Holding on through a close friend’s opioid addiction
Reprinted from "Opioids" issue of Visions Journal, 2018, 13 (3), p. 14
It was 4:00 on a Friday evening, about 24 hours since anyone had last seen Gwen. She had been given the opportunity to get help, but she chose instead to leave the hospital. No money. No cell phone. No car. No purse. Nothing. And no one had heard from her since.
Originally, Gwen was supposed to write this article. She wanted to write it as a way of chronicling her battle with opioids, in the hopes that her struggle would inspire others who faced the same challenges or who had to watch a loved one cope with similar issues.
But at 4:00 that Friday evening, with Gwen still missing, I sat down and began to write the article on her behalf.
It’s hard to believe now that Gwen is someone with whom I used to spend a great deal of time. We met through mutual friends when we were young adults. I was giving her a ride home from a party when I got a flat tire. She spent the next several hours with me, waiting for roadside assistance; we’ve been friends ever since.
That was 25 years ago. Over the years, we stayed close. Even when we lived 2,000 kilometres apart from each other, we spoke to each other by phone almost every day.
When a friend has been in your life for so long, you just assume that you’ll be friends forever. It never occurred to me that things would change so drastically that I would no longer recognize someone I had once been so close to. But 25 years into our friendship, I often don’t recognize Gwen at all.
Gwen grew up in a suburb of Vancouver. She graduated from high school, attended college and went on to do very well as a sales manager for a large company in the US. She had two children while living in the States, and although she went through a divorce, she had a very supportive family who would fly down at a moment’s notice to lend a hand. She was living the dream and was extremely happy.
Then, at some point, Gwen was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and was prescribed opioids to control her pain. Shortly after that, Gwen witnessed her good friend, mentor and boss shot and killed in front of her. Although she wasn’t physically harmed, she suffered the emotional scars of witnessing the murder of a man she was close to.
Gwen decided that it was time to move home to Canada. When she returned home, she was still taking prescription opioids for her pain, but her doctor in Canada was reluctant to provide her with the dose that she had been prescribed while living in the US. Unbeknownst to most of us, she started purchasing opioids on her own. Once the painkillers became too expensive to purchase on the street, she opted for the less expensive street drugs.
Over the next year or so, I didn’t see Gwen very much. At first, I thought it was because she was busy adjusting to her new life back home in Canada. She was working and living on her own with her children, but had her parents nearby to help. Although we didn’t see each other often, we continued to talk frequently on the phone. But it’s hard to gauge what’s going on in someone’s life over the telephone. She told me repeatedly that she was fine—and what reason did I have to doubt her? When we finally had a chance to connect in person, the change in Gwen’s appearance was alarming: sunken eyes, pale skin, strange behaviour. She would disappear into the bathroom for long periods of time. I knew that something wasn’t right.
A mutual friend and I decided to stage an “intervention.” We took Gwen out and tried to talk to her and discover what was going on. Gwen assured us that her appearance was a result of her autoimmune disease. We challenged her, but she insisted that everything was fine.
After that meeting, I heard from her less and less frequently. Occasionally she would resurface and call me every day for two weeks. Then she would disappear again. Whenever she called, she seemed okay—or she acted as if she wanted me to believe she was fine—but I wasn’t convinced.
One day, her brother reached out to me and another friend to let us know that Gwen was spiralling out of control. She had been let go from her job and she and her children had moved back in with her parents. Apparently, she had started stealing money and possessions from them. Her brother had taken a photo of her basement bedroom to show us. It was strewn with drug paraphernalia and garbage: bits of tin foil, baggies and cigarette ash covered her bed. This was alarming for us to see.
We decided that we had to do something. With her parents’ support, a few of her friends showed up at the house and surprised Gwen; we told her that we knew what was going on and that we were there to help her. She seemed willing to accept the help.
We helped her family arrange for her to enter a detox and rehabilitation program in the BC Interior. Although she kept telling us that she didn’t need to leave Vancouver, that what she really needed was counselling instead, she reluctantly agreed to go into the rehab program for the sake of her children. The detox centre was close to where Gwen’s extended family lived. I offered to take her to the airport and put her on a plane, and a family member agreed to meet her at the airport at the other end. Overall, Gwen seemed positive and optimistic about what was to come. She certainly knew all the right things to say.
Her friends were there to help her pack and provide words of encouragement. We armed her with some great books and inspirational cards. I drove her to the airport. I parked in the roundabout, walked her to the check-in. And then I left. I remember wondering as I said good-bye to her whether I should have walked with her to the security gates. But then I thought, “Naaaah!” She’d said all the right things. I was so sure she wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize the plans we’d made to get her help.
Gwen never got on the plane that day.
Later, she blamed me, told her family that we had arrived at the airport late. Her family booked her on another flight and she eventually arrived at her location and spent a week in detox. After that, she was sent back to the Lower Mainland, where another friend picked her up at the airport and took her to the rehab centre for what was supposed to be a three-month stay.
One week later, I got a call from Gwen. My heart sank as soon as I saw the number on the call display. She had left the rehab centre. She had decided that what she needed after all was counselling and not drug rehab. I felt sad for her; I knew she needed more than counselling.
We found out later that she hadn’t voluntarily left the rehab centre; she had been kicked out for using drugs.
This happened a year ago, and I’m sad to say the story has repeated itself more than once. Each time we intervene, she tells us that she can beat this addiction on her own. She tells us that she doesn’t need help. She tells us whatever she thinks we want to hear so that we will leave her alone. Most of her friends do leave her alone, but I just can’t. Although she is now someone I hardly recognize, I continue to hold on to all of the memories I have of a younger, healthier Gwen. I won’t leave her alone because I’m hopeful that one day I’ll have my friend back again.
Eventually the Ministry of Children and Family Development got involved. Gwen is now no longer allowed to enter her parents’ house, or her children will be removed from the home. She hit rock bottom and was sleeping in her car. It was after she tried unsuccessfully to kill herself that she was admitted to the hospital—and it was that Friday afternoon that she walked out and disappeared without a trace. That was the Friday I started writing this article.
But as I finish this article a little more than two weeks after I began writing, I’m relieved to be able say that Gwen did go to detox that Friday afternoon. She stayed there for two weeks, and as I write this now, she is in a transition house waiting for a bed at a rehab facility.
When will a bed be available, and will she have the patience to wait for it? I don’t know.
In the meantime, she keeps telling us everything we want to hear and assures us that this time it will be different. I really want to believe her, but I don’t know if I do. Will things be any different this time around? I guess only time will tell.
About the author
Astrid lives in Vancouver, works for a non-profit mental health organization and volunteers with the Child and Youth Mental Health and Substance Use Collaborative