The event was called Orillia Talks, and it lived up to its name.
A pre-arranged list of speakers took to the microphone at the Geneva Event Centre Wednesday night to share their stories about opioid addiction and the loss of loved ones, but it was during the break that many personal experiences came to light.
“I’m an addict,” one young woman said to another. “I’m going to meetings.”
“See?” Kathy Cole said during an interview with OrilliaMatters. “It’s great that people feel comfortable sharing that.”
Cole knows the power of speaking up. Her daughter, Erika, died June 22, 2018, of an accidental overdose. Wednesday would have been Erika’s 34th birthday. Cole asked that Orillia Talks take place Wednesday.
“Erika had this kind, charitable heart. She loved helping others,” Cole said. “I know that if she thought this (event) would have helped one person, she would love it.”
It certainly helped Jess Turton, who shared her story publicly for the first time.
“Today, I can set aside my fear and my pride to raise awareness about this epidemic,” Turton told the dozens in attendance. “I am one of the lucky few. I made it out alive.”
Turton shared details about her difficult home life growing up in Orillia. When she turned 21, she moved to Toronto. It was then that her new friends offered her cocaine. What began as social drug use quickly turned into a dangerous addiction.
“I didn’t need any reason to use anymore. In fact, I didn’t have a choice,” she said.
Eventually, she went to a meeting and got a sponsor.
“This is where my healing journey began,” she said. “It was a long road. It still is.”
Like many dealing with addiction, Turton relapsed one night. What she woke up to the next day was sobering. She had many missed text messages informing her that her good friend, Erika Cole, had died of an overdose.
That’s when she decided it was time to make a change.
“If I didn’t get clean once and for all, my life would be taken as well,” she said. “I promised Erika and myself that I would win for both of us.”
She has since started a family and her own fitness business.
“My struggles have shown me how resilient I am and how much strength I have,” she said.
She and Erika were childhood friends, and Turton spent a lot of time at the Coles’ home.
“I’m so proud of her,” Kathy Cole said of Turton. “She’s always been strong and independent and joyful since she was a kid.”
On hand for Wednesday’s event were members of Simcoe Moms for Overdose Awareness, a group that is petitioning the federal government to declare the opioid crisis a national public health emergency. As of Wednesday night, the petition had garnered more than 10,400 signatures.
“We can’t save the world, but we’re trying,” said group member Evelyn Pollock, whose son, Daniel, died of an accidental overdose at age 43. “We have lost a generation of young people.”
The women sitting up front weren’t the only ones who had lost kids to overdose. A few hands went up in the audience when Pollock asked who in attendance had experienced the same situation.
It was evidence of the scope of the problem. Not everyone wants to speak up and go public with their stories. Melissa Hurst, however, has made it her mission to spread the word.
The Oro-Medonte woman’s son, Luke Kitson, died of an accidental overdose on Mother’s Day in 2017. He was 19.
Consumed by grief, Hurst shared Wednesday for the first time, she contemplated ending her own life.
“I so badly wanted to escape my head. I wanted to escape myself,” she said.
Then, she realized she could make a difference. When she connected with fellow mothers whose children had died of overdose, she found a renewed purpose.
“We are a community,” she said. “When we join together and stand firm, we can make a big difference.”
She implored those in attendance to “do something.”
“It’s OK to not know what to do,” she said, “but it is not OK to go home and do nothing. We have to change the system, and that is not going to happen until we … stand united.”
There is a lot to fight for, including support for those who are trying to escape their addiction. For Erika Cole, for example, a rehab bed couldn’t be found.
Maureen Way knows what it’s like to deal with an inadequate system. Her daughter, Lindsay O'Neil, died in 2016 at 31 years old.
“The community has been fantastic since our loss, but prior to that, the services were horrendous,” Way said. “There was no cohesive approach to help for Lindsay.”
The federal government “needs to put their money where their mouth is,” she added.
“This epidemic is not going anywhere until we really start to fight.”
Dustin Richardson is doing his part. On a poster featuring the faces of those lost to opioid overdose, Richardson is the only one who is still around to share his story.
A few years ago, Richardson was a heroin addict who was begging for change in Toronto, sleeping in Moss Park and going in and out of shelters. One night, he overdosed and collapsed “like an accordion” in a bathroom. He was in that awkward position for eight hours, which led to physical difficulties he still faces.
“I came out relatively unscathed. It was a miracle,” he said. “You’d think that would be enough to deter someone, but when I got out, I went back to using fentanyl. That’s addiction.”
Naloxone, which temporarily reverses the effects of overdose, has been used on him 25 times in his life.
“Heroin has controlled my life,” Richardson said. “Opiates sunk their hooks in me and they wouldn’t let me go.”
He now dedicates his time to spreading awareness. Having gone to college and now working in peer support, “today, my passion is fighting for change,” he said.
That includes changes to drug policy and the stigma associated with users.
“It’s not illicit drugs that are killing people. It’s a lack of compassion,” he said, noting he is advocating for a safe consumption site in Barrie. “We’re not keeping them alive long enough to give them that chance at recovery.”
Compassion is at the heart of Natalie Harris’s initiative to send get-well cards to those struggling with addiction, something she started in January. It lets people know “someone actually cares,” said the Barrie city councillor.
“Compassion is the key to recovery,” she said.
Those in attendance at Wednesday’s event were able to make their own get-well cards to be sent to people who are dealing with addiction. They were also given the opportunity to receive naloxone kits and learn how to use them.
Carolyn Jones, a public health nurse with the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, ran out of the stock of naloxone she brought with her, but she urged people to pick up the free kits.
“You are totally a life ambassador when you carry that kit,” she said. “You are a hero. You are a helper. Thank you for carrying one.”
The calls for systemic change were echoed by John Weeks, a doctor at the Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care in Penetanguishene.
“It’s great that you started that petition,” he told the members of Simcoe Moms for Overdose Awareness.
Weeks used Ottawa as an example. There are 222 treatment beds available in that city, yet 12 to 15 per cent of the population acknowledges their drug and alcohol use is problematic.
“We are simply not able, as a country, to provide the level of care we need,” he said.
At the end of Wednesday’s event, Cole had a few hopes.
“I hope that there are more events like this that address overdose, and that the stigma lessens,” she said.
What’s needed most, though, is more support, Cole added.
“I hope there’s more funding for community and social services.”
For more information about Simcoe Moms for Overdose Awareness, check out the group’s website.