This article originally appeared on VICE Canada
I started with snorting Tylenol Ones. I'm 20 now, but when I was 16, I thought it would be fun to do drugs. Those stopped working, so I went to Tylenol Threes, and then Tylenol Fours, then I started doing Percocet. My boyfriend and I would purposely get admitted into the hospital—like I would say I had menstrual pain—so I could get those, and it wasn't hard at all.
Those weren't working anymore, and somebody told me I could get OxyContin [in Calgary]. When I started getting Oxys off the street, I didn't know it at first, but it was fentanyl. I used fentanyl for three-and-a-half years, and I realized that it wasn't Oxy when we went to the dealer over the guy who was selling to me, and he was like, "No, those aren't Oxys, that's fentanyl." That's how I figured it out, but I had already been doing it for a couple of weeks.
Back then, it was just my boyfriend and I using beans [author's note: this is the nickname users call fentanyl that looks like fake OxyContin]. We started panhandling, and when we'd be done, we'd link up in a spot, and usually someone else would be waiting there too. You'd ask to use their phone, or they'd ask to use yours, then you find out that you're calling the same dealer, and you make friends like that.
At first, a couple of pills would last us all day, doing little lines every two hours. Then, it would only last one hour, then only 30 minutes
The beginning of Grade 12, I got kicked out of my house, and I was homeless or couch-surfing from then on. I remember the first time I ever got dopesick was in my math class, and I was with my partner and he was like, "Why do you keep twitching?" And I was like, "I can't get comfortable; I don't understand." I called my boyfriend later, and he said, "Yeah, it's the pills." But I kept doing it.
It really didn't take long to get addicted. After that summer of doing it and then going back to school and getting sick in my class, I went home and did a line with my boyfriend. He said, "Just do a little so you feel better." That was the first day that I realized I was going to do this again tomorrow.
At first, a couple of pills would last us all day, doing little lines every two hours. Then, it would only last one hour, then only 30 minutes. We'd buy more, and then we just started selling all of our stuff. Slowly, you lose everything. Three years go by, and you have nothing to show for it.
Eventually, I ended up completely on the street. I had one place I could go on Fridays, but it was a literal crackhouse. It was the summertime when we were homeless, so it was kind of easy to stay out late and panhandle or go to strip clubs and panhandle.
With fentanyl, there's not the same amount in any pill. One day, I was getting ready for work, and I told my dealer that he had to come by. I couldn't go to work sick. He came, and we busted half of one pill, and I did half a line. I told my boyfriend then that I was just going to take a nap for 15 minutes, and he went outside to mow the lawn. When he was putting the gas in the lawn mower, he heard a big thump—I had fallen off the couch and was face-down. He lifted me up, tried to wake me up. I had overdosed. The only thing I vaguely remember was him slapping my face, and things were blurry. He said he was calling the ambulance, and after that I just blacked out. They came and pushed on my chest, and I woke up.
They told me I had to get into the ambulance or they would call the cops. So I stumbled into the ambulance and made the lady grab my purse because I knew my boyfriend would take my wallet. But it turns out he had already taken my wallet. So when I was discharged two hours later, I took a cab all the way across the city. I got ahold of my boyfriend and found out he was buying pills using money from my bank card, and I said, "Well, you might as well get me some too." At my peak, I was doing 15 to 20 pills a day.
Watching someone overdose when you're doing fentanyl isn't as scary as you'd think since they are nodding out, like they're sleeping. It's almost calming, but in an eerie way. I remember the first time I saw someone overdose, I threw a blanket over my head, and everyone else left—it was just me and this person overdosing in this room. I knew at least 60 to 65 people using fentanyl.
My friend Tristan died in September. That was definitely the reason I wanted to quit; it was the most devastating thing going to his funeral. Tristan grew up with so many people who did fentanyl... There was just this big group between all of them. I remember being at the train station and asking where Tristan was, then my friend Maddie came running toward me in the parking lot. She owed me a line, so I thought she was coming to give it to me. But I realized she was crying when she got closer, and she said, "Tristan is dead." It's not something you can believe, you just saw him the other day, you were one of the last people to see him. Tristan and I were bros—you become like a street family, if you find someone who is sick, you help them. He was like a brother. I knew Ryan because he was originally trapping for my dealer who I was living with at the time, then he started doing beans here and there. Then he just fell apart.
There were many times I tried to get clean before I stopped completely on October 2, 2015. I didn't know how to go about it because I heard that Renfrew [Recovery Centre] was first come, first serve, and at the time, I didn't know what else was available. I talked to my doctor, and all she said was that she could give me benzos and pills to help me sleep, which didn't help at all. I felt like it prolonged the entire withdrawal.
It's true that people don't even know what is out there to help them, and there isn't enough outreach. When we were making the doc, the only help that we could get Ryan was in Edmonton. We actually contemplated that: "Do you want to move to Edmonton?" That's a hard question being an addict to just move from everything you know. We definitely need more help here and in Canada in general.
I just went cold turkey. It's so, so painful. You can't stop moving. It's almost like a seizure; you're moving so fast, your legs get so numb. You can't eat anything because it hurts your stomach—if you eat something, it comes right back up. You can't do anything. Your body completely gives out on you. Mentally, the amount of guilt that you have. The amount of regret. The amount of self-pity that you have because you put yourself in that position. You break yourself down within your own withdrawal because you feel so shitty about everything you have done. You think about not just you, but how it's affected everyone around you. It's the most devastating thing ever. It's painful to think about, and it's painful to feel. I think that's the only reason I haven't gone back to it—it's the wickedest high and the best high, but I'm just too scared of losing everything. It's not worth it.
It wasn't until my 30th day that I could actually walk around and eat something, but it was my 26th day that I admitted myself to the hospital because I couldn't deal with it anymore. I was in so much pain. I ended up hurled over a bucket, told them I was withdrawing from fentanyl and needed help, and they sat me in a waiting room for two hours with other drug addicts. Why put me in a room with people who do drugs when I'm trying to get off of them? They did fuck all for me at the hospital: just pumped me full of fluids and shipped me home. It wasn't much help, they didn't talk to me or anything, but luckily my mom was there for me.
A'lisa with Dr. Hakique Virani during the filming of 'DOPESICK.' Photo by Shawney Cohen
I took my two weeks' vacation time from my retail job to do the documentary. From the beginning of making the documentary, I was in love with the idea because we would hopefully get to help people, and I knew the people who were going to be in the film. I never completely separated myself from my friends who were still doing fentanyl, but this was a point where I got to hang out with them and hear their stories again. There were parts that were hard... where I felt like I couldn't breathe, and the director asked if I wanted to step away from the situation, so I did.
My family, my conscience—I have such a fucking conscience now, it's almost lame—is what stops me from doing fentanyl again. I just can't justify how it would be better for me; life is hard like that. It's not easy being sober, but why do it the harder way?
I just want the government to see that there is actually a problem. It's not just in the hospitals; it's more than that. It's not just overprescribing. It's on the streets, it's affecting the youth, and there's nowhere for them to go except for jail. Even if you do go on the methadone program, you can wait months to get on—by then you could be in jail, or dead for that matter. There's no help. We need more help, we need more places for people to go because this is not just going to stop.Follow Alison Elkin on Twitter.
If you or someone you know needs help with drugs, visit the Center for Alcohol and Drug Resources.