Mother hears how her son is still saving lives two years after he died of a drug overdose

Betty Niemi should have been celebrating her son Ashley's 38th birthday. Instead, she told a room of parents how her only son died of a drug overdose. Then a man stood up and said her son saved his life.

'It's my hope that just maybe my story will help somebody else out there'

How one Windsor man is helping addicts after dying of an overdose 1:17

This week, Betty Niemi should have been celebrating her son Ashley's 38th birthday.

Instead, she climbed onto a stage and told a room of parents how her only son died of a drug overdose.

Sitting in the crowd was James Lucier, a recovering drug addict from Windsor, who would later explain to the crowd exactly how Niemi's son helped save his life. 

"Losing a child was my own worst nightmare," said Niemi, at the community event called 'Not My Kid' held in Windsor on Thursday night.

Niemi's step-daughter Alice died of an overdose in 2015. Her only son Ashley died six months later, on Feb. 10, leaving behind a wife and daughter.

Early substance abuse

She spoke to a captivated crowd about her son's life, his addiction and his death. 

"There's a line in our lives — the before and after line ... we're never the same," said Niemi.

Ashley Niemi was 36 when he died after an overdose in Windsor. (Families First)

Ashley dropped out of high school in Grade 10 and started using ecstasy before progressing to pills and cocaine, Niemi told the room. 

Where to find help in Windsor

Here are some places the Windsor Essex County Health Unit suggests people struggling with addictions can find help. Click here from more services available online.

Canadian Mental Health Association
1400 Windsor Ave., Windsor, ON

Family Services Windsor-Essex Counselling and Advocacy Centre
Toll free: 1-888-933-1831
1770 Langlois Avenue, Windsor, ON

Confidential voluntary short or long-term counselling services to families, individuals, and couples.

'He died twice'

"I loved him more than anything in the world," Niemi told the room.

"One night after (Ashley and his girlfriend) had been living here for almost a year, he took too much and 911 had to be called," said Niemi. "He died twice on the way to the hospital but EMS was able to bring him back."

The Windsor woman said that's when Ashley made his first serious attempt at recovery, attending meetings and a treatment program. He would relapse once more before the birth of his daughter. 

"Finally — finally, he found a program that seemed to work for him," said Niemi.  "It was called Cocaine Anonymous."

'She had to tell his daughter'

Ashley started a Cocaine Anonymous group in Windsor, taking on other addicts as a sponsor while giving talks at treatment centres in the region and even at a national conference in Toronto. 

"He took his daughter to the bus stop every morning," remember Niemi, adding Ashley was also running a successful business.

Niemi said she decided to share her story of loss and grief to end the stigma of addictions. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

"With one small blip in the early months, he had over two solid years in recovery. We celebrated Christmas of 2015 and his 35th birthday," said Niemi. 

Days later his phone was turned off and no one could reach him — a sign Ashley was using again.

"This time it was 5 days and still no word," said Niemi.

"And then one day police detectives had turned up at my door to tell me he was gone."

Ashley was found dead inside of a hotel room by the manager. 

"I had to tell his wife. And she had to tell his daughter,"

A life lost, a life saved

Niemi helps run a Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing (GRASP) chapter in Windsor. She said she shared her story to help end the stigma against addiction.

"I had to tell your mother that this might be the last time you're going to see your son," - James Lucier, remembering his father's words after he overdosed on F entanyl

"It's my hope that just maybe my story will help somebody else out there."

Thirty minutes later, Lucier, an opioid addict now one year sober, told the crowd Ashley saved his life.

'Addiction became my life'

Lucier paced the floor of the Caboto Club wearing a Spiritual Soldiers T-shirt, and told the crowd he came from a loving family in Windsor and attended high school at St. Thomas of Villanova. 

"At that point it was cocaine, and cocaine did rule my life," he said, adding, he sold drugs at school in LaSalle

James Lucier told the crowd of people at the Not My Kid event that he was one year sober. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

"Addiction became my life," he told the crowd, explaining he turned to oxycodone and Percocet when he was kicked out of high school.

"I went hard with the opioids and I loved the opioids because for once in my life I found a drug that worked for me that I could work with and do everything that I was doing on a normal basis," said Lucier, who described Fentanyl as his drug of choice at the time. 

Parents prepared for the worst

"It didn't matter who I hurt," said Lucier, who went to his first treatment centre at 19, but started using again once he got out and soon found himself at another centre in Thamesville.

Thirty minutes after his last day at the centre Lucier was sitting at the Knights of Columbus hall in South Windsor, getting drunk.

James Lucier has told his story of recovery at the very highschool he was kicked out of for dealing drugs. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

"Within a week I was overdosed, overdosed on Fentanyl for the first time," said Lucier.

Then he told the crowd what his father said to him shortly after his overdose.

"I had to tell your mother that this might be the last time you're going to see your son," Lucier repeated, his parents sitting in the front row as he spoke. 

'I would not be here sober today'

Lucier lost his license, crashed multiple vehicles, went in and out of treatment centres — including one visit that ended when he was kicked out for using drugs he found in the facility.

"I'm getting kicked out of treatment because I'm using here the one place you think that I'm safe," said Lucier, who called that his rock bottom. 

Betty Niemi and James Lucier both shared their stories during the Not My Kid event hosted in Windsor on Thursday night. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

That's when he turned toward Betty Niemi, who was sitting on a grey chair surrounded by people who had lost loved ones from substance abuse. 

"If it wasn't for Ash, her son, I would not be here sober today," said Lucier. "That's the honest to God truth because he brought Cocaine Anonymous here. He brought the fellowship that saved my life here to Windsor."

"He is continuing to save lives, honestly, every single day," he said.

Lucier is now also working to help people overcome addiction, including a recent talk at the very high school he was kicked out of for selling drugs.

About the Author

Chris Ensing

CBC News

Chris Ensing is a Video Journalist for CBC Windsor.