Antonette Rea speaks after attending a community meeting in Kitsilano where people learned how to respond to an overdose, in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday November 13, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Stories from the overdose crisis’ front lines

Drug users and first responders share stories from the B.C. overdose crisis’ front lines

More than a month had passed before Antonette Rea found the note her young friend had written her before fatally overdosing earlier this year.

“Thank you so much for saving my life,” Rea reads aloud to a crowd of 80 people packed into a community hall in the tony Vancouver neighbourhood of Kitsilano.

“I love your dancing and your singing and sorry for using all of your nail polish and art supplies,” she continues, prompting laughter from the otherwise silent audience. She smiles and puts down the note: “I called her Jilly Bean. Jilly.”

Related: Solving the drug overdose tragedy

Rea was one of more than a half-dozen drug users and first responders based in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside who shared their stories with residents living elsewhere in the city over the past six weeks as part of a series of overdose awareness and prevention workshops.

Monday evening’s gathering in Kitsilano was the last of six events aimed at delivering stories from the front line of British Columbia’s overdose epidemic.

Jackie Wong helped facilitate the program, which was organized by the Overdose Prevention Society and Megaphone Magazine, a monthly publication sold by homeless and low-income vendors.

It is important the overdose conversation happens beyond the Downtown Eastside, in neighbourhoods where drug use is not as public, Wong said.

“I think that that’s where the conversation needs to move, … to places where people might be overdosing in private residences or quieter places because of the stigma that still is associated with them as a drug user.”

Storytellers included people who survived the residential school system or various forms of violence and discrimination, those who experienced a traumatic childhood or worked in the sex trade.

Rea is a transgender poet and playwright who has struggled with drug addiction and once worked as a prostitute in the Downtown Eastside. She said there is a good chance her friend Jilly Bean would be alive if she had overdosed in the Downtown Eastside instead of in North Burnaby, thanks to the lack of overdose-prevention training and resources outside of Vancouver’s hardest-hit neighbourhood.

The hall was completely quiet as Samona Marsh spoke about the number of people she knows who have died from an overdose, including her feather in early 2017.

“If I had one wish or magical wand, I would bring back everyone’s friends and families who passed away and make fentanyl non-existent,” said Marsh, who has lived in the Downtown Eastside for the past 25 years.

She coined the term “fentanality” to refer to a fentanyl fatality.

Related: September least deadly month for drug overdose this year: coroner

The workshops also included a training session on how to respond to an overdose, delivered by the Overdose Prevention Society

Kitsilano resident Deborah Buchanan volunteered to be shown how to administer naloxone by filling a syringe and injecting it into the leg of a stuffed toy gorilla.

“I’m so happy I learned,” Buchanan said afterwards. “I need to know how to do this and help someone.

“My son was involved in drugs, my middle son, and it kind of tore me apart, because I always thought, ‘I’m going to see you die one day and I don’t want to see that.’ “

She said what she found most inspiring was hearing from the storytellers.

Frederick Williams, a responder with the overdose prevention group, led the training session.

He said it’s important that these events happen outside the Downtown Eastside because has turned into a city-wide epidemic.

“It’s very important to have it come out to places like Kitsilano, Shaughnessy, all these higher-end neighbourhoods,” he said in an interview following the presentation. ”They can’t put their head in the sand like an ostrich and think it’s going to go away, because it’s not.”

Geordon Omand, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Sept. 27 to Oct. 3

World Farm Animals Day, Drink Beer Day and Virus Appreciation Day are all coming up this week

COVID-19 cases grow to 13 at B.C. First Nation near Fort St. James

“This is very serious,” says Nak’azdli Whut’en Chief

Directional traffic change coming to one-way street beside McLeod Elementary

This change will be in effect starting Monday, Oct. 5.

Vanderhoof’s Brian Frenkel takes on top job in tough times

We can get through this, new local government leader says

Cullen confirmed as B.C. NDP candidate for Stikine despite party’s equity policy

Former Tahltan Central Government President Annita McPhee said the process made her feel “abused”

QUIZ: Do you know what’s on TV?

Fall is normally the time when new television shows are released

Canadian ski resorts wrestle with pandemic-vs.-profit dilemma as COVID-19 persists

Few are actually restricting the total number of skiers they allow on the hill

Victoria-area RCMP locate high-risk sex offender thanks to help of taxi cab driver

Scott Jones wanted on a Canada-wide warrant, ‘a risk to women and girls,’ police say

A (virtual) walk around the world by 88-year-old B.C. man

George Doi says it’s simple: ‘I like walking’

End of CERB means uncertainty for some, new system for others

As of a week ago, the CERB had paid out $79.3 billion to 8.8 million people

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Horgan, Wilkinson trade barbs over MSP premiums, health care at campaign stops

Horgan called a snap election for Oct. 24 earlier this week

PHOTOS: 2nd calf in a month confirmed among Southern Resident killer whale pod

Center for Whale Research said they will eagerly await to observe the calf to evaluate its health

Most Read