‘I was a functioning addict’: Windsor mom survives opioid addiction, finds hope in helping others

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WATCH: The story of how one Windsor mom recovered from an opioid addiction. – Nov 13, 2017

Stephanie Bertrand used to call herself a “functioning addict.” The 36-year-old from Windsor, Ont., grew up middle class and went to a good school. She was married and had a beautiful family.

Nobody knew her cocaine addiction slipped into needles. She was deep into opioids and she felt her life spiraling down a dark hole. Her four kids, parents and now ex-husband had no idea.

She kept on leading her “normal life.” Her kids were healthy, she was making a solid income at a local bar and she had fallen in love again.

READ MORE: Fentanyl crisis: Toronto addiction doctor takes your questions

But it wasn’t until the night she took her frigid hands and wrapped them around her ex-boyfriend’s neck that she knew: she had lost complete control.

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Bertrand did not discriminate when it came to drugs. She says she’s tried every narcotic under the sun — a sun which quickly fell into darkness and almost destroyed everything that ever mattered to her.

In Canada, 13 people are hospitalized each day for opioid poisoning. The Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) and the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA) found that, between 2007–2008 and 2014–2015, the rate of hospitalizations increased by more than 30 per cent.

But one of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to the opioid crisis is that it only affects drug addicts on the street. In fact, says Shayne Williams, executive director of the Lookout Housing and Health Society — an organization that helps the homeless and those suffering from addiction in British Columbia — opioids can affect anyone from any walk of life.

Any age group from any socio-economic background could be using opioids. Those who suffer from chronic pain or cancer for example, are prescribed opioids to relieve pain, he says.

It also affects a younger demographic, weekend partiers who might be experimenting. Nowadays, opioids like fentanyl are laced in other drugs such as cocaine, MDMA and ecstasy, he says.

“Black market versions of opioids are incredibly dangerous. It’s essentially Russian roulette.”

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Opioids are also increasingly affecting the older generation, who deal with many health complications, he added. If prescribed and used responsibly, it can benefit those who are suffering. But there is a fine line when it comes to abusing opioids.

The thing to keep in mind is that the opioid crisis isn’t just a street problem. Like Bertrand’s story, it can affect anyone.

How the drug use started

For her, it all started when she was 23. She says she got married at a young age and started having children right away. She was adjusting to being a wife and a mother but something didn’t feel right. There was a void.

“I was feeling completely inadequate,” Bertrand says. Her husband at the time had lost his job so she decided to work at the local bar to keep their finances afloat.

She started drinking at work to numb the desolation. Then one day, she was offered cocaine. She tried it and liked it. “It felt good, it made the pain go away, I thought I was getting better.”

She would disappear for days at a time.

“Within months, my already-failing marriage had completely died,” she said.

She felt like her life was in shambles, she added.

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READ MORE: Fentanyl contributed to hundreds of deaths in Canada so far this year

In an attempt to put the shattered pieces back together, she quit drugs. She fell in love with another man who was also in recovery. They were each other’s support system. But then she had a cancer scare.

Bertrand says this is when her life started becoming a blur. Doctors found abnormalities after a Pap test. Foggy minded, unclear of the future, she remembers lying in her room with her new boyfriend, in silence.

She had never tried crack before, but she said she needed an escape.

“At the time I figured, I am hurting so bad, I know that this will work and I know that it will make me feel better,” Bertrand added.

The addiction evolved

From there she graduated to opioids. A few weeks later, she got her test results back and doctors confirmed there was no cancer. Meantime, her addiction had developed into a monstrous disease.

Heroin, hydromorphone, fentanyl … she used anything and everything to feed her demon.

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“I would get really sick and I was terrified that the withdrawals would kill me and I would die in my living room with my kids watching,” Bertrand said.

Needle marks and scars marked their territory on her arm.

“I hated myself. The more and more I used, the more and more I hated myself. And the more I hated myself, the more and more I needed to use. It was a vicious cycle.”

She wanted to stop but she says she felt so stigmatized and isolated. She was scared to get professional help because she didn’t want to lose her children.

READ MORE: Fentanyl patient ashamed to pick up prescription amid ongoing opioid ‘crisis’

Her search for help

Soulless, breathless and demolished, she swallowed the anxiety, which felt like a prickly lump that went down excruciatingly slow. She knew she had to — for her children.

“They were my only reason for breathing at that point,” Bertrand said. So she went to see a doctor. Luckily, she got a compassionate one, she said.

After the doctor understood that Bertrand’s children were being fed, were going to school and were not being abused, he said he wouldn’t call children’s aid. Instead, he offered her support and put her on suboxone, which is used to treat opiate addiction.

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It hasn’t been easy, but Bertrand says she is seeing the light again. She’s been clean for years and hopes to wean herself off the suboxone over time. She knows one more slip could cost her life.

“I don’t have another relapse in me, they will take my kids and I will die.”

So she decided to create a support system for herself. She went to recovery programs, talked to her family openly and has joined several support groups.

Feeling stigmatized

Along the recovery process, Bertrand admits she often felt stigmatized. She said the second people found out about her involvement with drugs, people started treating her differently.

“If someone finds out you are an addict, you are instantly a bad person. After seeing all the holes in the system that people were slipping through I knew I needed to do something with my experience.”

Bertrand is in the process of starting a charity to help people addicted to drugs. Her charity still doesn’t have a name, but she’s started an outreach program to start building relationships with people and hopefully try to help them get connected to services they might need.

“Over time, we’ve created so much stigma, that we automatically deem them as bad people. We have this mindset where we need to shove them under the rug. But what they don’t realize is that these people are mothers, sisters and brothers.”

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Another big misconception when it comes to opioid addiction is that there is no hope, says David Renwick, the general manager of Adapt Pharma Canada, makers of Narcan Nasal Spray, a drug used to help revive people who are overdosing on opioids.

READ MORE: Fentanyl: For some a lifesaver, for others a killer

“It is disheartening because the numbers of deaths and hospitals continue to rise very rapidly. In 2016, we reported 2,800 deaths. The human cost of this is staggering.”

But he says, if someone is on the ground, no longer breathing and is overdosing on opioids, naloxone can be used to revive them and give them enough time to reach a hospital.

As well, he says there are addiction centres, support groups, mental health services and housing services that are available in each province to help people fight their opioid addiction.

“There is hope. The more awareness we can build around some of these issues and challenges we face in respect to the opioid crisis, the more it will lead to better coordinated efforts and access to resources.”

***If you or someone you know is in need, there is help. National Addiction Awareness week kicked off this week, in the hopes of connecting those addicted to drugs to the resources they need.

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Follow Emanuela Campanella on Twitter.

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