Jordan: There are any number of Statistics available on the severity of Canada’s opioid crisis. None of them are good and they’re getting worse every two hours roughly someone dies from an opioid overdose in this country. And that number is up from 2018, which is up from 2017, which is up from 2016. The deaths aren’t intentional 93% of them are. And 82% of those accidental deaths involve fentanyl. I don’t know maybe these numbers surprise you maybe they don’t maybe you thought they’d be worse but there are stories that those stats do not get at 13 percent of Canadians use opioids and of those two percent use it recreationally. The percentages might sound small, but that is a lot of Canadians. Living not dying with opioid addiction trying not to become a statistic. A lot of them are working really hard at it and until we can do a better job of understanding why they fail and why they try again and why they fail again the statistics that I mentioned won’t get better. So how do we do a better job we could start by listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is the big story Karen Wookey is a producer and co-director of a documentary called saving rabbit. Hi Karen.
Jordan: You know the first question that anybody’s going to ask you is who is rabbit.
Karen: Rabbit was a young man that was part of a program CBC did called red button and they gave cameras essentially to Street kids and let them follow their lives and he was a young fentanyl addict living on the street and his story just sparked among many.
He got over a million views and so a year later they wanted to go back and see where he was. He had expressed a lot of interest in turning his life around me wanting a family. So initially the idea was let’s go follow him getting clean. And that was the idea
Jordan: When you started it. You must have watched the footage that he shot of himself.
What was that? Like, what did you think watching it?
Karen: I had come from show running the first two seasons of. Intervention Canada, so I had a fair bit of experience with young addicts living on the street. He was compelling charismatic you wanted to see him win. You wanted to see him turn his life around.
I had serious concerns that he was. Quite extreme he’d been no this was a year or two after red button. So he hadn’t stopped. So addiction is an escalating disease. So although some people don’t like to call it a disease, but I was concerned where he was what his condition was and what exactly we would be able to get on camera.
Jordan: Remember the first time you met him in person.
Karen: I do because that was the first thing I said, I’d like to meet him. And when I met him same, you know, very compelling charismatic sad and I was worried. I was worried that you know, he was now injecting Fentanyl and as we know that rarely brings a happy ending he was a injecting a fair bit and he was on methadone.
So I was very concerned that we weren’t going to get a story of him turning his life around we may well get something much sadder.
Jordan: How do you set up to tell that story which is different I think and I mean just speaking for myself. Then The Stereotype many people have of Youth living rough on the streets doing drugs.
Karen: Well, I think it’s important to remember that nobody chooses to be addicted. Nobody grows up saying I’m going to live on the streets and be addicted. So everyone has a story we all have a story and I certainly learned on Intervention. That you have to find the human story so that an audience can relate on some level because someone in that family is a part of my family someone even rabbit rabbit is a left turn that my could kids could have made or my brother could have made or my brother did make I mean, if you look at the sheer numbers, you know, 10% of our population is addicted that means
probably 40 to 50 percent or are affected simply by being in the family or people struggle all the time what to do how to help so it’s finding those moments where you can illustrate how severe it is how severe addiction is that no one’s choosing to be that way and hopefully find a moment of Hope and example, whereby people do turn their lives around because.
Addiction is increasing daily deaths are increasing daily. And I think it’s important to outreach and present some form of hope that it’s possible to get clean.
Jordan: What did you learn while you were doing this documentary of the environment that he came from and his family and how that I don’t want to say contributes to it, but how it illustrates the pervasiveness of the opiate crisis.
Karen: Gabor mate who I really admire and respect says that you know, 99% of all severe addiction begins with childhood trauma. So and Trauma doesn’t necessarily mean they were dropped off a bus or sex traffic trauma can be. The parents were absent the parents were going through their own trauma the parents were, you know, it can be a million things that are happen in all of our families.
My mother was a functioning alcoholic. So I know that that is the key to looking at you know in rabbits family hard to say his parents moved around a lot. They had other foster kids in the home, you know, all parents do their best his father suffered from an accident which resulted in him becoming an addict and a fentanyl addict as well.
So that played a huge role. I have no doubt and then there’s the choices they make at a young age, you know, the wrong friend the wrong group of friends can take you down the wrong Street and you next thing, you know, you wake up and it’s 10 years later you’re living on the street.
Jordan: Tell me about where rabbits journey in this documentary begins because I think what captivated me about it is the number of routes you can take to try to get clean or try to get sober and they’re each kind of like a different Journey.
So where did he start? And what was he looking at?
Karen: Well, what’s Curious to me is that you say there’s a number of routes to get clean because I don’t see it that I don’t see that there are at all. There are very few. So he was very engrossed in harm reduction. So he was helping other addicts providing clean needles struggling with his own addiction.
I mean, it’s almost impossible if you’re living in that world and you’re addicted to Fentanyl and you’re using methadone, which is supposed to be helping you get off. It’s impossible to swim out of that. So there’s a lot of people and I certainly several people in the documentary and I would agree with this that you know, we spend five dollars on harm reduction so that you don’t die today.
We give you a clean needle and clean Supply. What we need to be doing is spending $100 and providing you treatment because nobody is very very difficult. And the numbers are very very small. I mean if I’m an addict and I’m ready to go to treatment today and I have no money. There’s nowhere. I may be on a three-month waiting list.
I may get into detox, but it won’t be medical detox, right? So there aren’t that many places to turn to which is why the deaths are so high. It was true in the 80s and before that. If you had a few are a doctor with a patient suffering from addiction you could send them to treatment and ohip would cover that.
There was very little treatment in Canada, but it could be done. Now. There is very little option for an addict of his, you know, he’s been on the street for 10 years, so. There there aren’t that many places. You can’t do it alone if people could do it alone they would and if and if harm reduction was really working the numbers would be going down and they’re going up.
Jordan: So what struck me about the discussion of harm reduction in the film is that you know, we’ve. Discuss this crisis before on the podcast and we’ve discussed safe injection sites. If you want to call them that and they are sold to us by government or other places, as you know, a potential solution and something that is working against the crisis, but there are doctors in your documentary who speak really harshly against them in a way I was not expecting from Healthcare professionals.
Karen: Well with look at it this way and and I don’t want to downplay the efforts many people are making in that field to keep people alive because they are but if you’re a long-term addict, I just it never made sense to me that you’re going to take me off one opiate and put me on methadone, which is a long-lasting opiate.
That’s the most difficult to get off it gets in your bones it gets in your teeth. So it makes no sense to me. The only ones really benefiting our the pharmaceutical companies who continue to make money with whatever you’re addicted to so I always said why don’t we go after them tax them and make enforce them to create treatment centers for people to get first of all to medical detox because you can’t even if you go to a medical detox place and you’re on methadone, you’re going to have to leave every day to go get your methadone because they won’t take you off at they don’t have the combat capability to take you off it.
So it’s kind of a trap and for someone who wants long-term sobriety or long-term sober living that path is just too difficult to make alone sure. If you’ve been addicted to heroin or opiates your whole life and you want a standard of living where you’re not fearing for your life everyday or having to steal.
Yes harm reduction and needle exchanges save you today with the may not save you tomorrow long-term. Sobriety gives you a life gives you a future
Jordan: What options were available for rabbit to pursue that path.
Karen: Well here tried and many do and even many in private treatment have to try multiple times before it works, but he had gone to detox multiple times, but it’s very very painful for opiate addicts to go through detox.
He was trying, you know, when you’re in a room and you’re not being medically supervised do other than making sure you’re not dying. It’s a very painful experience to go through so he was terrified of it it done that a number of times. The good news is apparently he did get in. We know we did take him to detox eventually.
He did make it through. He’s in a place called Saint Denis who which will keep him for four months. So fingers crossed. It’s a heroic achievement if he makes it with no help not that he hasn’t had lots of help and now he’s getting help but for someone without options the opportunities are almost nil.
Jordan: Well, he seems so daunted by it and the in the documentary.
Karen: That’s what happens. They get completely daunted they get they what they have all good intentions. And that’s why there’s I think it’s a really powerful scene when he tries to get off it and then he goes back and he’s shooting up and he says, you know, it doesn’t mean I haven’t failed in my road to sobriety.
The thing is that is a very common story for many many addicts trying and struggling to get off. I mean. The fact that you know, those drugs were ever sold as a non-addictive option for pain management is a crime against humanity. So they are the ones paying the price.
Jordan: What were you hoping to convey with rabbit story that can apply to all of us who know someone who has struggled with these kind of addictions because I know they’re not all that serious. They don’t all go that far down the road, but. Like I saw something of people that I knew in there
Karen: That’s good because that that was our hope, you know the hardest thing and I have been that person and certainly struggled with it and struggled with family members that I love.
Get educated the hardest thing is people who love someone who’s an addict tend to do what they think is the most loving thing and they end up doing the worst possible thing, which is we all enable. We all sweep under the rug addicts are incredibly smart resilient and manipulative and they will hide it in plain sight and once you wake up to what’s going on.
You need to educate yourself on what how you should be interacting with them to get them help you don’t give up but don’t give in and don’t enable and that’s a really really difficult thing for look like it’s really hard. Sometimes it’s walking away. Sometimes it’s. You know when someone’s calling and they’ve been beaten up or whatever you have to hand the responsibility of their life back to them.
So sometimes that means not writing the check or giving them the money realizing that when you give them money for food, they’re actually going out and buying fentanyl or whatever and make no mistake that this was the biggest thing I learned and I know a fair bit about addiction and I couldn’t understand why or why the thing with fentanyl why is everyone wants something they know is killing all these people.
And then it was actually rabbits dealer who said to me. It’s the Pinnacle of opiate addicts desire is to have fentanyl because it is the most incredible. Hi, so even when a dealer if a dealer’s clients have died from fentanyl, that means he has really great fentanyl. So it makes his products more valuable when I heard that.
That just tells you the power of addiction and how it turns your head around because when you’re up against that it’s very difficult. And if you’re dealing with a fentanyl addict and often you don’t know you think they’re drinking or doing coke or whatever. All you can do is watch for the signs educate yourself and make the calls to get help if you can afford it.
And if you can’t they have to be ready you can as Rabbit, we tried and he wasn’t ready.
Jordan: Tell me a little bit about the difference. You mentioned that rabbits father was also an addict the difference in their experiences and in the solutions that were available to them
Karen: Really good question because most kids will find access to opiates through their parents medicine cabinet and that’s exactly what happened.
So he was over prescribed which happened a lot in the 80s and 90s still happens called polypharmacy. So the father was over prescribed in opiates don’t work in the long run. You need more and more and more. So boom you’re addicted and there’s no way out and many patients doctors would then start with started to learn about the crisis which is cut them off.
So there’s nowhere to get there opiates and those people went to the street. Apparently the highest use of heroin in the states right now is middle-aged women who have come off opiates and can’t get opiates from a doctor. So they’re using heroin which is cheaper and which is yes. So understanding, his wrote is no easier really than rabbits because he feels somewhat Justified because it was a doctor who prescribed it.
Jordan: Well He kept saying that I get mine from a prescription,
So it’s just somehow justify you really have to take your health into your own hands. Now, he found a doctor and I did a lot of research on the use of cannabis as an exit strategy for opoids and they are having I mean a lot of it’s anecdotal the the clinical trials are starting now in huge numbers, but he had great success with it.
And I think there are a lot of other options now, but you have to take command of your own ship like you have to be in control of your own health ship don’t wait for a doctor like he was prescribed 12 different. Medications that were causing and every medication cause something else that needed more medications So eventually he’s not going to get himself out of there unless he suddenly finds a doctor who’s willing to take him on to de-prescribe that’s an enormous task and there aren’t that many.
I mean as he found he found it hard enough. Finding a doctor who would use cannabis to get him off opioids
Jordan: And he’s a middle-aged guy with a good doctor and a house and he’s not a kid living on the street. Like how how does somebody grappling with the day-to-day life that rabbit was living? How do they get into those clinical trials or get to be a part of that kind of research?
Karen: I would have to say. You know, someone would go to an Outreach Center or a clean supply place to look for people for their clinical trial but there are doctors now that are becoming more and more educated about the use of cannabis for that. You just have to find one. There’s not a lot of them, but they are out there.
We found one you know the for John. And it takes work, but you once you take command of your own health and go this is enough. I have to get off this the problem is at that point you’re addicted and the addicted brain works very differently. You want off but you’re terrified and you don’t want to reduce it because you’re going to be in pain and the a couple of doctors said they now use a very powerful combination of mindfulness.
There’s other ways to deal with pain cannabis oils, but you have to go and learn and be willing. To go. So it’s not quick. It’s not a quick fix. You got on them long. It took a long time to get on them. It’s going to take you a while to get off.
Jordan: This is not necessarily a question about the film but it’s something that I end up asking every time we do an interview about the opioid crisis, which is we have years of data now showing how much worse it’s getting and how quickly. Why haven’t we been able to make a dent like to your point earlier? Like it’s one thing for this to be a crisis. It’s another thing for it to be a crisis that still escalating even as we know it’s a problem.
Karen: I think there are higher things that play that happened to do with profit and control and I totally agree with you.
It’s gotten worse and worse and worse and harm reduction is not made a dent in the number of deaths. The deaths are increasing has now become the leading cause of accidental death in North America. So at some point responsibility has to take be taken which is happening in the states. There are pharmaceutical companies getting sued that are losing that money is being used for treatment.
So it needs a wake-up call of huge proportions to sort of address. What is the greater thing which is people are in pain people are wounds were walking wounds. So if you have something like an opioid or cocaine or alcohol that sort of kills the pain for a minute people are going to fall into that and it’s time we wake up and get educated about how you actually what it’s going to take to help people get out and it’s going to take.
Money, it’s going to take treatment. It’s going to take help. It’s going to take therapy. It’s going to take relearning and it’s going to take doctor’s becoming responsible for what they prescribe.
Jordan: We’re in the middle of an election right now. I know if there was a tangible First Step that one of the four parties could announce tomorrow or maybe already have announced that would convince you like this is the party getting serious about all the things that I just mentioned.
Karen: I would have to say a massive education program for Physicians really because Physicians themselves and I’ve had Physicians say this me it’s in quell. Look at anything. Look at the litter might look at you know, dr. Gabor mate said to me he went to a conference 15 20 years ago six hundred doctors learning about hormone replacement therapy for women over 50 and how it was going to you know, get rid of breast cancer get rid of osteoporosis.
They all went out and prescribed all their patients and we now know 15 years years later that it actually causes those things. So there’s never been an education a serious education attempt around Addiction in medical school among Physicians if the doctor that we interviewed for the documentary said in her entire, Years at Medical School, she had I think two classes on addiction.
These are the people prescribing medicine and drugs. They need to know about addiction. They need to know about it beyond what it does for pain.
Jordan: My last question is just to bring it back to the documentary about Rabbit. While you were working with him and following him around how many people treated him like a full person if that makes any sense to you because I kept getting the sense that a lot of people just saw him as an addict.
Karen: And people do and we all do we all we all face that in ourselves on the way to the studio. I passed a guy in his 40s passed out on the street and you have to remember I always remember that was Somebody’s Baby somebody’s child somebody he has a mother and a father. And somewhere along the line the line life dealt him a bad hand and he couldn’t he had no resources to get through it other people may have been dealt a bad hand and had more resources.
Who knows? So, yes, he definitely had very hard time make it’s funny. I often, you know, give money to people on the street and I always make a point of looking them in the eye because they and he said that to us that I have trouble looking anyone in the eye because they’re a shame. They don’t, you know, they don’t want to be that way.
They didn’t set out to be that way. So the most you can do is look them in the eye and give less so they can feel for one moment the Dignity of being a human being because they don’t feel that way.
Jordan: Karen Wookey co-producer and co-director of saving rabbit. You can find it on CBC’s Gem. That was the Big Story for more from us, we are at thebigstorypodcast.ca and as always we are on Twitter at @thebigstoryfpn. You can check out all our other podcasts at frequencypodcastnetwork.com. Every podcast we ever make is available wherever you prefer to get them Apple and Google and Stitcher and Spotify. Thanks for listening.
I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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