When someone asks me to describe my husband, words often fail me. Funny, caring and a little devious just don’t do him justice.
From the moment I met him, I knew Kevin was a rare gem of a human. When we first started dating, he’d show up at my soul-sucking nightmare of a job on his skateboard, a picnic in his backpack. We would eat homemade sandwiches, cookies and fruit in the park across the street from my office, and he’d crack jokes to cheer me up. He was someone who could (and would) effortlessly insert a Simpsons quote into almost every conversation (he even slipped the made-up word “cromulent” from a Simpsons episode into a paper he wrote for his master’s degree in social work). And he had the letters WDTSF tattooed on his inner calf, mostly so that when someone would innocently ask, “What does this stand for?” he could grin like a Cheshire cat. WDTSF. What does this stand for?
Kevin could be incredibly generous with his time. One of his favourite things about his social work job at a long-term-care facility was just listening to the seniors’ stories all day. And like everyone else who met him, they quickly fell in love with the heavily tattooed guy with the infectious laugh. (One resident even crocheted us bookmarks with our names on them.) When our eldest daughter was invited to a Halloween-themed birthday party, he enthusiastically dressed up as a heavy metal rocker, despite the fact that he detested the holiday. Kevin was the only parent who showed up at the park in a costume, and he spent a good part of that party pushing our daughter in a swing, wearing leopard-print leggings, spiked metal jewellery and an impressive mullet wig. And he never stopped smiling.
I was incredibly lucky: I got to spend 16 years with this unique and hilarious guy, my best friend and the love of my life. But that’s not the whole story.
We led a double life. To the outside world, we were a happily married, university-educated couple with two beautiful young daughters. But inside our renovated semi-detached home on a tree-lined street in Toronto, our lives were being ripped apart by mental health issues and addiction. The stigma we felt only made things worse: It pushed us closer and closer to becoming yet another statistic in Canada’s opioid crisis.
It’s a hard thing to admit, but in addition to being utterly obsessed with sports trivia and discovering new music of all genres, my husband was addicted to heroin. For seven of our 16 years together, Kevin would shoot up in the laundry room once I’d gone to bed or left for work before him. His monogrammed custom-made dress shirts hid not only his many beautiful tattoos but also the track marks on his arms.
Despite how desperately I clung to the misguided notion that “we were still okay,” my wonderfully normal family life slowly became anything but normal. It became my daily practice to look in his pants pockets when I was getting ready for bed. The first thing I’d do every morning was count the spoons in our kitchen drawer — if one was missing, it meant he had taken one to shoot up. At any given moment, I knew how many spoons were in the dishwasher and how many were in the drawer. “Where are spoons number seven and eight?” I’d yell when the count didn’t add up.
Time and time again, I was blindsided by his drug use, so I tried to stay one step ahead. I would furtively check his work bag in the front hall while he was in the kitchen, and I would inspect every receipt he left lying around to piece together where he’d been. I wanted to catch him before his use could catch me. I was trying to control the uncontrollable. And then I realized I couldn’t.
Two years ago, he died of an accidental overdose. There were four spoons left in our drawer.
I’m a huge buzz kill at parties. Someone will say, kindly and sympathetically, “Oh, I’m so sorry for your loss. How did he die?” My stomach tightens every time I tell them he was addicted to heroin. I say it bravely and confidently, but my insides churn and I have to actively work to control the red flush of shame that overtakes my face. When I say he died from an overdose, it kills the conversation.
In the unspoken hierarchy of death, overdose is pretty much right at the bottom. Bravely fighting cancer with your family by your side is an “honourable” way to die. Dying by accidentally taking too many drugs is not. It’s seen as selfish, dirty and wrong. Many would say my husband chose to use drugs, was self-centred for using drugs, and therefore deserved to die. He had so much to lose — a loving wife, two wonderful daughters, a job he was passionate about — that he should have known better and just stopped. Why would he risk losing all of that?
That judgment is exactly what I want to fight now. The shame I feel is what I want to eliminate. That stigma prevents many people from reaching out for help, and it’s only deepening the opioid crisis. The truth is, Kevin did know better. He wanted to be better and was trying to be better, but he couldn’t. Addiction, like cancer, is a disease. I believe he didn’t choose addiction; addiction chose him.
Kevin was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder in 2004. He saw a therapist and took antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication, but his underlying mental health disorder was a driving factor in his substance use. (People affected by mental health issues are twice as likely to face substance use challenges, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.) The stigma surrounding his disorder silenced him — he shared his struggles with only a select few.
My new life as a young widow and single mom
He looked fine, but Kevin often wanted to crawl out of his skin. He couldn’t sit still. He couldn’t concentrate and would be convinced he was having a heart attack because he couldn’t breathe. Many nights, his anxiety would keep him up. Through the darkness, I’d hear his voice, stricken with fear, whisper, “I’m going to be okay, right? I’m not going crazy, right?”
He wanted to feel better, to feel excitement, to feel something.
Kevin tried heroin for the first time 10 years ago. Something in his brain convinced him that this was an okay thrill to experience. Early on, he kept it a secret from everyone, including me. Never in a million years would I have expected him to try heroin. That was for junkies on the street, not people like us.
He used it a handful of times before I found out. Those secret experiments quickly led to addiction. We’d been married for three years and were living in our first house. Kevin was coping well with his anxiety, and we’d just spent a wonderful Christmas together. We were trying to have our first baby. It was a happy time in our lives. The night I found out about his heroin use, he had been watching a basketball game in his man cave in the basement and had gone to bed before me. I was brushing my teeth when I heard a strange noise from our bedroom. I called out to him, but he didn’t answer. I ran into our room and found him unconscious and barely breathing.
When the paramedics revived him, I heard one of them ask him, “What did you take?” The room went black, and I experienced my first panic attack when I heard my husband answer, “Heroin.”
Kevin spent the next seven years fighting to resist the temptation of heroin every day. In the first year after his overdose, he struggled with stints in in-patient and outpatient rehab, a sober living facility in Toronto and living at home with me. He took an extended leave of absence from work and told his bosses he was struggling with depression. Eventually, his Narcotics Anonymous meetings and the work he was doing with his sponsor started to stick, and he didn’t use drugs for a year, then two. Then he relapsed. He wouldn’t use drugs for another year. And then he’d relapse again. Over and over. After one relapse, he lay on our couch with his head in my lap, sobbing and saying, “I don’t want this. I don’t want to do this to you. I hate this. I don’t want to die.”
I would have flashbacks of his unconscious body in bed while I was at my desk at work. Panic would flood my body and I’d have to run outside to get fresh air. None of my co-workers knew what was going on. I’d cry driving to and from work, but I’d wipe away my tears in the parking lot and plaster a smile on my face before going into the office. Co-workers would ask, “How was your weekend?” and I’d say fine when, really, I’d just spent it fighting with Kevin about needles I’d found. I wanted to scream “Not fine!” but I couldn’t.
I told a couple of close friends about the first few relapses, but after a few more, I began to hide them. I was so tired of explaining the disease of addiction and defending him. One night, with shame flushing my face, I told my parents that, yet again, my husband had screwed up. My dad shouted, with shocking force, “Get rid of him!” My friends told me to leave him. They saw a man who was causing me so much pain and anguish. He was stealing our money. He was lying to me. I was living a life that was controlled by anxiety and mistrust.
My friends and my dad were right in a way: I should have left him, but I couldn’t. Kevin had an illness he was fighting so hard to beat. I couldn’t turn my back on that. If my husband was fighting cancer, I wouldn’t leave him. This was no different. The man I loved — that quirky guy who chatted with senior citizens all day and made me laugh all night — was lost and swallowed up by his addiction. I knew Kevin was still somewhere underneath it all. I just had to hang on until he could find his way out, so I pulled away from everyone instead.
Kevin told even fewer people about his addiction. He was too ashamed. Once he made friends in his Narcotics Anonymous meeting, I remember him telling me how incredible it was to have a group of people in his life with whom he could share all the horrible stuff he had done while using. “I can tell them anything,” he said. “They won’t judge me like the rest of the world will. They will love me no matter what I’ve done.”
It broke my heart that he felt like the rest of us would reject him for his illness. This shame led him to isolate himself — to pull back from his friends, his family, his sponsor, his recovery work and even me. In this isolation, the thoughts that told him to return to the drug — the thoughts that told him he could use just one more time — got louder and louder until, eventually, they were all he could hear.
The story of my family’s grief is one that’s playing out in thousands of homes across Canada. In 2016, roughly 3,000 people died from opioid overdose in Canada. In 2017, almost 4,000 people died, and the crisis shows no sign of slowing down — the numbers for 2018 are predicted to be equal to or greater than those for 2017. In fact, in B.C., the number of deaths from overdoses are so high that it has reduced the average life expectancy by more than a month. Currently, 11 people die each day in Canada from opioid overdose, and each one of them has a story that’s unique and yet heartbreakingly similar to Kevin’s.
Think of a time you felt ashamed. Think of a time you couldn’t say it out loud because it just felt too big and too scary to share. Now imagine feeling that every day. This was what Kevin felt, and this is what anyone who struggles with addiction feels. It keeps their struggles, their illness and their pain in the shadows.
More than 400 people attended Kevin’s funeral, but only a handful knew about his addiction. I don’t remember much about planning the funeral. Those days were a hellish blur of shock, numbness and sorrow. What I do remember is my inner voice yelling at me to stop hiding. To stop burying his pain. To stop letting my shame keep me quiet. To stop saying everything was okay. To share what we had been struggling with. And so I did. In my eulogy and the many conversations that followed, I was open, honest and vulnerable. When I finally let everyone into our hell, I felt the weight we had been carrying for seven years lift.
Friends who had known him for more than 30 years were dumbfounded by how much of his life they didn’t know. Friend after friend cried to me, saying, “I wish he had told me. Maybe I could have said or done something that would have made a difference. Maybe I could have helped.” I’ve spent many sleepless nights wondering the same thing. If Kevin hadn’t been suffocated by his shame, would he have reached out more? Would he have leaned on his friends more? Would he still be alive?
Two years on, I miss him to the depths of my being, yet I am relieved to be free from the stranglehold of his addiction. I understand that it caused him to mess up, but I am still so angry with him. I want to let go of all the pain his addiction caused me, but I still cling to it desperately. I hate him, and I love him.
Over the years I stood by him, I learned so much about his disease: that it was the illness, not him, causing so much pain; that someone struggling with substance use is more than just their drug use; that I couldn’t fix him; and that isolation would kill him. I’d love to say his death has changed me and that I’m a better person because of everything I’ve learned. The truth is, I’m still changing and I’m still learning. But I do know one thing: I don’t want another family to feel this pain. If Kevin’s story can chip away at the stigma, reduce the shame someone feels and encourage them to seek help, I will shout his story from every street corner. I will continue talking until it’s easier for others to talk as well. In the meantime, I still catch myself counting spoons. We always have eight now, but my stomach churns when I spot the four new ones I bought after he died.
That number still haunts me.
This essay was adapted from a talk delivered at the TEDxToronto conference, held last October at Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto, tedxtoronto.com. Sarah Keast blogs about addiction, grief and parenting at Adventures in Widowed Parenting.