What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. Gah. Hearing this phrase makes me want to stab my eye out with a fork. I think most widows have the same reaction to this. Especially when it is expressed to you by someone who is still happily with their person. I’ve heard it and read it many times since losing Kevin, and while I know it is a well intentioned phrase, it definitely falls into the category of unhelpful. My husband is dead, I’m parenting two kids alone (forever!), I’m sad, I’m alone, I’m exhausted and at the end of my rope most (all!) days….I don’t want to be stronger!! I was completely and totally fine being a weaker person but married to my best friend who was alive! But if I am truly and completely open and vulnerable, the reason why it makes me want to stab my eye out, is deep down I know that it is a true. The shit I am in right now, is most certainly shit. BUT, it is causing me to grow. It is causing me to change. It is causing me to enter the flames of this firestorm, and I know I’m going to emerge from the fire like a Phoenix, stronger and more beautiful than ever. I”m not there yet, but I’m kicking, screaming and fighting to get there.
As I walk through this journey, I find myself thinking increasingly about what mark I am making on the world. I’m raising (at least hopefully) kind, compassionate and kick ass little girls. I’m filling the world with dark, yet hopefully hilarious widow humour. I’m a good friend (again, hopefully!) to many out there in the world. But as my existential mid-life/widow crisis gets larger, I wonder what am I really doing to make this world better? Is this enough? I certainly don’t have the answer yet but I did something recently that filled me joy and pride, and I felt like I was doing my tiny part to make the world better. I was fortunate to have to the opportunity to speak on a panel at a conference for health centres from across Ontario. The attendees had gathered in order to develop a cohesive strategy to fight the opiod crisis in their communities. I was there to share my story, to share Kevin’s story and to help chip away at the stigma surrounding drug addiction. I couldn’t save Kevin, but if my story can save another woman from becoming a widow, or can prevent 2 other little girls from becoming fatherless, I will do it. Being able to turn my pain and Kevin’s pain into something that may change lives was so powerful. It also took me back deep into the pain I feel due to his death and it took me back deeper in the trauma I suffered at the hands of his addiction. This wasn’t fun. But it was necessary. Going back into the fire is part of healing. I need to go into the fire to come out the other side. And I think I’m coming out the other side a more beautiful person. That fucking phrase is right. What doesn’t kill you DOES make you stronger. I just wish Kevin was around to see it. He’d be proud of me.
Check out my speech here
Thank you for including me in your day today. It’s a real honour and privilege to be here. On August 7th, 2016 my life was changed forever when my best friend, my partner in life and the father of my children died of an accidental heroin overdose at home. August 7th was the day I became a widow and the day my two young daughters lost their dad. Its funny, because even now, a year out from his death, in my mind the word widow conjures up images of an elderly lady, wearing black and mourning her long dead husband. If you saw me walking down the street, you wouldn’t think ‘oh she must be a widow’. If you saw me at the park with my two girls, you wouldn’t think ‘oh those girls don’t have a father’. I wear black, but it’s purely because of fashion and well, let’s be frank, I’d like to look slimmer. I look like any young (well, young-ish or young in my mind!) mom at the park. I don’t look like what the stereotypical definition of a widow looks like. And I most certainly don’t look like a woman whose husband died of a heroin overdose. But I am. I’m a widow and my husband died of a heroin overdose.
Kevin and I met 17 years ago. Kevin was almost 21 and I was just barely 26. We became friends first and then 6 months later, we did as most 20 somethings do….we went to a bar one night, got drunk and made out and that was the beginning of our relationship! Oh to be young and naive without a care in the world again! Drunken kissing aside, we began to spend more and more time together, and as we did, we fell in love. And as we fell in love, we became best friends too. We knew each other better than anyone in the world, and with each other, our true selves came to the surface. As cliche as it sounds, we made each other better. We became engaged in 2004, and got married in September 2005. In front of our friends and family, we promised to stick by each other through good times and bad, through sickness and health and through richer or poorer, until death parted us. When i think about that beautiful day now, I shake my head at my naive self. We said the words, but we didn’t know what they meant or what we were promising. We couldn’t know what lay ahead of us. But as I stand here now, having had death part us, I’m proud to say I stood by my promise to him. I stood by him as addiction ripped his life apart, I stood by him as his addiction ripped my life apart. I did not give up on him because he became a heroin addict. I loved him despite it all.
In December 2008, for reasons Kevin could never clearly articulate and for reasons, I can’t wrap my head around, Kevin tried heroin for the first time. He grew up in a loving, close family. He played sports in high school, had lots of friends and excelled academically. Nothing jumps out from his past saying ‘oh that’s the trauma that made him do heroin!’. As a teen and as a young adult, he had lived a life in which he had used drugs recreationally. He smoked weed infrequently, did ecstasy at raves and drank with the reckless abandon of a 20 something guy. But never in a million years was heroin something I would have expected him to try. Heroin was for junkies on the street, not us upper middle class, educated, gainfully employed young adults. In 2004, he was diagnosed with generalized anxiety and embarked on a decade long journey to understand his mental health disorder, to find the right medication and to learn the tools with which to manage his anxiety. His underlying mental health issues were most certainly a driving factor in his desire to feel different, and ultimately a driving factor in his addiction. He wanted to feel better. To feel excitement. To feel something. One night in January 2009, Kevin went to bed before me and when I came to bed 20 minutes later, I found him lying in our bed, blue in the face, unconscious and barely breathing. In sheer panic, I called 911 and ultimately was responsible for saving his life. After the paramedics revived him, I heard one ask him “what did you take?’. When Kevin answered “heroin’ I felt like a mack truck hit me while simultaneously feeling like I was going to pass out. This was how I came to learn Kevin had tried heroin. From that night on, Kevin spent the next 7 years fighting tooth and nail to beat this. He fought every day to stay clean. He fought every day to slay his demons and to resist the power of heroin. For many days, he was successful. And for many days he was not. He struggled in active addiction for most of 2009, with stints in in patient rehab, out patient rehab, a sober living facility in Toronto and living with me. Eventually, his NA meetings and step work started to stick and he got a year clean time, and then 2. And then relapsed. And then got another year clean time. And then relapsed. And so on and so on. And with each relapse, he would be tortured with guilt and shame, and then would eventually tell me and sob while doing so. I remember clearly after one relapse, him lying on the couch with his head in my lap, sobbing while saying “I don’t want this. I don’t want to do this to you. I hate this. I don’t want to die”. It was moments like that, that gave me the strength to carry on and support him. Because to the outside world (namely my father! And my best girlfriends), the obvious answer was to get rid of this deadbeat junkie.
But he was not and is not a ‘junkie’. He was a person who struggled with addiction and mental health issues. He was an intelligent, curious, hilarious, wacky, caring, compassionate, loving person who was also addicted to heroin. His addiction is part of his story, but it is not his whole story and it does not define him. Kevin had his masters in social work and had spent more than a decade working with seniors in long term care. In early 2016, he had left long term care and had moved into hospital social work and was working in the palliative care ward as well as the oncology ward. He was an amazingly amazing dad to our two young girls. He was a trouble making middle child who was adored by his parents and by his 4 siblings. He was a friend to many, and he brought people together with his infectious energy and his deep belly laugh. And a good number of Simpsons quotes too. The list goes on. His custom made, monogrammed dress shirts hid not only a ton of huge and amazing tattoos but also his track marks on his arms. Our basement held not only his weightlifting equipment, our Christmas decorations, and our laundry room, but it also hid his drugs and his needles. He hid his addiction from most people in his life, and he hid it because he was ashamed and because of the stigma society places on addiction. This shame and stigma lead him to isolate himself, to pull back from his friends, his family, even from me. And in this isolation, the thoughts that told him to return to the drug, the thoughts that told he could use just one more time, got louder and louder until eventually they were all he could hear.
Early on, after Kevin died a dear friend from high school sent me this condolence card that says ‘Please let me be the first to punch the next person who tells you everything happens for a reason’. It was so perfect, I wanted to kiss her. Because it’s true, there is no reason in the universe that I should become a widow at 42, or that my girls should lose their dad when they were 2 and 5. No reason. But now that I’m a year into this new, unchosen life, I can see that I can squeeze some good out of this awfulness. I do not want another wife to lose her husband. I do not want another 2 year old or 5 year old to lose their dad. I want Kevin’s story to be a lesson for all of us.
Addiction is a merciless beast. This opiod crisis is an equal opportunity life destroyer. Addiction does not care how much money you have or how educated you are or how loving you are or how many friends you have. Addiction is not a disease of ‘the other’. It is a disease that is all around us, in all walks of life, in all our communities. I talk openly about my journey of loving an addict in hopes that I can be a part of reducing the stigma around addiction, and consequently allow a long suffering addict out there to feel less shame and to reach out for help. Until this stigma is gone, and until the ‘othering’ of addiction is stopped, addicts like my beautiful husband will continue to suffer in silence and will continue to die alone.
Some cool related resources
Association of Ontario Health Centres
Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance
Donate to harm reduction in Toronto