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Overdose awareness: Coping with a double-headed monster

During her most recent stay in hospital, a doctor told Tara Levis — whose addiction and mental-health issues have resulted in serious health complications in recent years — that he wasn’t sure if she’d make it out alive.
Tara Levis, who is struggling with addiction, with her mother Nancy Murphy. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST August 2020

During her most recent stay in hospital, a doctor told Tara Levis — whose addiction and mental-health issues have resulted in serious health complications in recent years — that he wasn’t sure if she’d make it out alive.

“Hearing him say that, if he doesn’t think I’m going to make it, I have to fight to prove him wrong,” said the 35-year-old.

Levis, who is also battling obsessive compulsive disorder, anorexia and ­post-traumatic stress disorder after losing her wife to suicide, spoke to the Times Colonist in advance of International Overdose Awareness Day on Monday, which will be marked by an online candlelit vigil.

The vigil will feature speeches from provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, who has long called for the decriminalization of illicit drugs, and Leslie McBain, co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm, a Canada-wide advocacy group pushing for more harm-reduction strategies, safe supply and decriminalization of drugs.

After months of using heroin laced with up to 20 per cent fentanyl at times, Levis was revived after a serious ­overdose in July. Her mother, Nancy Murphy, said she used five doses of naloxone to reverse the effects of the opioids.

Levis and Murphy — who runs a ­support group called Holding Hope, for people whose loved ones are battling addiction — have an agreement that when Levis uses drugs, she will text her mother, and then text again if she’s OK. If Murphy doesn’t get a follow-up text, it’s a sign of a potential overdose.

In August, Levis was so weak from a Methicillin-resistant staph infection that Murphy and her husband carried her into Royal Jubilee Hospital, where she was admitted for two weeks and treated by the addictions team.

“They’re amazing,” Levis said of the hospital staff. “They are working their asses off in a system that’s so stretched.”

Levis’s doctor upped her dose of ­opioid hydromorphone, prescribed under the brand name Dilaudid.

Levis said having a safe supply of opioids, a program the B.C. government announced in March to reduce overdose deaths from toxic street drugs, has saved her life.

“If I didn’t have it, I would have to use [street drugs] again,” she said, ­sitting in the living room of her mom’s Oaklands home, which is filled with eclectic art, antique furniture and ­family photos.

Levis lives in a heated garden shed in the backyard, which has a small shelf filled with books, Levis’s favourite hobby. Wearing a loose green T-shirt and gym shorts, Levis has copper-­coloured hair that is cut short, revealing a scar on her head from her most recent staph infection.

In addition to the safe-supply program, Victoria is one of five cities across Canada getting a new drug-dispensing machine that can provide safe, doctor-prescribed medication to opioid addicts by scanning their palms. Dispension Industries Inc. leases the machines to pharmacies and safe-injection sites. It’s still unclear where the machine will be located in Victoria.

People registered for the program have to have a history of overdose and must have tested positive for fentanyl in their urine. An encrypted profile is created for them using data from urine samples and from a biometric scan of the vein patterns in their palms.

On Tuesday, B.C. chief coroner Lisa Lapointe revealed that 175 people died of drug overdoses in July, just two deaths shy of B.C.’s record death toll reached in June. In July, paramedics responded to a record 2,706 non-fatal overdoses.

Levis said the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for those who use illicit drugs, because several in-person services have shifted online and the isolation has forced many people to use alone, fueling overdose deaths. She says as she scrolls through her phone, she is struck by how many of her friends are dead.

Victoria mother Georgina says she has run out of options for helping her daughter, who has schizoaffective ­disorder — which includes delusions and intense mood fluctuations — and is addicted to street drugs.

Georgina, who did not want her last name used to protect her daughter’s privacy, said twice in one week in July, she called police to her Gladstone Avenue home to deal with her daughter’s violent behaviour.

Her daughter had missed her ­psychiatric medications for four days and was binging on drugs. Georgina first called police on July 28 after her daughter smashed things around the house and set fire to the kitchen in the home’s basement suite, where she lives. Two days later, Victoria police and the Greater Victoria Emergency Response Team spent two hours negotiating with the daughter, who had barricaded herself in the home and was threatening to slit her wrists.

She surrendered, but not before swallowing the contents of a bottle of Advil and other medications, Georgina said.

Both incidents ended with police taking the woman to hospital under the Mental Health Act. Both times, the daughter was discharged after 24 hours, which Georgina said is extremely frustrating.

During a serious overdose in June, her daughter was discharged from hospital after three hours. Her daughter is a client of the Assertive Community Treatment team, made up of mental-health nurses, police, parole officers and social workers, but Georgina said the ACT team can only do so much if her daughter takes street drugs instead of her medication.

Georgina said her daughter’s case underscores the ways in which the health system continues to treat mental health and addiction separately.

She was told her daughter could not be held in the Archie Courtnall Centre’s psychiatric Emergency Services because she is still using substances. Yet drug-treatment centres won’t take her because her mental health is not stable, Georgina said.

“What has to happen before she will be admitted and stabilized on a psychiatric ward?” the mother asked.

Levis can relate to the experience of being bounced back and forth between the systems that treat mental health and addiction.

“What tends to happen is that it’s siloed,” she said.

“You can’t treat addiction and mental health separately. It needs to be a holistic approach to care.”

In an interview with the Times Colonist, Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy acknowledged that gaps in the system are enormous after years of under­funding.

In the last two months, the B.C. government announced $13.5 million for 50 to 70 new addiction-treatment beds for adults and $36 million for 123 new beds for youth. As of Friday, agencies that want to access government funding to add treatment beds could apply online. The funding will be provided through the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Darcy said adding addictions treatment beds is only one part of the continuum of care.

She said her ministry has been providing more and better training for people in emergency rooms to deal with both mental health and addictions issues, especially in the case of overdoses.

“We have been working to try and connect those people, not just have them discharged but have them connected to services in the community.”

For her part, Levis is putting her energy into tending to a backyard vegetable garden and reading — she’s started a book club with a friend and laughed at how their first read will be a cheesy romance novel.

After a problematic relationship with food due to her anorexia, Levis has started cooking, including making a jambalaya for a pharmacist from STS Pain Pharmacy who has always been patient and kind to her.

It’s these simple things, Levis said, that give her something to live for.

The online vigil for International Overdose Awareness Day takes place at 7 p.m. Monday and can be viewed at

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— With files from The Canadian Press