Arts & Life
Canstar Community News
Shelly Taillieu’s home on a quiet residential street in St. Adolphe looks just like any other; a wooden porch with chairs to socialize, the sound of banter spilling into the street and large trees in the front yard to match the others on the block. There is, however, one exterior distinction; a garden on the front lawn adorned with purple garden boxes, wildflowers and photos of a young woman with a warm smile faded by the summer sun.
Shelly’s daughter, Destiny, died of a fentanyl overdose in November 2018, just days before her 23rd birthday.
Shelly keeps the TV in her living room on constantly, seemingly to drown out the thoughts of her late daughter that kept her awake the night before. Remnants of Destiny are felt throughout the home, hanging in the form of high school grad photos greeting folks as they walk into the living room and the presence of a petite-yet-feisty black and white dog, a similar summary of Destiny.
It seems like a normal dwelling, but to Shelly it feels like a mere shell compared to how things were when the spirited woman once occupied it.
It was early November and Destiny had just been discharged from Steinbach Hospital a week previous for an overdose. After years of battling addiction and a few stints of sobriety, she was placed on a waitlist to receive treatment at Tamarack Recovery Centre in Winnipeg. December 15 was supposed to be her intake day, but she never made it.
The waitlist for treatment, especially for women, can be hundreds of days long. What Shelly calls "the gap" between being released from detox and placed in a formal treatment facility can be fatal for drug users.
"There’s such a small window of opportunity when people say they want help," she said. "If you have someone who says ‘I wanna get clean’ you need to get them help right there and then."
The call for reformed recovery and supports for drug users has echoed across organizations and advocacy groups for a number of years. In October, Premier Brian Pallister announced the provincial government was spending $4.2 million on the expansion of flexible-length detox beds in Winnipeg and Brandon amid the methamphetamine crisis that swept the province.
For Arlene Last-Kolb, that’s simply not enough.
"A bed is not a home, and it certainly isn’t treatment," she said.
Last-Kolb is the co-founder of Overdose Awareness Manitoba, an advocacy group based in Winnipeg to support family members and loved ones that have died from an overdose. For her, the group’s goal is not to just advocate for those in recovery, but to help active drug users be safe while doing so.
"After my son passed away, it took me a long time to wrap my head around the whole ‘harm reduction’ idea," she said. "But now I get it."
Last-Kolb formed Overdose Awareness Manitoba with her co-founder Rebecca Rummery after meeting one another through support groups. Rummery’s partner Rob passed away due to an opioid overdose in 2018 and Last-Kolb’s son Jessie lost his life to fentanyl-laced OxyContin in 2014.
Overdose Awareness Manitoba is tenacious in their work to seek help for drug users. One of their goals is to see a supply of naloxone – the lifesaving drug administered to someone experiencing an overdose – be given to anyone discharged from a hospital or detox facility, as well as have it declassified from a Schedule ll substance to make it easier for people to access. Naloxone is currently only available behind the counter by pharmacists or from participating distribution sites.
Shelly said Destiny was a responsible drug user: she always carried multiple purses with her. In one of them was a supply of Naloxone and sterile supplies for drug use. On the night of her final and fatal overdose her partner attempted to give her multiple doses of naloxone, to no avail.
As a registered nurse, Shelly is trained in both administering the opioid antidote and teaching others how to effectively use it. Her home is stocked with the small red kits containing sterile needles and vials of the clear liquid.
Shelly has taken on the task of training anyone who wishes how to properly and effectively give the drug to someone experiencing an overdose. She was set to start training earlier this year until the novel coronavirus crept into the province, putting restrictions on gathering sizes.
Shelly’s sister, Tammy, is also trained on how to use the reversal drug.
Tammy and Shelly are just like any other pair of sisters: in the span of 15 minutes they will have spoken over each other, bickered about miniscule details in a story then shared a laugh by the end of it.
Tammy sees the lack of mental health services within addictions treatment as another barrier to users seeking help. Destiny was diagnosed with a slew of mental health problems as an adolescent which the sisters see as a catalyst for her drug use.
"Unless someone addresses your mental health issues, you’re not going to be successful in rehabilitation," Tammy said. "There’s no integration of services."
Tammy and Shelly say unless things like better incorporation of these services into detox and rehab and the destigmatization of drug users happens, the addiction and overdose crisis will persist. Overdose Awareness Manitoba mirrors these ideas, while also advocating for safer drugs to use: a large number of overdoses occur because someone’s drug of choice was laced with fentanyl - a synthetic opioid that can be deadly in microscopic amounts - including the heroin Destiny took the night she died.
Last-Kolb said sometimes safe supply is the best option for users.
"Treatment is not always the answer," Last-Kolb said. "And who’s to say that people want to quit? Or they’re ready to quit? We would sooner have our loved ones here and using a safe drug, than not having them here at all."
Last-Kolb and Rummery have petitioned the government multiple times to see their list of needs for drug users be considered, including a plea signed by 5,000 supporters for the creation of medically assisted detox facilities. The petition was presented to the Manitoba government in May 2019 but did not move forward.
"Imagine you’re the government, you’ve just gotten 5,000 actual handwritten signatures asking for this, and all that happens is it’s given to you in the house, they talk about it for two seconds, we get a couple interviews and it’s done," Last-Kolb said. "So the thing is: do we continue to keep knocking at the front doors and saying please? Or do we go around the back door and try to work with people that can get this stuff done?"
Overdose Awareness Manitoba works tirelessly to organize events which bring awareness to overdose-related deaths, including the Purple Ribbon campaign.
For the month of August people are encouraged to don a purple ribbon to remember those lost to drugs or decorate a tree in their community to shine a light on the issue of substance-related harm until it comes to a head on August 31 for International Overdose Awareness Day.
The day is usually commemorated by the advocacy group in the form of a walk from The Forks to the Manitoba Legislative building while decked out in purple gear. It is to remember these loved ones by who they were as people, not by the way in which their lives ended.
"They were so much more than [their addiction], it was just a piece of them and that’s how they died," Rummery said.
"We’re showing who our loved ones were by who we are."
Destiny was not defined by her addictions; her family remembers her as a daughter, niece, friend, university graduate and advocate, working tirelessly to encourage others to do and be better.
"She was two days sober and I’m 20 years sober and she was the one dragging me to meetings," Tammy said of Destiny. "She had a lot to give, if she would have made it."
One of Destiny’s last Facebook posts spoke of the happiness and pride she felt to have been clean and sober for that length of time. She attended addictions meetings regularly, including the two days leading up to her overdose.
In the Gone Too Soon garden situated on Waterfront Drive in Winnipeg, the souls of those who lost their lives to drugs are protected by their families, most of them members of Overdose Awareness Manitoba.
On any given day you’ll find Last-Kolb tending to the plants and rocks painted by loved ones to remember them. The garden, full of chimes, violet plants and a bench in memoriam of another young person lost to their addiction exudes a sense of peace; a feeling loved ones wish for those immortalized in the plot.
In Shelly’s yard, her own piece of Destiny lives there. The home she once occupied may be devoid of her laughter as of late, but she lives in the earth of the purple garden forever.