Five years ago, Andrea Donaldson sold what was left of her Ontario life and moved to Prince Edward Island.
"I didn't want to die," she said. "If I hadn't left when I did … I would probably either be dead or in prison."
As a drug addict and alcoholic, Donaldson had overdosed three times in three weeks before finding recovery on the Island.
"The first time it was hydromorphone. My drugs of choice were not opioids," she said. "It was the first time I ever did hydromorphone through IV and I overdosed within 10 minutes."
Staying on the right track has been hard for her this year because of the public health measures put in place to stem the COVID-19 outbreak on the Island.
"It was a challenge because, for myself, routine is very, very crucial," she said. "When the pandemic started and my children weren't going to school and it just kind of started to feel like a weekend every day … I started to feel angry."
Eventually, Donaldson figured out her new routine. But others continued to struggle.
"A lot of relapse has happened," she said referring to individuals she knows. "People just — they feel alone right now.
Fluctuation is not uncommon
Between April and June of this year, there were nine accidental opioid-related overdoses on P.E.I. Between January and March there had been none.
"I think the concern around opioid-related overdoses in this province and in this country started well before COVID," P.E.I.'s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Heather Morrison, told CBC News in an interview.
"But COVID, I think, has accentuated some of the challenges and the struggles with addiction and there's been certainly concerns around mental health issues during this very challenging time."
The number of accidental overdoses in the province has ranged from year to year. In 2009, there were nine; 2018 brought 24. So a fluctuation is not uncommon.
Increase in fentanyl
On top of the increase in opioid overdoses, Morrison was alarmed by the "notable increase in the overdoses involving fentanyl."
"Our overdoses have almost always involved mixed toxicology, meaning that they were overdoses involving an opioid as well as non-opioid substances," she said.
"But we haven't seen the amount of fentanyl in our overdoses the same way previously."
Between 2017 and 2019, there were zero fentanyl-related ODs, compared to the six the Island recorded April through June of this year. Back in May, P.E.I. issued a public health warning after three overdoses were linked to the substance.
"From a public health perspective, there is certainly more work to be done to support individuals with addiction issues," said Morrison.
'I stopped loving myself'
The road to recovery isn't always a straight path for those battling addiction.
Donaldson was 12 years old when her fight began. It started with smoking. At 13 she took her first sip of vodka, and by Grade 10, she was doing acid.
She stopped for a bit — until her mom passed away a few years later.
"Things got bad from there. I had nobody," she said. "I went to Vancouver when I was 18 and got introduced to crystal meth."
We decided, you know what, let's start over and start a new life and leave all this behind. -Andrea Donaldson
After hearing voices, Donaldson again quit using drugs — this time for 15 years. Her drinking ended when she became pregnant. But after splitting with her partner, Donaldson said she felt alone. So despite the turmoil drugs had already caused in her life, she went back to them.
This time to cocaine.
"I stopped loving myself," she said.
It wasn't until after her last overdose that Donaldson sat in silence and thought, "What would my children think if they had to go to my funeral?"
It was too easy for her to get drugs in Ontario, she said; she had too many connections. In P.E.I., she knew only her biological dad.
Her eventual decision: "Let's start over and start a new life and leave all this behind."
So she did.
'You're not alone'
"Almost all of us have been impacted by family and friends ... who struggled with addictions," said Morrison. "It is something that impacts our whole community."
For those who need them, Naloxone kits are available on the Island. The PEERS Alliance is in the process of starting up an overdose prevention line. Health officials have also talked about a community needle exchange program and implemented a Narcan alert protocol.
As for Donaldson, she's been sober for five years now and recently became a certified drug and alcohol treatment specialist.
"That's my biggest accomplishment," she said. "That was the first thing that I started and I finished.
"I have to believe in myself. I have to believe that I am stronger than my disease. I have to believe that I am still here for a reason."
And for others still fighting, Donaldson said she hopes they ask for help and welcomes anyone to reach out to her anytime through her Facebook page, Andrea's Journey.
"You're not alone in this. Even if you feel like it, you're not."
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