Now Or Never

They lost their children to opioids, now these moms have something to say

After connecting over the loss of their children, two Thunder Bay, Ont., moms are now looking for others to join them in their efforts to break down the stigma around addiction, and advocate for change.

Debbie Reed and Karen Krzyzewski are seeking out other parents to help battle the stigma of addiction

Karen Krzyzewski, centre, and Debbie Reed, far right, stand shoulder to shoulder with others in Thunder Bay, Ont., who've lost loved ones to drug addiction. (Elizabeth Bennett)

There was a time when Debbie Reed didn't know much about what it meant to have a drug addiction. 

Then, one day, she got a call from her son, Johnny.

"He was weeping. And he said, 'Mom, please help me. Please help me.'"

That was the day she learned that Johnny — then 19 — had become addicted to opioids. 

The phone call would mark the beginning of a long, difficult journey that would open Reed's eyes to not only the powerful hold of the drugs, but also the societal stigma attached to addiction.

There would be frustrating encounters with the health and justice systems. And over time, people would drop out of their lives. 

Isolated over stigma

Reed watched her son transform into someone she barely recognized. She also watched him absorb the shame society attaches to addiction. 

"Johnny became more and more isolated," she said.

"I tried and tried to get him to come for a Thanksgiving dinner, and he just didn't want anyone to see him the way he was."

There was also a recovery period in his 20s, she said, during which Johnny became a vocal advocate and fought to help others overcome addiction. But ultimately he would return to drugs.

"The disease is progressive, so we went from Percocet to oxys to [hydromorphone] and then in the last year of his life, it was fentanyl," she said. 

After a struggle that lasted more than a decade, Johnny died in March 2020, at the age of 30.

'Trying to save our children'

Isolated by the onset of the pandemic, and paralyzed by grief in the aftermath of her son's death, Reed struggled to get out of bed.

"I slept and I slept and I dreamt and I wept. And I screamed at the universe," she said. "It really took me about four months to get up and get moving."

Krzyzewski's daughter, Leah, is remembered by family at at event in Thunder Bay, Ont. Leah died of a drug overdose at the age of 25. (Karen Krzyzewski)

Thankfully, there was someone she could turn to for help. 

Karen Krzyzewski lost her daughter Leah to a drug overdose five years ago. She was 25.

Leah and Johnny had been friends, and the two moms first connected at Leah's funeral service. 

"We loved and love our children. And I know exactly the battle [Debbie] went through. And it was years of battling, just trying to save our children," Krzyzewski said. 

'We are not alone'

Now the women want to extend the support they found in each other, to other families in their city going through the same thing. 

They run a support group in Thunder Bay, Ont., where parents can open up about their feelings, and share their experiences dealing with the upheaval, grief, isolation and stigma surrounding addiction. 

Purple ribbons represent lives lost at an International Overdose Awareness Day event in Thunder Bay, Ont. Reed says she knows thousands of families are going through the same pain she experienced. (Logan Turner/CBC)

Reed knows how widespread the problem is, and that there are many more people struggling who need help. In 2020, there were 64 deaths from opioid poisoning in the Thunder Bay District, a significant increase from 38 the year before, and a higher rate of death compared to the province overall — which also saw a rise in fatalities in 2020. 

Reed's seen the impact, even within her son's close circle. 

"It breaks my heart. We are not alone. And we are going to do our best to support people who are living this nightmare."

Local Moms Stop the Harm chapter

Reed and Krzyzewski are in the process of launching a local chapter of Moms Stop the Harm, a network of Canadian families impacted by substance use that advocates for policy change, and to break down stigma around addiction. 

They hope the chapter will be active within the next month, and Reed hopes the work will help to bring about change in the form of better supports for families. She'd like to see more effective and compassionate health and justice systems, the prioritization of treatment over incarceration for those caught up in the legal system, and more public understanding of addiction as a disease. 

Reed and her granddaughters stand with a photo of Johnny. He loved his daughters 'more than anything,' Reed says. (Debbie Reed)

She's fuelled by the memory of her son, and her pride in the work he did in the recovery community. It wasn't until her son's final days that she fully realized the impact of that work. 

"I was standing in the ICU one day and a big fellow stood there weeping, and he introduced himself and he said, 'You know, this guy right here, saved my life,'" she said, adding that in the days following his death, she received an outpouring of messages from people expressing gratitude for the work he'd done in the community.

"So I'm going to use Johnny's voice now. Because it was big and it was powerful, and I'm doing this for him and for everybody else who's lost a kid, or everybody else who's got this chaos and this heartache in their life because of the substance use disorder."