Opioids killed my sister. How many more have to die this way in Saskatchewan?
What we are doing is not working
This Point of View piece is by Taylor Balfour, a writer, poet, and journalist based in Regina. Taylor's sister Rachel died of an opioid overdose.
Rachel was a quiet, blonde computer-science major. She liked video games, anything to do with technology, late night breakfasts and spontaneous road trips.
To many, she was the introverted, bright-eyed blonde in their class, eager to hit the computer labs or the yearbook room.
To me, she was and is my best friend.
She hated Pepsi but adored Coke. Our favourite hangout spots were either our basement (where else do you play video games all day?) or Denny's at 2 a.m. I would always drive, playing the same Foster The People albums on repeat in my car, and Rachel would just smile.
She was open-minded and honest, and never held back a thought in her head. Her brutal honesty gave me reality checks at every turn. I always needed them, even if I denied it.
Like so many, Rachel struggled with her mental health. We talked about it. I saw it in her eating and sleeping habits. It was no secret, but she was trying. She was doing what she could.
She was passionate, headstrong, stubborn and resilient, sometimes to a fault. She seldom reached for help when she was struggling.
For months, we didn't know her cause of death. We only knew it involved drugs. It was haunting.
Four months later, we were notified in a letter that her autopsy found her drugs had been laced with fentanyl, an opioid commonly used to treat pain.
Fentanyl is highly lethal, even in trace amounts. These days, it's commonly found laced in drugs. It engages users in a game of Russian Roulette, where any use could be your last. For my Rachel, it was that one.
In 2020, Regina has had more than 1,000 reported overdoses. Over a single November weekend, four men died in Regina due to opioid-related overdoses. Each case has been connected to fentanyl.
Overdose rates in our province have tripled since 2019. Yet, we refuse to offer users help. Why? For what? Has what we are doing been working?
I can promise you that this tactic — outcasting and stigma — did not save my Rachel. I believe it contributed to her death. Yet the common response always seems to be, "she was using drugs, what did she expect?"
She should have been able to expect support, but that didn't happen. She expected to get counselling from her university, but was placed on a two to three-week backlog.
What she did not expect was to be killed by opiate-poisoning. How could she have expected that her last resort was only going to make things worse? Why would she think her last available option would also betray her?
Rachel was only 18. She was in her first year of university. It hadn't been one year since her high school graduation. Pictures from that event are the last remnants I have of her. I hold them sacred on my phone. And why? Why is this all I have?
Many view these overdose numbers as nothing more than typed fonts on a page. But how can anyone look at an image of my sister, this brilliant blonde filled with so much life, and not view her as someone worthy of life, love and support?
Instead, she was killed by someone who tainted her last, desperate resort. She was preyed upon at her weakest and suffered the largest price, like so many in her same position.
Regina has had 97 deaths from apparent overdoses this year. That's 97 families destroyed.
A grandmother has buried her grandchild, a father has lost his fishing partner and best friend, a wife has lost her husband, a daughter has lost her mother. These are not numbers. Those are 97 people killed at their lowest.
Why were they not enough? Why was Rachel not enough?
She is enough. She always has been. One person was enough to warrant change. Every person is enough. Now, it's time for me, and all of us, to prove it.
Because my darling Rachel, alive or not, is going to change the world.
She is enough to make harm reduction a reality. She is enough to legalize and monitor the contents of illicit drugs. She is enough to make mental health and addiction services more widely available.
It's my job to help her make sure of it.
Balfour's graduating thesis is a project of open letters and poems addressed to her sister.
She hopes sharing her story will help others who are struggling with mental health and addiction.
This is one such letter:
My dearest Rachel,
I can't grasp that you're ash in the living room. You're sealed in stone and wrapped in ribbons; a good day and long night. How long has it been since I called you? Since I heard you? Touched your golden hues and held your slight of hand. How long? How many hours? Minutes? I've felt them all. Polaroids bleed over time.
I miss your soul in my palm, your voice on the high-line, and your laugh sacred against my windshield. Frost creeps on your side, reminding me. Her game has been set; pinpoints on a foreign highway. She's electric, the psalm of wintertide, with the glow of '75.
I tried to reach you before the storm, but I wished on dead stars. They're long gone by the time I am free.
There is an ache in my windshield now. A dull hum, withered and weathered, that drinks in the evening with sunset. The cosmos thrum in the night, a ricochet, a sign that she has arrived safely.
Yet to them, you are static, quiet and still.
But still, I'm waiting for stars to unfold.
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