a human being.'"
Fridfinnson said the officer spoke to someone on the ward and that nurse had no further contact with Bricey.
She feels the pain of her losses every single day. She finds some solace in standing at the beach near her apartment and looking out over Lake Winnipeg.
She had told herself in the years before Bricey's death that if she lost her daughter too, she wouldn't be able go on. But she does. Her main reason is her eldest son and his family — including three precious little granddaughters.
She also has a goal to let parents know they aren't alone. She is a member of two online support groups — The Addict's Mom and Moms Stop the Harm. And she encourages any parents who are struggling to reach out directly to her.
One day, she hopes she has the strength to go into rural schools and warn children that drugs can lead to destruction.
"Michael and Bricey didn't dream it would come to their death. They didn't," she said, her voice breaking.
"Bricey said the exact same thing that Michael said. 'I didn't want to grow up to be like this.'"