It was 2012 when Tyla Savard realized her daughter, Carrissa, had a serious substance use disorder. Carrissa was struggling with fentanyl – something Savard didn’t even know how to spell, to try to find information on the Internet. “It didn’t matter” she said. “There was no information.”
Carrissa had been introduced to the drug by a boyfriend who had brought her into a group of approximately 12—all who were using fentanyl. And within a couple of years, Carrissa was using 20 to 40 times a day at $80 a pop, living on the streets, and escorting to make money.
In Canada, youth from 15 to 19 years-old, and 20 to 24 years-old, are approximately 2 to 3 times more likely than adults to report illegal drug use. Carrissa, at first, thought she was using coke. But it was fentanyl, which can be deadly and incredibly addictive. You can’t see, smell or taste fentanyl.
Of the nine girls in the group that Carrissa was hanging out with, only two are still alive. Two were murdered. The others overdosed and died. “Carrissa always used a pill form and crushed and snorted it. We’d find pieces of straw and empty baggies lying around.” Savard says she thought the powdery residue was “maybe crumbs or dust.”
In Canada, there may be more than 4,000 opioid-related deaths a year. Youth aged 15 to 24 had the fastest rate of growth for hospitalizations due to opioid poisoning, with an increase of 62 percent between 2014 to 2015, the exact time Savard found herself in this ‘nightmare.’
Eventually, Carrissa resorted to stealing from family members. Armed drug dealers would show up to their home. Savard would get frantic phone calls from Carrissa, saying she was being held at gunpoint, unless she could pay off her dealers.
“You have no idea what it’s like to have to come up with thousands of dollars in a matter of minutes.”
Savard says doctors were handing out opioids “like candy.”
At one point, Carrissa came home to attempt to detox, and her mother tried to better understand her daughter’s illness. “But she was so high I couldn’t understand one word she was saying. Then, twenty minutes later, she was in such severe pain, called ‘dope sick,’ which hits fast and so hard with fentanyl, so she needed her next fix.” It was a definite learning curve for Savard. “It took a lot of time to understand. Early on, every day felt like forever, trying to identify what the hell was going on. I did the mom detective thing, but the problem was there was no information out there.”
Savard saw the stigma and heard flippant remarks from people. “People think you’re in control of it and can go cold turkey. That was the mentality, only a couple of years ago. Fentanyl put a whole new picture on it. Not even doctors realized you can’t just replace it with some other form of drug.”
After Carrissa spent three days in an emergency room, she was then moved to the psychiatric ward. Savard had no idea if she would live or die. “Her eyes were literally rolling back in her head like a horror movie.” There were times when the staff would let Carrissa go outside for cigarettes unattended, and her boyfriend would be hanging outside the hospital. “So, she was scoring and going back up,” says Tyla. “It was unbelievable. It is such a messed-up system.”
Finally, when a methadone clinic opened in her community in 2016, Savard made an appointment for her daughter. Savard had no idea if her daughter would show up. “Carrissa has no recollection. I had to physically carry her into the clinic; she was so out of it.”
After a few months of figuring out the correct dosage of methadone, Savard says, “I finally started to see my child again instead of a demon in a shell of my child.”
Luckily, Savard had a supportive husband and the wherewithal to advocate for her daughter. Carissa was also lucky and always had open communication with her mother, who was compassionate and understood that Carrissa had a medical condition, deserving of care. Savard says drug users are already their worst enemy. “They don’t want to play Russian Roulette every twenty minutes.”
According to Savard, laws need to be changed. “Carrissa was literally screaming at the hospital that she couldn’t make a decision, let alone say her own name. I couldn’t make that decision for her to stay, because she was over 18. But I’m her mom! I had no say whatsoever. It’s heartbreaking. That’s when your child needs you the most,” says Savard.
It’s hard for Savard to talk about her daughter. “Sometimes, I couldn’t even explain what happened ten seconds ago. When there were dealers at our house, how would I explain how all of this unfolded?” Even doctors didn’t seem to help. “As a society, we assume that that the doctors have the answers. But with fentanyl, they don’t always. We automatically give them credit that they can help, but some doctors have only minimal training in substance use disorders.”
She believes the prejudice and discrimination are likely the main reasons Carrissa avoided getting help sooner.
When asked what other parents can do if they find themselves in a similar situation, Savard says, self-care is of utmost importance. “I made a point of making sure I was taking vitamins and regular stops to health food stores. I was crying 15 times a day. But you’d be surprised at even how one morning of solid sleep can help.”
Carrissa is now off of fentanyl, and still on Methadone. Savard, along with running her own event company, has become an advocate for those who have been where Carrissa and their family members were. Even Carrissa has started to speak out about her experience. “She presented last night,” says Savard, who starts to sob. “She said that, no matter what, I was always her biggest cheerleader.”
Just seeing her daughter healthy, and being able to speak out about her experience, made for a proud mom moment.
“So far we’re lucky. Every day we’re getting stronger and stronger. But this is going to be a lifelong journey for Carrissa.”
Carrissa no longer has a social life. She is living at home with the aid of one year of social assistance for basic needs like food and clothes, which has led to depression. “It always feels like we gain an inch, but then we have to go another mile,” says Savard. The stigma of substance use disorder can affect their ability to find housing and jobs, which affects their overall quality of life.
“As parents, we all want children to have better lives than we had. Then you’re hit with something like this. I’ve moved mountains to keep my child alive. We only look forward. That’s our motto,” says Savard. “But all it takes is one bad day and we are looking at death, instead of rinse and repeat.”
Carrisa’s ex-boyfriend has overdosed 9 times and is still living on the streets.
If you, or anyone you know, needs help, you can check out the Government of Canada’s website for resources.
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This post is brought to you by Health Canada but the opinions are our own.