Column: A familiar name among the numbers

Overdose death of a woman who came to the Times 18 months ago asking for help, puts a familiar face on the fentanyl crisis

The numbers are out and, once again, they’re not good.

In B.C. 116 people died from a drug overdose in the first month of 2017.

That’s an average of seven deaths every two days. Soon, we’ll hear February’s stats and it’s a safe bet that they won’t be much better.

Last year, more than 900 people died in B.C. after ingesting illicit drugs. Of those deaths, 21 happened in Langley. It’s not a huge number by comparison to some communities, but it’s one that has risen fairly consistently over the past 10 years.

With the introduction of fentanyl and, increasingly (the far deadlier) carfentanil, into pretty much every street drug you can name, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see those numbers fall in any meaningful way.

The statistics are overwhelming. So it’s no wonder many of us have grown numb, considering the hundreds of nameless, faceless victims who’ve succumbed to overdose in the past 12 months alone.

For me, at least, that’s been true. Until now.

In December, for the first time, one of the victims turned out to be someone I had known personally.

We weren’t friends, but Arlene Fowler and I did have a couple of memorable conversations.

The first took place in the beauty aisle of a local grocery store a few years ago. I walked around the corner and saw her standing halfway up the aisle. She was holding a small box of hair colour in each hand and wearing a confused look.

I probably would have kept on walking if she hadn’t addressed me.

She held out one of the boxes of brown colour, telling me she’d decided to lose the bottle blond and return to her natural shade. The only problem was, she couldn’t remember what that was, exactly.

So she bent her chin to her chest as I held up one box top after another, looking for the best match to her roots. Throughout the process, Arlene giggled like a teenager.

Eventually, we found a good fit and she went on her way.

I reminded her of the encounter as she sat in my office in July 2015. She laughed and told me she remembered. The change hadn’t taken root, I noted, as she was still a blonde.

This time, the help she was looking for was somewhat more serious.

She’d been homeless, on and off, after the sudden death of one of her daughters led her into a downward spiral of alcohol and drug abuse.

She had turned to prostitution as a way to feed her habit.

By this point, she had become afraid for her safety and wanted off the street, but she wasn’t able to find anyplace she could afford.

Would I help her?

We talked for a while as Arlene shed a few tears; she left; I wrote about her plight. I didn’t hear from her after that, so I had no idea whether she’d managed to find a landlord who was willing to take a chance on her.

It wasn’t until I met her daughter, Nicole, last month that I learned Arlene had been successful in finding a suite — for a time, at least.  After that, she’d moved into a furnished garage.

It was here that her life ended, after she took heroin with a couple of her friends.

For Nicole, the tragedy of her mother’s untimely death at 49 years old, also marks a beginning. She sees it as an opportunity to start to raise awareness among the general public, and high school students in particular, about the importance of taking precautions when using illegal drugs.

It’s a controversial position, no question. But her point is valid.

As with sexual activity, to expect across-the-board abstinence from drug use among teenagers is simply not realistic.

Sex education is taught in schools, she reasons, so why not drug safety?

As illicit drugs continue to get deadlier and, one assumes, ever more readily available, it’s not a stretch to imagine that as those monthly numbers continue to roll in, among them will be young people who decided it would be fun to experiment — the very people Nicole hopes to reach through her talks.

Whether she would be able to get through to them is anyone’s guess, but there are few messages more powerful than those that come from someone who knows, first hand, exactly what’s at stake.

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