Kids of addiction
What my father's overdose death taught me.
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What my father's overdose death taught me.
What my father's overdose death taught me.
January 31, 1998: A dingy wet blanket of a sky had been thrown over Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. My father, Ronald “Kenny” Jang, closed the kitchen at the Ivanhoe, the dive bar where he worked. I imagine he wiped down the counters. He flicked off the lights. He locked the door behind him. He walked into the bar – I know that, too, was part of his routine. He was 33 years old. I was five.
He would have grabbed a beer – about $2 back then – and sat at one of several dimly lit tables where he joined his friends. He had plans for the night. To go to a play with Christine, my mother. The play was called Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth. The play was her idea. She bought the tickets after he told her he wanted to go. They were married, but separated. Trying to work it out. She was at home, an hour’s drive away in Abbotsford, getting ready to go out. Getting ready to give him another chance. She was waiting for him to come home. He spent a lot of his life being late.
His sister Jenn walked into the bar looking for him. This, too, happened a lot. She was a decade younger than he was. She gave him the look she always gave him when she was out looking for him. It was the look their mother gave him growing up. It was time for him to go. He finished the beer. He left the table and went up to his sister. “Please, please, please, just let me stay,” he said. Jenn shook him off. She knew her brother too well. He was about to get into trouble.
But he kept at it. “Jenn, I promise I’ll be home after. I promise. I promise I’m going to be good.” She wanted to believe him. She wanted him to have a good time. And, to his credit, he had been good for several months. He seemed to be getting better.
And so she said, “Okay, fine. But make sure you call me if you need a ride home.”
My father hugged her. Then he must have bought another beer. Time disappeared. You know the way time can disappear when you’re trying to make it disappear. It disappeared seemingly along with the thought of driving out to Abbotsford and sitting through a play. Eventually, somebody must have suggested cocaine. Maybe it was him. He got up with the group and headed out the door to a random house party. Time was moving faster. Or slower. Or both.
Before anyone knew it, the party was over. His friends must have left. He stayed behind. He was alone now. He grabbed a syringe and the blow and I imagine stumbled into the bathroom. He’d done this before. He’d bailed on the play. He injected into his right arm, an instant euphoria cleansing his guilt, the way coke does. But the euphoria must have been replaced by panic. Something was different. Something was wrong. This wasn’t just cocaine. It was cocaine and heroin.
My father collapsed onto the bathroom floor. His body likely would have been shaking, mouth foaming. Then his heart stopped. To this day I wonder what he was thinking in those moments before he died. I wonder if his last thought was my mom, or my little sister or maybe me. I wonder about the path his life took that led him to that night. I wonder how much of that path can fairly be called his fault. And I wonder if he had any idea it was a path I’d retrace.
Children of addicts are twice as likely to develop substance abuse issues as our peers. The moment my father’s heart stopped, I also became more likely to grow up with a mental illness. One in five children who experience the early death of a parent are likely to develop a psychiatric disorder. So am I doomed to repeat my father’s mistakes and ultimately meet the same fate? Or are there ways for me and kids like me to re-write our stories?
It wasn’t more than a few years ago when I wasn’t so sure. I’ve struggled with depression, substance abuse and this lingering thought in the back of my mind that I’m destined to end up like my father. It’s been a hard struggle, but hardly a unique one. There could be 1,500 drug overdose deaths in British Columbia alone by the end of 2017, after a record 978 deaths in the province last year. I wonder how many of those drug users left kids behind?
Consider this a sign of what may or may not lie ahead for the kids of Canada’s opioid overdose crisis. My father died at the height of Vancouver’s last drug crisis, when crack cocaine usage spiked in the city’s Downtown Eastside in the 1990s. My father was one of 417 overdose deaths in B.C. in 1998, which, at the time, was the highest annual death toll from drugs in the province’s recorded history. But by today’s standards, getting that number back down to 417 would be a miracle.
My father never wanted me to follow his path. He wanted me to learn from it instead. So I feel it’s important for me to share both of our stories so that maybe others can learn from what we’ve been through.
July 1973: My father, who was eight, woke up to the sound of someone screaming in the hallway. He walked down the stairs of the family’s two storey home in Richmond, a suburb of Vancouver. His two younger brothers were hauling sleeping bags and backpacks into a pile to load into the car. They were late for the boat ride to summer camp. Their mother, Bunny, was the one doing the screaming. She was pretty, French, blonde and foul-mouthed. She was also apparently still drunk from the night before. This was my grandmother – Nana.
“Come on!” Bunny yelled. She shoved them out the door and into the back of the 1967 gold Barracuda. The engine roared as Bunny floored it out of their driveway towards Number Five Road. They didn’t have much time. If she didn’t get the boys to the boat, they didn’t go to camp. And if they didn’t go to camp, she didn’t have a month to herself.
There wasn’t a car in sight so she gunned it to make up for all the traffic lights ahead in Vancouver. Then, a car pulled out of a driveway right in front of her. She swerved around it, losing control, and headed toward the ditch. She kept her foot on the gas to try to make the jump - that’s the kind of woman she was. My dad and uncles rolled around along with the sleeping bags in the back.
She nearly made it across the ditch. My dad felt a thump as they landed on the far bank, the tail end of the car still in the ditch. Someone smacked their head against the dashboard. Then everything was still.
Several minutes later my father heard voices from above. “Are you okay?!” Two tow-truck men started pulling the boys out of the car, which was resting almost vertically in the ditch. Everyone was okay, save for the blood spilling from the gash on my uncle’s forehead. But the blood didn’t matter, they had to get to camp. Even as the tow truck pulled out the Barracuda, Bunny was calling a cab. The cab arrived, my dad and his brothers caught the boat, and they went to camp.
This was an average day in the life of my young father.
My Nana was a loving but troubled mother. My uncle, Robbie, who told me this story, remembers Nana saying “I love you” every day. But he also remembers her drinking every day. “She wasn’t really in tune with what was going on and wasn’t able to stop your dad from doing the drugs,” he told me recently. “Even at certain points they would drink together,” he said.
Today in his fifties, my uncle is a small business owner and a father of two. He lives in North Vancouver where I’ve been pestering him on and off for months now trying to trace my father’s downfall. These conversations inevitably lead to stories about his relationship with Bunny and her wild escapades.
Bunny was only 14 when she became pregnant with my dad. She was working for her mother at the time. In the 1960s my great-grandmother ran a safe house for street girls in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. One of those street girls was dating a 21-year-old Chinese immigrant by the name of Ron Jang. Ron broke up with his girlfriend and then impregnated Bunny, much to the shock and horror of my great-grandmother.
Bunny was shipped off to Quebec, pregnant with my dad, and my grandpa Ron was forbidden to see them. But my grandparents were young and in love, and Ron was determined to prove his worth. He got a job washing cars and eventually became one of the top car salesman in Western Canada. He had earned my great-grandmother’s respect. Bunny moved back and my grandparents bought a house in Richmond.
But my uncle remembers their relationship quickly deteriorating. He remembers a lot of violence. Grandpa left the home when my dad was seven. Robbie was six. Bunny was heartbroken. “At a young age she thought she would be with him for the rest of her life,” Robbie said. “Your grandma had a lot of issues because she never really experienced her childhood.”
Ron provided some financial support – the only kind of support he seemed capable of. Why was my grandfather this way? He escaped China as a teenager at the dawn of the country’s cultural revolution, one of the bloodiest eras in Chinese history. As many as two million people died during a decade-long period of political and social chaos. My grandfather saw things on his journey to Canada that he never shared with his kids or grandkids. But whatever these things were, they hardened him.
This left Bunny trying to provide the emotional support required by three and, eventually, four children on her own. She crumbled under the pressure and turned to alcohol. My dad, being the eldest sibling, felt the brunt of this dysfunction. “He was the guy who got the negative energy in the family dynamic,” my uncle said. “That’s when I think it really spiralled for him.”
My father started drinking at age 10 to cope. By 13 he was experimenting with drugs like acid and magic mushrooms. He was kicked out of school at 15 for fighting. And at 17 he started using cocaine, recreationally.
Some experts say the root cause of addiction can be traced back to traumatic or neglectful experiences in childhood. That theory has been popularized by the likes of Dr. Gabor Maté, one of the most prominent addiction experts in Canada. In his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction Maté makes the case that addiction is, in fact, a result of “human development gone askew.”
Dr. Maté told me over the phone that “the biology of the brain itself is affected by childhood events. It’s shaped by childhood events. So whether you’re looking at the addicted brain as a physiological entity or whether you’re looking at the addicted psyche as an emotionally suffering entity, you’re looking at the impact of childhood.”
Addiction is not the problem, it’s an attempt to solve the problem, Dr. Maté explained. Addicts are addicts for a reason, sometimes many complex reasons. There’s purpose to the behaviour, though. “The question,” Dr. Maté then asked, “is why do they have emotional pain? Why can’t they feel better in themselves?”
I thought about this for a moment, and many moments thereafter.
My heart breaks a little bit every time there’s another overdose death in the news. I always think, what about the family? The person using the drugs is dead. They have nothing to worry about. It’s the family that has to carry on. I’ve wondered, perhaps too many times, if it’s easier to be the one who dies than it is to be the one who lives on wondering what could have been done differently. My father, wherever he is, if he is, doesn’t have to deal with grief. But we do.
My Aunty Jenn has dealt with the guilt of not bringing my dad home with her the night he died. Now a bus driver in her 40s, she still thinks back to that moment she let her brother stay at the party. “I never experienced death before so I didn’t really think that could happen,” she told me recently, at her home in Richmond. “That’s something that I have to live with for the rest of my life.”
Nana, meanwhile, was “absolutely devastated. She blamed it on herself completely. She was never the same,” Jenn said. “I always asked her, ‘Why are you blaming yourself? You know him. If it wasn’t this time it would have been another time.’ She said no, she should have taught him better. She should have looked out for him. She should have been on him more because they lived the same lifestyle.”
Nana’s body was found on her living room couch six months after my father died. She had overdosed on heroin.
December 1997: My mother and father had a plan. My mom, from the Wet’suwet’en Nation, had been accepted into a First Nations teaching program at the University of British Columbia. They were going to move back to Vancouver together. Mom would stay home with my sister and me during the summer. My dad would work. They were going to work things out. But sometimes plans don’t pan out.
That summer after my father died, my mother moved us to Vancouver without him. She still went to university. She went to class during the day. She worked during the nights and still found time to spend time with us in between. As a young widow she earned her degree while raising two young kids on her own.
My mother tells me I saw a counsellor around this time. I don’t remember this. In fact I don’t remember my father much either, which eats at me to this day. His memories to me are like the horizon: He’s there but he’s not really there. Blurry, fluttering images of us swimming at a pool, driving in the car and flying a kite in a vast field dance like mirages in the distance. He is fractured remnants of light reflected from above that I can sometimes see but never touch, with waves upon waves of grief flowing between us.
The older I get, the more distant and fractured these images seem. Unfortunately, I remember things like looking down at his open casket vividly, like it was yesterday. I remember stroking his cold, hardened cheek. The stiffness. The unnaturalness of it all. I remember my mother standing next to me, whispering, “You probably think he’s going to wake up.”
“No, I know he won’t,” I said. I didn’t have those kind of illusions. I had to grow up and be strong for my mom. I remember my uncles telling me so.
The counsellor told my mother that the impact of my father’s death might not show until early adulthood. They say denial is the first stage of grief. Before you move on to things like guilt, anger, depression, loneliness, bargaining and eventual acceptance, losing a loved one puts us in a state of shock and denial. This can last for days, weeks and sometimes months for adults. But for children, denial can last years.
I was about 16 years old when my obsession became drinking and partying. That’s when I started getting into trouble. Alcohol and later drugs became my coping mechanism for much of my young adulthood. It gave me confidence, which I was sorely lacking. I was 17 when I got caught drinking and driving for the first time. This happened two more times before I eventually learned my lesson. I was becoming reckless. Crying for help. Being careless with my life.
I was 18 when I developed depression. I had just graduated high school. I was living in the basement suite of a friend’s mom’s house. I had been dating this girl, let’s call her Michelle, for over a year. She was cute, short, blonde, crazy. The perfect cocktail. But I didn’t know how to be a boyfriend back then. One night she broke up with me for flirting with other girls. We were standing in the kitchen of the basement suite. I looked at her, remembering why I fell in love with her. I lost it.
I started smashing every glass object I could find against the kitchen walls. I punched holes in the drywall. I grabbed empty beer bottles and started chucking them across the room in a manic fury. I should say that I didn’t throw anything at my ex-girlfriend. Just in the general vicinity.
She left in tears. Scared, probably. Then I grabbed a piece of glass and a handful of pills, trying to gauge inside myself if I was ready to end my life. Just as I was deciding, a police officer barged into the suite, led in by a friend that my ex had texted at the start of my meltdown.
That was the first time I was taken to the emergency room in the back of a cop car. The second time was later that same year. Michelle and I hadn’t gotten back together per se, but we had trouble letting go. This back-and-forth drama resulted in more suicidal thoughts when it was ending yet again. That time, I threatened to jump from the window of a campus building where she was living. I was lying on Michelle’s bed with her saying my goodbyes. Saying I was heading for the window. Mentally preparing myself to go out there.
Before I knew it, the cops came into Michelle’s bedroom and told me to come with them. She had texted a friend to call the cops for her. She was sneaky like that. But I also realize I never thanked her for forcing me to get the help I needed, which at the time was the emergency room.
I got an assessment from a psychiatrist at the hospital the second time. He diagnosed me with a major depressive disorder and prescribed antidepressants. During his assessment he asked me about my family history of mental illness. I began to tell him about my father. I had never made the direct connection between my father’s overdose and my depression before. At least not consciously. But maybe, instinctively, I knew that all I really wanted was to see him again. Suicide might have been the way.
It was around this time I started abusing drugs. First, my sleeping pills. Eventually, cocaine. My father’s legacy had finally caught up to me. I used to want to be like my dad. I used to romanticize what he was like. I found something horribly poetic about substance abuse, dysfunction and chaos, the idea of dying the same way he did. I didn’t plan to live past 33, my father’s age when he died.
I was pushing my limits to see how close I could get to my father’s lifestyle. How close I could get to seeing him again. Until, finally, when I was 22, Mom told me to stop playing the dead dad card. “You need help,” she said, simply. “You need to go away and deal with this.”
I was never a hardcore drug addict spending all my money and time getting high. But I was still using enough to put my life at risk. From 2015-2016, almost 50 per cent of the people who overdosed had cocaine detected in their system. It makes me wonder. What if one of those weekends I got a bad bag laced with fentanyl? Preliminary data shows that the deadly opioid has been involved in more than 80 per cent of all overdose deaths in the province this year.
Worse to think about: what if that happens to the people I know and care about who are still using? At times I have felt shame for my substance abuse. I’ve felt embarrassed about my depression. But I realize it is now more important than ever to be open about my struggles. It’s been estimated that one in five Canadians suffer from mental illness. I know I’m not alone. I know there are others out there struggling like I have.
March 1, 2015: Dawson Creek is a small town in the middle of nowhere. I spent the day travelling a narrow highway, twisting through the mountains of northern British Columbia. When I arrived there on that Sunday evening, just after sunset, there was still snow on the ground.
The North Wind Healing Centre is a red two-storey house that looked like it had been part of someone’s family farm for generations. It looked like a home. I parked my black 2012 Honda Civic in the lot, where it would stay for quite a while, and walked through the screen door. I was a lot calmer than I expected to be.
The small hallway inside was bright. A round woman in her fifties told me to step inside the office to my right. I sat down on the couch. A few minutes later, a lumbering native guy with glasses came in and closed the door behind him. He introduced himself as Leonard. Leonard was polite. Comforting. Super friendly. Then he started going through my bags and cataloguing all my belongings.
He took away my hip-hop magazines. I was planning to read those in my downtime. Hip-hop magazines contain drug and alcohol references. Then he made me show him all of my antidepressants. He counted each pill and wrote the total on his paper, making sure they weren’t some other kind of drug. Next I surrendered my wallet, keys and phone. I had sent my last text messages to my mom and aunt in the car. I don’t have the message anymore but I wrote something like: I made it. See you in six weeks. Love you.
Down the hall a group of people were watching James Cameron’s Avatar in the dark. The round woman showed me to my room. All the bedrooms were on the second floor. My roommate was already in the room, lying in bed reading. He was in his early thirties. He had a buzz cut and faded arm tattoos. He must have had them a long time. I shook his hand. I said, “I’m going to get something to eat.” I made my way into the kitchen downstairs and made myself some toast and some tea. Then I headed back outside for a smoke.
The next morning I got out of bed at eight, had a shower and a huge breakfast. The breakfast was followed by our first meeting. We were told to sit in a circle on blankets in a big space in the middle of the living room. There were 12 of us, all First Nations people. Men and women from about 20 to 50 years old. I purposely picked North Wind because of the cultural component. Being part Indigenous but not growing up in my community, I always feel like I didn’t have that connection to culture. North Wind made that cultural reconnection the key component to our healing.
We were joined by three counsellors, a doctor and Leonard, the guy who went through my bags. He was a Cree man and our “cultural counsellor.” Leonard had a black blanket in front of him on the light wooden floor, like a square of night. He began pulling objects out of a tote bag and laying them on the blanket.
I remember Leonard telling us he was a pipe carrier, a high cultural honor. It meant he could lead ceremonies. And he wanted to welcome us to the centre with a pipe ceremony. But first, he said, we smudge. This was to cleanse any negative spirits that may have been lingering around our beings, and to connect us to the Creator, if we were inclined to view the world that way. I was open-minded. Why the hell not?
Leonard described each item in the smudge ceremony. Each one was connected to all the others in a different way. The sage or sweetgrass we burnt represented Earth. The abalone shell that held the sage represented water. The matches that lit the sage represented fire. The eagle feather wafting the smoke represented the air. “And this is a banana,” Leonard said, “in case I get hungry.”
Leonard explained that the four elements were also connected to the four cardinal directions—north, east, south and west—all represented in the Medicine Wheel. He said we’d be learning much more about these concepts in the weeks to come. I didn’t know which parts I believed. But they felt important, I sensed that much. They felt big. They felt like something I had once known but forgotten and was learning again.
I got accustomed to my daily routine quickly. Up at eight, sharp. Shower. Breakfast downstairs. Morning smudge. Morning group session. Late-morning group session. Lunch. Afternoon session. Late-afternoon session. Each session was an hour and a half. Chores. Dinner. Some group recreational activity like swimming or arts and craft (one time we even got to go bowling). Downtime. Evening smudge. Sleep. Repeat.
Everyone in the group had a binder. My binder slowly filled with worksheets and journal entries on a range of predictable topics: grief and trauma, relapse prevention, stress management, anger management, gratitude, mindfulness and Narcotics Anonymous. Filling out the worksheets felt like being a kid in school again. Except the topic was me.
The stuff I liked, at least as time went on, was the cultural stuff. I liked the vibration of the drumming. The singing. Walking through the forest. Leonard was my favorite counsellor. He became a mentor. He taught us the lessons of the Medicine Wheel, that it represented the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of ourselves. This was in tune with the four elements. The four seasons. The four stages of life: Infant, youth, adult, elder. You get the picture. Four is a very important number.
He told us to draw a Medicine Wheel on a big piece of paper. Then we filled in each quadrant with different goals, things we meant to improve in each of the sacred areas of our lives. I wrote meditation and yoga for the mental. Cardio and a healthy diet for the physical. Counselling and journaling for the emotional. And ceremony for the spiritual. To me, that seemed like a reasonable path to stability.
We also wrote daily affirmations on sticky notes and pinned them outside the Medicine Wheel. The papers hung on the living room wall. Mine was slowly getting filled with such reminders like I am not my mistakes, I forgive myself and others, and Even though I sorta hate myself I’m still an okay person I guess. You know, progress.
Leonard held sweat lodge ceremonies on Mondays. This was a big deal. I will say this: the things I felt inside that dome-shaped structure were the most rewarding moments of my time at North Wind. We built the lodge ourselves. Walked into the forests behind North Wind and chopped down a pile of willow trees. As we dragged them back to a clearing, Leonard explained the idea of the sweat lodge was to return to the womb of Mother Earth.
I enjoyed lugging the trees back and then bending and crisscrossing them across a circle drawn in the dirt on the ground. I was helping to build something that in turn would help build me. We dug a small hole in the middle of the circle. We burned rocks in a fire for two hours, then carried them into the willow hut to make steam.
Our sixth and final ceremony was held a couple of days before we were due to leave North Wind. It was a beautiful day. Not a cloud in the sky, as they say. The snow of six weeks ago had slowly been replaced by green fields hugging the boundaries of the forests of still-leafless trees. I suppose it all was very metaphorical. Two eagles even swooped down above us before the ceremony started. Always a good sign.
I stood shirtless with the others outside the lodge. I was in shorts with a towel slung over my right shoulder. I held a letter I’d written to my father in my hands.
I smudged myself, I smudged the letter and crawled inside. Inside we got settled into a circle. The men on one side and the women on the other. Leonard crawled in last. Before the ceremonies began we went around the circle and expressed what we were praying for. When it came my turn to speak, I opened up the letter and began to read aloud, I would have said something like this:
I forgive you. You tried. You really tried. And I’m grateful for that. I’m writing to you from a treatment centre, kind of like the one that you went to all those years ago. It’s time I-
I broke down and started sobbing before I could finish the first paragraph. My comrades held space for me to grieve in a public way, the way I never had as a child. I suppose I was letting go. After I finished, Leonard thanked me. Then we continued around the circle.
Before the first round of steam began, I stepped outside. I walked up to the fire where the ceremonial rocks were heating up. I dropped the letter in the fire. Then I watched my message evaporate into the sky.
October 2017: It was hard for me to see it at the time, but North Wind was tearing me down and building me back up with the pieces in their right place. They were tugging at all the twisted thoughts and emotions hidden in the shadows of my mind, in places where I hadn’t been looking, places I was hiding from, and bringing it all to the surface to help me sort out. A complete mental, emotional and spiritual overhaul. But do other kids like me have access to treatment?
According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada an estimated 1.2 million children and youth in Canada are affected by mental illness, yet less than 20 per cent will receive appropriate treatment. In Ontario, nearly 12,000 kids are waiting for long-term psychotherapy, with some children and youth in need of urgent care waiting up to 18 months for mental health support.
When it comes to residential treatment like I experienced at North Wind, I was lucky to get a spot within a few weeks. Not everyone has such luck. I reached out to regional health authorities across B.C. and learned that some people are waiting up to six months to get treatment. According to this chart sent to me by a representative from B.C.’s new Ministry of Mental Health there are currently 330 residential treatment beds in the province where people can get “live-in intensive treatment that ranges from 30 to 90 days.”
During a press conference in August, B.C.’s new Mental Health and Addictions Minister, Judy Darcy, acknowledged the province needs more treatment beds — when you count all of the different types of treatment beds the Ministry says there are currently 1,457. But she also stressed it’s more complex than just treatment beds, it’s about revamping the whole system. According to Darcy, we need a faster response for people who need help with mental-health or addiction issues; better follow-up post-treatment; greater access to injectable medications, such as pharmaceutical heroin; more safe consumption sites.
It’s the kind of systemic revamp that experts like Mark Haden, Executive Director of MAPS Canada, are advocating for. “Right now all addictions services and all mental health services have waiting lists. All of them,” said Haden, who has worked in the addictions field for almost 30 years. “Can we improve it? Yes we can. But it takes a lot of work and focus and energy.”
Youth are particularly at risk. Young people aged 15 to 24 are more likely to experience a mood disorder or substance use disorder than any other age group in Canada, while 70 per cent of mental health problems have their onset during childhood or adolescence. But what about the kids of addiction? The kids who have lost a parent to Canada’s opioid overdose crisis? The kids who are now twice more likely than their peers to develop an addiction themselves?
Having an addicted parent or losing a parent to a drug overdose can be “enormously destructive,” Haden said. But it doesn’t seal a child’s fate either. “It really comes down to what extent the child believes that it was their fault. If a parent has an addiction and somehow the child gets a message that the problem in the family is their fault, it’s usually problematic,” he said.
“It depends on their level of connection and support that they have from people who are not in the place of problematic use.” In other words, a child can be taught resilience. Some say the root cause of addiction is trauma. But “trauma is actually healable,” Haden said. Disconnection from family, friends, community and a sense of meaning and purpose can be just as much a driver of addiction as trauma, he added. One solution, then, is reconnection to those things.
North Wind contributed to a significant portion of my healing journey. But my time in treatment was only part of my process to overcoming the loss of my father. My family has played an even bigger role. My mother, my eventual step-dad, uncles and aunt have stepped in at different points in my life. They’ve guided me. Supported me. And even though I never really knew him, they’ve never let me forget who my father was, nor the differences between us.
“Your father really didn’t have the support and direction that every young person needs to get through those hurdles in life,” my uncle, Robbie, said. “You see your situation for example. You went through some tough times, right? But you got put on the right track through the strength and direction of your mother.”
“Say your mother was a drinker and stayed on a reserve and just drank. And you saw that. Your life would be a lot different right now. When you went through those tough times you would have kept going further and further. You wouldn’t have come out.” My father’s death broke me. And there are parts I may never be able to fix, but I’ve been learning how to live with my grief without the need to turn to drugs or alcohol to cope. I’ve been letting go and moving on. We all have.
When I approached my uncle with the idea to tell our story, I asked him what message he wanted people to learn from our family. “Never give up on your children,” he said. “Show them love but also enforce consequence. But follow consequence with a lot of love. Follow through. Keep your word. Tell your children you love them every day.”
As it turns out, this message was something my father knew that he needed to pass on to me, even if he couldn’t do it himself. A few months before he died, my father showed up at Robbie’s place in the middle of the night. He was tweaking out. He was sitting in his car in the parking lot, honking until my uncle came out. My uncle walked up to the driver’s side window.
My father rolled down his window, looking straight ahead, eyes wild, the rain splattering against his forearm. My uncle tried to get him to come inside. But my dad wasn’t listening. He was in his own world. His head tweaked in one direction. Then another. Then he locked eyes with my uncle and he said, “Tell Chris, tell Trevor, tell Mallory I love them,” referring to my mom, sister and me.
My uncle, confused, tried to convince my dad to come in again. But he just kept repeating himself. Over and over. Never losing eye contact.
“Tell Chris, tell Trevor, tell Mallory I love them.”
Then he drove off. My uncle has been passing along this message to me ever since. My father loved us. He loved me. And sometimes when the grief swells up, which it still does and probably always will, I remember that he did. I remember that he tried his best.
Resources: We want to take this opportunity to share some of the resources available for people dealing with mental health and addictions issues. If you are in crisis and in need of immediate help please call 9-1-1. Young people under the age of 20 can get anonymous and confidential counselling by calling the Kids Help Phone for free at 1-800-668-6868 or using the online chat function on their website. For anyone having feelings of distress or despair, including thoughts of suicide, you can call 1 800 SUICIDE (784-2433) for free, non-judgemental support.
Residents of B.C. can call 8-1-1, a free-of-charge provincial health information and advice phone line available for non-emergency health information. A detailed list of provincial and territorial addictions treatment helplines can be found here.
Illustrations for this story were created by Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley. It was edited by Lindsay Sample. Discourse's executive editor is Rachel Nixon. Reporter Trevor Jang developed the story in part during a one-month Literary Journalism residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Thanks to Charlotte Gill, Ian Brown and Tim Falconer for their editorial support during the Banff residency. Special thanks to the Jang family for everything.