On May 3, Judith Stuart’s son died alone in his apartment of a drug overdose.
Samuel Stuart, 42, was one of 170 illicit-drug deaths in May, the highest number ever recorded in a single month in B.C.
For his mother, it was the end of a “long, long journey” with her son, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disease in his early 20s.
“Well now it’s over,” she said with a sigh. “Oh, it’s over. But I keep thinking there must have been something else I could have done.”
Sam started self-medicating with street drugs to soothe the demons in his head, said Stuart, 77. Before long, his drug addiction led to hospital admissions, involvement in the criminal justice system and homelessness.
“Sam would have been better off in an institution,” said Stuart. “Mental illness is such a scary thing for all of us and we aren’t doing the right things in trying to help those affected. We’ve left them on the street and we’ve let them become drug addicted.”
Sam was sick from an early age, said Stuart, who describes her son as very, very difficult.
The teachers at Montessori preschool always said: “Sam won’t listen. Sam pushes people.”
St. Michaels University School asked him to leave.
“It was awful,” said Stuart. “We were at the principal’s office every single week to discuss what was happening with Sam. He was bright and capable, in the 98th percentile. But he couldn’t concentrate. He couldn’t sit still. He either had fits of laughter or was in absolute terror. I couldn’t even go the store with him because I didn’t know how he would act.”
Sam managed to complete Grade 12, and worked in his mother’s restaurant, 386 Deli on Blanshard Street. But other jobs didn’t work out so well.
There were altercations and outbursts, episodes of paranoia and delusion. Sam was committed to the Eric Martin Pavilion three times. There was also a trip to the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital in Coquitlam.
“Sam had a good life — he had two parents who loved him and provided for him. But if you have an illness and that illness is untreated, there’s nothing in this world that you can do to change that,” said Stuart.
“He was on crystal meth because it took him away, gave him a sense of well-being. I could no more change the addiction for him than fly to the moon.”
Eventually, Sam became homeless. For four and a half years, he lived on the streets, where Stuart worried he would be hurt.
“There’s no honour on the street. There’s just: ‘You got it. I want it. I’ll take your sleeping bag. I’ll take your shoes. I don’t really give a s--- that you’re on the street, buddy, because I’m on the street, too.’ ”
Stuart used to go looking for Sam on Fort Street, where he liked to be. Stuart bought him more sleeping bags than she can remember and brought him food.
She describes “one of the most beautiful moments”: “I looked in this doorway and there was this boy, man. I couldn’t see his face. He didn’t have socks or shoes and his feet kind of looked familiar. I didn’t want to disturb him because I’ve gone up to people before and it turned out not to be him.
“Coming back, I saw it was my son. And I bent down and just, you know, touched his face. It was just like touching him as a baby again,” said Stuart, fighting back tears.
For the past two years, Sam was being monitored by members the Pandora Assertive Community Treatment Team, which helps clients with recovery. He was moved into supportive housing at an apartment on Gorge Road East.
In November, he disappeared and missed his shot of medication. The ACT team eventually found him in Vancouver. He attempted to return to Victoria, but with no money, he ended up in an altercation with B.C. Ferries workers at Tsawwassen. Police were called and he was taken to St. Paul’s Hospital because he was convinced he was an alien.
When he returned to Victoria, he was admitted to the psychiatric ward at Royal Jubilee Hospital, where he stayed from December until February. He returned to his apartment in supportive housing.
After the pandemic broke out, he would sometimes meet his mother in the lobby of her James Bay apartment building, where she would give him cigarettes, chocolate bars and candies.
The last time he phoned her, he left a message saying: “Oh hi mom, I had a great success, so I am glad about that, maybe I will drop by, take care, love you.”
The ACT team found him several days after his death.
Stuart thinks Sam might not have been able to get his regular supply of crystal meth due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The B.C. Coroners Service reported extreme fentanyl concentrations in the illicit-drug supply in April and May.
“He was involved in the medical system for 24 years trying to get help,” said his mother.
In his obituary, his sister, Lisa, wrote: “At times it was easier to just not say I had a brother versus try and explain his mental suffering, his homelessness, his times in lockdown, how he tried to self-medicate. He died alone like he lived, feared and rejected by people when really it was him who feared what was around him … So next time you pass that homeless person, that person who appears mentally ill, remember we are all precious human beings worthy of someone standing up to say they will help, saying they will care, saying they will enact policy to help because it matters.”
The B.C. Coroners Service is expected to announce the number of June illicit-drug overdoses in the middle of the month.