Tara Levis has short, sandy blonde hair and an infectious smile.
She is a 33-year old Victoria woman, who grew up in an upper-middle class family that moved across the country. Her father was a doctor, and her mother stayed at home to care for her and her sister.
That is one chapter of Levis’ life. Unfortunately, the chapters get darker.
As a young woman, Levis struggled with mental health. She developed an eating disorder that she said laid a pathway for addictions in the future.
After Levis came to terms with her sexuality, she fell in love with a woman who struggled with her own mental health problems, and used illicit drugs to cope.
While they worked hard together to get through these issues, in the end Levis’ partner could not find an answer.
“She committed suicide, and that was the thing that tipped me over the edge,” Levis said. “I was the one who found her, and the trauma from walking into that, I ended up using drugs to cope.”
Levis worked at what is often the front lines of addiction, a homeless shelter. She had a home herself, and hid her drug use from her employers so she wouldn’t lose her job. But her loss and her drug use took a toll.
“I developed PTSD because I didn’t deal with the pain right away,” Levis said. “I lost my job and eventually lost everything.”
Levis ended up homeless for five years, couch surfing and staying with friends or local drug dealers.
During this time, she started using heroin. As the supply slowly became poisoned with stronger and stronger levels of fentanyl, she found herself addicted to the substitute. She said that after awhile, when she got pure heroin she couldn’t even feel it anymore because she was so used to fentanyl.
Levis has overdosed many times, and watched her friends overdose, too. Sometimes she could revive them and other times they passed away.
“I’ve lost a lot of people to overdoses, I lost a friend last week,” she said. “It makes it hard to form relationships with people, one flip and they’re gone.”
Levis recalls that being revived from an overdose with naloxone is one of the most painful experiences you could have, since the medication blocks the effects of opioids and essentially puts people in immediate withdrawal.
“When I’m high, I’m in a comfortable and warm place,” she explained. “When I’m overdosing I’m not aware, and then all of a sudden you’re shocked and the world is bright and loud and my body hurts and my head hurts and I feel like I’m going to throw up and I’m sweaty.
“It’s like your worst case of food poisoning times 1,000.”
Levis said she would wake up very angry. Despite just overdosing, she would often wander off to try and find her next dose to stop the pain.
But that was just another chapter in Levis’ life.
Things recently changed when she was able to find housing and get access to trauma counsellors and a detox program.
“I really couldn’t get myself together until I found a home; it’s hard to stop using when you don’t feel safe,” Levis said. “The irony is that the drug use kept me alive long enough to stop using, because I was so depressed and suicidal that it was the only way to stop the pain.”
Now Levis has found some stability. She has been clean for more than nine months and has been accepted into the nursing program at Camosun College. She hopes to become a public health nurse, inspired by the people in that role who have saved her life many times.
Levis also volunteered to be a part of AIDS Vancouver Island’s “We Are Human” project, a photo display depicting the stories of the many different people who have lived with addictions in the time of the opioid crisis, in honor of International Overdose Awareness Day (Aug. 31).
Levis’s hope is to reduce the stigma around drug use, instead creating passion and understanding.
“I’m not the voice of all drug users,” she said. “I’m just my experience. I always say, don’t judge my story by the chapter I’m walking on; when I was using it was the worst chapter of my life. It’s important to read the whole book.”
Within the province, there were 134 suspected drug overdose deaths in July 2018, which represents a 12 per cent increase of the number of deaths occurring in the same time last year, and a 25 per cent increase over the number of deaths occurring in June 2018.
The number of deaths in July equates to about 4.3 deaths per day for the month. The three townships experiencing the highest number of illicit drug overdoses in 2018 are Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria.
So far this year, 88 per cent of illicit drug overdose deaths occurred inside private residences, etc., something which Sarah Sullivan, manager of Aids Vancouver Island for Courtenay and Campbell River said the organization’s outreach programs are hoping to assist.
“We want to work with the larger housing providers in the area and build the capacity within the community. There is such a stigma regarding illicit drug use, and that’s why so many people use alone.”
On Aug. 29, to align with International Overdose Awareness Day, families, friends, partners and others will gather at Victoria’s Centennial Square for an evening devoted to remembering those lost to the opioid crisis and educating the public.
The International Overdose Awareness Day event runs from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
— with files from Black Press