Parents Describe Losing a Child to Substance Use

June 12, 2019. Article by: Government of BC

“Ryan was a little boy once,” reflects his father. “Good natured, imaginative, loved to play. He was an avid reader, loving, social and active.”

Ryan died of an overdose in April 2017.

“He was one of 154 overdose deaths that month,” Ryan’s mother goes on. “But we don’t want him to be a number. He’s our son and this is his story.”

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Ryan’s family has a history of addiction. His parents believe this played a part in his challenges with substance use, which developed when Ryan was a teenager.

“The first time he drank was in Grade 10, on New Year’s Eve. That night kids drank, but Ryan was the only one who ended up in an ambulance with alcohol poisoning. Ryan started smoking pot frequently in his teens.”

“Even while Ryan used drugs, he was still getting As, still had friends, completed college programs,” his father says. “He used everything, with oyxcontin leading to heroin.”

Ryan focused on abstinence to try and address his opioid use. He went through periods of stability, at one point moving back into his parents’ house and working as an electrician. He also went through periods of instability, including relapse.

During this time, Ryan maintained contact with his family. However, when he tried to access healthcare services to support his recovery, Ryan felt judged and brushed aside because of his substance use. Ryan left home following this stigmatizing experience. His parents didn’t hear from him for months. 

“Finally, Ryan phoned and asked for help,” his mother says. “He went to a private treatment facility. He had a great experience there; it was laid back, it involved community. They went on outings together, to the gym and the movies. It mirrored real life. We had our son and brother back.”

Following the treatment program, Ryan’s parents believed things had stabilized.

Then, on Monday April 24, 2017, Ryan died at work on a lunch break. No one saw it coming.

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Ryan’s story includes many themes familiar to people experiencing substance use challenges: Stigma, a lack of available services and supports, the pressure and issues of abstinence-based recovery.

Abstinence-based recovery is dangerous for people with opioid use disorder. When a person stops taking opioids, their tolerance for these substances is reduced. This means that the risk of overdose is much higher in the event of a relapse, and relapse is very common. All opioid detox, treatment and recovery programs should include opioid agonist treatment, and supports to maintain people on this medication after they finish a program. 

Ryan’s story also shows the importance of continued care and support from family and friends, and the risk of keeping substance use in the shadows.

It shows that recovery is a lifelong journey that requires ongoing management and support. Tragically, many people share Ryan’s story of detox, treatment, recovery, relapse and accidental death by overdose.

Ryan’s parents believe talking about the issues Ryan faced can help others learn compassion for people experiencing addiction. It can help develop new options for care, and make sure other families don’t experience the heartbreak they did.

Because, as Ryan’s story shows, these issues can affect anyone.

“Ryan didn’t want to be an addict. What do we do before they become addicts? Kids need to know and have these conversations with each other and with their parents.”

Ryan’s parents shared their story in the Behind the Numbers research project, in which people with lived experience using drugs and healthcare service providers offered their perspectives to help further understanding of substance use and addiction in B.C.

Learn more about the Behind the Numbers project.

Read the Behind the Numbers stories book (PDF).

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