By Sandra Ingram
I am a retired professor and up until 20 months ago, I was the mother of a young man who has since taught me life lessons that I never thought were mine to learn.
Devin, our only child and the centre of our lives, passed away at age 22 on Feb. 7, 2021, from what was later found to be an accidental overdose involving opioids.
While he had been under psychiatric care for the last few years of his life and hospitalized twice, there was nothing that could have prepared my husband or me for this unimaginable loss.
Devin was a sweet, affectionate and loving child. In adolescence he transformed, becoming increasingly isolated and inward focused, with a developing addiction to video games.
By age 14, he had begun to experiment with marijuana, and while we as parents did not condone it, he secretly continued to use more potent drugs — we now know — to calm the turmoil that was taking root in his brain.
Severe psychiatric diseases often emerge at this age and take years to be fully diagnosed due to their complexity — not to mention the potential medical, legal and social implications of some diagnoses.
By Grade 11, he was being treated for anxiety and depression. By the time of his high school graduation, Devin was so anxious he was unable to attend.
The fact that he achieved that milestone is something we now regard as astounding.
Shortly after graduation, Devin was admitted to hospital for a psychotic episode. He had lost touch with reality and was hearing voices.
Because drug use can interfere with severe mental illness diagnosis, we were not told at this stage that he had a definitive illness. It was not until the post-psychosis treatment that I heard schizophrenia might be a possibility, but we needed to wait to see how recovery would unfold.
The word terrified me so much that I decided I would not read about it or learn more until, or unless, I had to. In the meantime, I would push on and do my best to help my son rebound from this crisis with the multitude of drugs required for his recovery.
As a mother, I was worried sick about his developing medical condition. In terms of his drug use, I was angry, guilt-ridden and even ashamed. How could this be happening to him and us?
As a teen, when Devin was becoming more socially withdrawn, we encouraged him to consider volunteering. Despite his pain, he embraced the idea.
He put in more than 600 hours of service — mostly with an organization devoted to increasing the quality of life for individuals with severe developmental disabilities, to help them live their best lives with dignity and respect.
Upon his death, they planted a tree and dedicated a physical space to his memory. They have even created an annual award in his name.
Devin’s condition was moving closer to a schizophrenia diagnosis in the few months before his death, when he went into hospital for a second time. We now know that Devin suffered from two potentially fatal diseases: schizophrenia and addiction. Both of these robbed him of the ability to live out his life.
And while you may recognize schizophrenia as a disease, I suspect there are many out there who question whether addiction deserves that label. Until this tragic outcome, I was one of them, having had no prior exposure to it and a lot of bias. I thought it was a choice.
Now I know better and see addiction for what it is: a chemical, brain-based compulsive disease. My son did not choose the path to addiction any more than he chose to become mentally ill.
What’s more, there is a grim connection between the two. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, “people with a mental illness are twice as likely to have a substance use disorder compared to the general population. At least 20 per cent of people with a mental illness have a co-occurring substance use disorder. For people with schizophrenia, the number may be as high as 50 per cent.”
Regardless of education, social status or racial/cultural background, mental illness has the potential to destroy lives and families. It contributes to a vulnerable population who do not necessarily look different from anyone else and are capable of giving extraordinary gifts to society.
Unfortunately, many are also at tremendous risk of being harmed by the ravages of a toxic drug supply and those involved in the trafficking of opioids.
While I am not naive enough to believe that my son’s troubles would have disappeared if he did not have access to opioids, I want people to see the inherent dangers, particularly to those with mental illness, that these drugs pose.
After all, their lives matter. Don’t they?
Sandra Ingram is a retired university professor and published author who lives in Winnipeg. This article first appeared on October 8 on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation First Person Series