Sean Dooley personally knows three people who have died from fentanyl overdoses — one of them only weeks ago — and he understands how easily that could’ve been him. The Nelson Leafs assistant coach has revealed to the community that not only was he formerly addicted to fentanyl, it was disturbingly easy to procure.
“I wasn’t using drugs because I wanted to party. This wasn’t a party, it was slavery,” Dooley told approximately 40 parents and community members at L.V. Rogers gymnasium on Wednesday night.
“I didn’t like myself or what I’d become, and seeing what it did to myself and my family and my partner was tough. The amount of fentanyl I could get access to and take in a day was incredible, and what that would do to me was terrible.”
Dooley was sharing his personal experiences, having made it through treatment, to encourage families to have candid conversations about addiction, mental health and trauma — his own use was the subject of a 2016 Star cover story in which he revealed his personal journey through coping with his childhood sexual abuse and trauma.
“When I released that story, I probably had about 400 Facebook messages in 24 hours. People supporting me, giving me a pat on the back, saying how much hope they gained from seeing someone like me going through that and coming through the other side.”
The thing he learned: “The people I thought were going to look down on me and judge me really backed me and were there for me.”
‘I’m losing about four patients a month’
Dooley was joined for the fentanyl panel by his mother, health care professionals and Sgt. Nate Holt from the Nelson Police Department. The event was hosted by SD8 director Lorri Fehr, who also shared her experience of participating in Chief Paul Burkart’s February forum on the subject.
Though there aren’t currently reliable local statistics about how fentanyl is affecting the Kootenays, the panel emphasized repeatedly that people are dying right here in town.
“I lose about four clients a month,” Jamie MacBeth of ANKORS told the crowd.
“We’ve lost more people in Canada in the last two years than during the entire AIDS crisis. It’s enormous, and it’s happening here.”
And because Nelson has a culture of tolerance, she believes it’s time for parents to put aside the shame and stigma typically associated with drug use and have frank conversations with their children about now to navigate an increasingly confusing drug scene.
“In our area, people have belief systems and mythologies around their use. They really think they have the facts. They know their dealer, they trust him because he’s their cousin or something, so they think it’s safe. These belief systems can often put us at great risk,” she said.
These errants beliefs need to be tackled head on, she said.
“We often try to distance ourselves from it — my kids don’t do that, we just don’t do that — but even if that were true, you’d still be feeding into a culture of secrecy, shame and silence. We live in a town where a lot of different people use a variety of substances, and so the risk of our youth having to navigate peers, aunts and uncles, even other parents using — it’s high.”
‘I had never heard the word fentanyl before that day’
The most emotional part of the evening came when Dooley’s mother Pat, a former school superintendent, stood to share the story of when she first learned about her son’s addiction. And though she’s used to public speaking, she said it was tremendously hard to share something so personal.
“This is very difficult for me, and I commend the L.V. Rogers PAC for getting the conversation started. I’m scared about what’s going on not only because of what our family went through, but also because this crisis is not getting better — no matter what you hear.”
When her son first told her he was taking fentanyl, she couldn’t quite believe it.
“I had never heard the word fentanyl before that day. I was very scared and I was thinking: what have we done? Have we done something wrong as parents? Sean needed help and of course we kept it a secret, we never wanted anyone to know.”
But she’s since changed her mind about that.
“The fact is I’ve come full circle, because I think we can help other people by sharing our experiences. This is not a problem for people who are poor, or homeless, or down and out. This issue cuts across all socio-economic classes, all family structures.”
She believes the community needs to evolve in the way it thinks about mental health — a belief she shares with her son. Instead of looking at mental health and addiction problems as shameful, they should be treated with the same urgency and care a broken leg or a cancer diagnosis would merit.
“Please, please rally around these people so we don’t have a tragedy at L.V. Rogers or Mount Sentinel. Talk to your kids about drugs and don’t look down your nose at families who are experiencing issues with drugs. I invite any one of you to contact me, or my son, if you need help or council.”
‘There’s no such thing as a trustworthy drug dealer’
Sgt. Nate Holt graduated from L.V. Rogers, and during the panel he marvelled at how much the drug scene has evolved since he left. He’s scared that the substances available to teens these days are radically more dangerous than the pot and alcohol he was exposed to, and students are getting them from unreliable sources.
“Unlike crack and unlike heroin, fentanyl is reaching into our small towns and we’ve had people die in Nelson because of it. This drug is so powerful it doesn’t need to be widespread to be deadly,” he said.
“The myth says you shouldn’t report to the police, but we’re the first ones to find out and we’re often the first ones there at the scene of an overdose, and our officers carry naloxone and are trained. We’re in the business of saving lives.”
Holt reiterated Burkart’s stance that the department is moving away from an enforcement strategy towards a collaborative harm reduction one, and stressed that they want to be considered allies in tackling this epidemic.
He told them “there’s no such thing as a trustworthy drug dealer,” adding that as soon “as something goes south, that person is no longer your friend.”
He noted that it’s easier to obtain street level drugs than prescription ones — and if you catch your kids with pills, there’s no way to know exactly what’s in them.
“I believe this crisis was created by us humans, and it could be solved by us working together as a collective.”
‘You don’t have to hide in the darkness’
Audience members were given an opportunity to ask questions during the meeting, and many of them revolved around the intertwining of addiction and trauma — a topic Sean Dooley was eager to talk about.
“If you break your leg, it’s a no-brainer. You don’t walk around with a bone protruding out of your skin and say it’s OK, so why would it be any different for mental health?”
He encouraged anyone struggling with addiction to reach out.
“You don’t have to hide in the darkness.”