Honouring my sister, ending stigmas

·8 min read

Aug. 31 marks the 21st International Overdose Awareness Day. I would like to take this opportunity to share a little bit more of my background and what has become a big part of who I am today. My intent is to end the stigma around drug use and overdose-related deaths and remind people that every person lost to an overdose-related death is someone’s special someone.

Unfortunately, we still live in a time in which books are quickly judged by their covers and the masses are more prone to judging than helping. While this is slowly getting better, we are still far from where we should be — united.

The world can be a hard place for people as we all come from different circumstances and walks of life. For some, turning to opioids or other drugs may be merely recreational, yet many others turn to these and other substances in an attempt to heal, cope or escape from what may haunt them in their past or present life.

Behind the covers we display to the world lurks a unique story, yet we are not all open books. For some an escape to temporarily relieve pain or lighten the weight of a load one carries may be their only outlet. For others: it’s easier than hard conversations with even their best of friends and loved ones. Throw toxic and tainted drugs into the mix and the benefits of harm reduction become more clear

While Aids Network Kootenay Outreach Society (ANKORS) and East Kootenay Network of People who Use Drugs (EKNPUD) will be hosting their third annual Drug Poisoning Awareness event from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. in Cranbrook on Aug. 31, I will be in Winnipeg, where I grew up, co-hosting and leading the fifth Overdose Awareness walk I started in honour of my sister, Jeni Leigh, in 2018.

It was June of 2017. I was just finishing my term as a teacher assistant in Winnipeg when I received the call from my nephew and niece’s grandmother in Florida, telling me that Jeni had been admitted to the intensive-care unit in a hospital due to toxic drug poisoning. Four days later, she was taken off life support. Estranged from my parents, I was left to mourn her alone. It had been three years since we last laughed in person together. We had never been apart for so long like this before. More than siblings, we were best friends and when we both lived in Winnipeg, we were more often than not together.

My prior visit to Florida was in 2014, when I went to see my sister. She had moved there two years earlier to make a better life for herself and her children. I was studying Creative Communications in college at the time. During my last visit with her in Florida, I saw Jeni living her best life that she had worked hard to create for herself and her beautiful children. But it only takes a stumble to become a fall.

Our tale is not so uncommon — a broken family with long lines of trauma and kids left to fend for themselves at an early age. On my own by the age of 16, it wasn’t long after that my sister began to stay with me in many of my one-bedroom apartments. This also included having my nephew and niece stay with me a few times as well, which suited me just fine as we all could not have been any closer.

The bond I have with my sister cannot be broken, not even in her absence. After a year of crippling heartache and poor choices, it became clear I am here to honour her, affect change and dimmish the stigmas surrounding overdose-related deaths after having a near-death experience myself. The first idea to honour my sister came in July of 2018, less than two months before International Overdose Awareness Day would be recognized.

The intent was to have a celebration of life, love, and music. In the tradition of a true Manitoba Social, the event Drop the Needle was set to have DJs spinning my sister’s favourite music on vinyl. The plan seemed simple — I would raise money, spread awareness, and donate all the proceeds to the main International Overdose Awareness organization based out of Australia. I learned there were only 15 places in Canada walking for Overdose Awareness at that time and Manitoba wasn’t one of them. This seemed suddenly more important than a party.

While I faced the hard truth that I hadn’t attended many community walks in the past, plans shifted all the same and Drop the Needle became Drop the Needle, Pick up the Pace — Manitoba’s first Overdose Awareness Walk in 2018. It was held at the Forks, where the Red and Assiniboine rivers meet, to honour my sister’s love for being near water. Our city sign was and continues to be lit violet-purple on this day to honour all lost to the rising overdose crisis.

It started as a Facebook page to make myself accountable and follow through. I had no expectations in this attempt to honour my sister. My only hope was to see a few family members or friends of Jeni’s or mine attend Manitoba’s first Overdose Awareness Walk. Instead, it was strangers who came in droves, united together through tragedy and loss, thanking me for starting the event to honour and remember their loved ones.

The number of people in attendance that first year was both heart-wrenching and humbling. Tears were shed and heartfelt words were shared before Winnipeg officially became the 16th place in Canada to walk for International Overdose Awareness Day. United in purple, carrying signs for our loved ones and with purple glow stick necklaces shimmering in the dusk, we walked to honour and remember those gone too soon.

It was during this second walk that I had met Jody, who had lost her brother, Josh. Most advocates for this crippling worldwide crisis are parents, yet we were and continue to be two devoted siblings. Needing to leave Winnipeg to explore other opportunities and heal. I decided to rebrand the event A Walk for J: Steps to Overdose Awareness and involve Jody going forward. Due to pandemic-related restrictions, virtual events were held in 2020 and 2021 in Winnipeg. However, with B.C. having fewer restrictions in 2021, I was able to execute a fourth walk in downtown Victoria last August, again bringing strangers together united through grief and sorrow.

Overdose does not know profession, culture, status, race, age, or gender. It affects us all. It’s a shame most are affected personally before stepping up to lead the charge. This was the case for me, and it haunts me to know this truth about myself. I have always covered the costs to honour not just my special someone, but that someone for many. I say and do this not to get recognition, but to prove anyone can shine a small light into a dark room. Something as simple as wearing a purple ribbon or shirt, on Aug. 31 can initiate those hard conversations, which lead to action and education. In turn, naloxone training and harm reduction can save lives.

Awareness spreads, advocacy strengthens and policies regarding safe supply in a broken system can be repaired. In B.C. alone since the overdose crisis was declared a public health concern in 2016, there have been more than 10,000 lives taken due to illicit or toxic drugs. Those 10, 000 are someone’s son, daughter, brother, sister, father, mother, or everything.

Despite the popular adage, time does not heal all wounds. We just adjust to loss and pain and find coping mechanisms that work until they don’t. It is important to remember that every person is fighting their own battle and one should not be judged on how that battle looks to the outside world or how one chooses to cope with their daily plight. While some are unhealthier than others, every person has their addictions, and it is my aim to end the stigma surrounding the former. I wear the logo of the walk I created in my sister’s name, with her handwriting like a badge of honour tattooed on my forearm.

I will be the first one to speak her name and bring up how I lost her, as Jeni’s death is now an integral part of my life and how I choose to live it. My sister will always be my most special someone and I will continue to talk about her, advocate and raise awareness.

In B.C., we live in the province with the highest rate of overdose-related deaths, with Manitoba a close second. It is my hope that this Aug. 31, more people will remember that the skyrocketing numbers of overdose-related deaths aren’t just numbers, but someone’s special someone and could easily be theirs as this worldwide overdose crisis continues.

This International Overdose Awareness Day, wear your favourite shade of purple and attend the event happening in Cranbrook or one in another community. We must not be ashamed of those we lost or how we lost them. We must advocate, raise awareness and be the best versions of ourselves. It is not an easy fix. We can’t bring back those we have lost, but through articles like this, community events and questions being asked is how more are educated, and perspectives change. Judgment, and the fear of it, decreases and hard conversations are initiated.

This is how we save lives and honour the fallen. This is how I honour my sister.

Chadd Cawson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Columbia Valley Pioneer