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Aboriginal Affairs

She Survived BC’s Overdose Crisis, but 49 Friends Did Not

After a long battle with addiction, Jolene Greyeyes found a way out. But the mourning doesn’t stop.

Jackie Wong 5 Jun

Jackie Wong works as a freelance writer in Vancouver. Find her on Twitter @_jackiewong.

On a sunny Friday morning in late May, Jolene Greyeyes, 38, drove from her home in Abbotsford to a familiar block in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside where, through her twenties and early thirties, she spent her days on the streets, sleeping most nights in the homeless shelter at First United Church.

She joined the crowd hanging near the intersection of East Hastings and Princess streets. They’d gathered for a memorial. Their friend, a 39-year-old father of a six-year-old boy, had died of a drug overdose two weeks after getting out of treatment.

“He was a really good dad when he was clean. He was a really good friend, in his addiction and out of his addiction,” Greyeyes remembers. “It’s really sad that his son’s not going to see him ever again.”

Like many funerals, the event carried the bittersweet quality of reunion. “I had all these people coming ’round the corner. They were like, ‘Is that you?’” Greyeyes smiles and laughs when she says, “Yes!”

Her life has changed dramatically since she left the Downtown Eastside in April 2011. The transformation is evident in her sureness, her bright eyes, and her friendly laugh. But lately she’s been back in her old neighbourhood more often than unusual.

“Every couple days somebody’s posting on Facebook that this person died,” she says. “At first it was shocking. But now, it’s common.”

British Columbia’s illicit drug overdose crisis has killed a record-breaking 488 people in the first four months of 2017. That’s more than double the number of people who died of overdoses through a whole year a decade ago in 2007.

The overdose crisis is killing four times as many people as B.C.’s HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1990s, when an average of one British Columbian a day died at the height of the crisis in 1994.

Today, an average of four people are dying of overdoses each day in B.C. At this rate, the province could be on track for 1,500 overdose deaths in 2017, more than the record-breaking 935 people who died of overdoses in the province in 2016.

The numbers can seem abstract. But Greyeyes says she knows of more than 100 people in her community — friends of friends — who have died of overdoses in the past year. She’s compiled a list of 49 people she knew personally who died over the last year and a half.

“It’s just not safe to use down here anymore,” she says. Greyeyes was addicted to crack and heroin during her years in the Downtown Eastside from 1999 to spring 2011. As harrowing as those years were, she says the scene is completely different now that fentanyl is part of so many drugs.

“This is a different ballgame now. People are just dropping like crazy.”

Despite the rate of death, the general public doesn’t seem to understand the depth of the crisis and the toll it’s having on families, she adds.

“They don’t care to come into the community and see how these people live. They drive by them and they say, ‘Oh, look at those junkies. Oh, look at these homeless people sleeping on the street. Oh, look at that bum digging in the garbage.’ I was down here. I wonder how many people said that about me: ‘Look at that prostitute standing on the corner,’” she says.

“People don’t understand that these people down here, they’re somebody’s family.”

‘If I could have just quit, I would have’

Greyeyes remembers her first years in the Downtown Eastside when her family would come to find her and plead with her to change her ways.

“My sister flew in here from Manitoba to try and get me to clean up. I had my mother-in-law of my first son come down here crying. She would bring me food and she would beg me, ‘Come home and get clean. Your son misses you,’” she says.

“I had his aunties drive by all the time. I had my son’s dad come down here one time and see me on the street and beg me to get clean.” The memory of all that brings tears to her eyes. But stopping an addiction is never as easy as turning off a tap.

“You can’t just quit,” she says. “If I could have just quit, I would have quit. It took me 11 long, painful years to quit — it’s not just something you can stop.” Substance use has been part of her life since she was a kid. She was introduced to cocaine when she was 12 years old after having moved out to Vancouver from Manitoba when she was 10.

“I didn’t go to school,” she remembers. “There was nobody there to enforce ‘education’s important,’ you know. That wasn’t the upbringing that I had.”

A way out

To spend years of life chasing crack and heroin takes a toll. “You do things that get you in trouble. And you do things that could get you killed,” Greyeyes says.

She got by as a sex worker, and a close-knit circle of friends kept her safe. They helped each other out. But, as she remembers, “it was just a never-ending cycle of going in and out of jail… it was really hard to get away.”

Then she started bumping into people she knew who had transitioned into recovery, people with whom she used to use drugs. She vividly remembers running into a friend she knew for years in the Downtown Eastside, living sober and working in a homeless shelter. “I didn’t recognize her, but she recognized me,” Greyeyes recalls.

“That was the first time that I knew somebody who used to use with me, and she was clean. She was the first person to get me in contact with a recovery house.”

It took three or four years in and out of recovery before she found the will to stay after a friend drove her to a recovery home in Abbotsford. “I was happy there because they were structured and they were focused on recovery and getting you better and getting you ready for society,” she says.

She worked hard. She got clean. She went back to school, and in six months received a high school graduation certificate. “I had a Grade 6 education,” she says. “I graduated with my GED at 34.”

Today, she lives in Abbotsford with her fiancé, Jacob, and her four-year-old daughter, Emma. She loves them dearly. “Jacob’s truly a blessing. I’m not sure I could picture life without him. ‘Best dad in the world,’ as Emma says.”

Her everyday concerns feel like a world away from what they once were. “I complain about having to clean up my house all the time,” she laughs. “But it’s a step up from living at the First United Church or sleeping on the street.”

Her life feels good. But the new reality still feels strange. “My whole adult life, from when I was like 19 until I was in my 30s, I didn’t have normal contact with normal people. I’m still nervous to talk to regular people who just don’t relate, you know?”

She thinks often of her friends that she continues to lose to addiction and overdose. She wishes there was faster access to detox for people who want to get clean, and better regulations in place for recovery homes. She knows, from personal experience, that they vary wildly in quality. They can also be prohibitively expensive.

She would like to see an expansion of Vancouver’s heroin-assisted treatment programs, currently on offer to a limited small group of people through the Crosstown Clinic, many of whom she used to know.

“It’s also the government not doing anything,” she adds. A member of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation in Manitoba, she is frustrated by what she sees as lasting, harmful deluge of assumptions and biases leveled towards Indigenous people. “‘They’re an Indian.’ ‘They’re a drunk.’ ‘They’re a drug addict.’ ‘They don’t matter.’ These are just things that I hear all the time,” she says.

“I don’t understand why people don’t listen to First Nations people.”

In the face of so much loss and adversity, Greyeyes keeps on, she says, because “I have to.”

She shows me phone snaps of her daughter graduating from preschool in cap and gown with a bouquet of flowers and dancing in a red polka dot tutu.

Greyeyes’s daughter is a huge source of love and inspiration. She’s happy in her life these days but she thinks often of what could have been if she stayed in her past life.

“It could be me. My name could be on this paper and somebody could be telling you my story. There’s a [memorial] wall down on Hastings that has people’s names. There are graffitis of people that I know, faces on the wall. My name could be on that wall.

“I’m just really thankful that I made it out of here. And I pray for the people that are still down here, struggling every day.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Aboriginal Affairs, Health

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