On June 7, 2017, I spoke publicly for the first time about our son Sean’s addiction to fentanyl as part of a panel organized to be more proactive about the opiod crisis facing our students. I had been in the L. V. Rogers Secondary School gymnasium on numerous occasions as the former school district superintendent. My husband John had been in the gym in his capacity as Mayor of our city for 9 years. in the In fact, we had been there as proud parents when our 3 children had graduated from L.V. Rogers. I told the audience that, although I was used to public speaking, I was very nervous as I had never talked about something so personal or so terrifying. I told the audience that I was scared…scared because of what our family went through, because of the opiod crisis that isn’t getting much better, and scared when I hear stories like the one about the 16 year old girl from New Westminster Secondary School that died a couple of weeks ago after she and her friend took a drug that wasn’t what they thought it was.
In early August, 2015, our most recent Dooley family picture was posted to Facebook by several family members. The picture was taken on July 25, 2015, just hours before we gathered to celebrate our second grandson Van’s first birthday. The picture got a huge number of comments and likes on Facebook about what a beautiful family we have, and how cute our grandchildren are. The day this picture was taken should have been a happy day…but we were a family in crisis. What people didn’t know was that 6 days earlier, on July 20, I was taking Van for a walk in Kokanee Park and Sean came along. During the course of that walk, he told me that was addicted to pain killers, had told his employer, and needed to go into treatment. You could have knocked me over with a feather… Like many parents, I was the classic person who thought things like this couldn’t happen in loving, strong families to a person that had everything going for them. Sean was engaged to Courtney, they had a home, they had a new baby, they had a great life…but that was all on the surface. Sean never used the word fentanyl when he told me about his addiction, and if he had, I am pretty sure it would have been the first time I had ever heard the word. But I know what it means now…and when I found out how serious this drug was, and how addicted he was, and started to pay attention to reports on the news, my fear grew and grew. Now, two years later, every news report on fentanyl is like a stake in my heart…because I know that we were lucky not to have lost our son. Sean was in counseling, and plans were made for him to go into treatment. I barely slept in those three weeks…I was scared, and I couldn’t help but ask where I had gone wrong as a mother. I looked back on times when he had seemed unusually sad, and recalled a time when I had called his school as he seemed depressed. I recalled a time in grade 11 when he had woken me up to tell me how sad he was over a number of things that had happened in his life., I wonder whether he would have gone down the addiction path if he had received help earlier. Then, I tried to use logic and started to blame Sean: Why didn’t appreciate all that he had? I prayed and lived in fear that something would happen before he could actually start the program. We also kept it very quiet: I have friends and family that would have been there for me, but this was something to keep quiet about. Sean’s dad and I, his sisters, cousin, and Courtney knew, but we wanted this kept “secret”. The fact that I am sharing this story demonstrates that I have come full circle and recognize the importance of talking about these issues.
Sean went into treatment on August 17, 2015, and I will never forget that day…watching him leave his fiancé and young son for something we had no experience with. I cannot thank his employer enough for not only supporting his treatment financially but for seeing enough potential in him that they invested financially and gave him the time he needed to get well. My husband and I drove our son to Top of The World Ranch in the East Kootenays, and left him there for what would be almost two months. We would have no contact for at least a week, and during that week we found out that he was in detox and very seriously ill. I remember the day, though, that Sean called after his first week and sounded inspired and committed. After almost five weeks, my husband John and I were called to come and hear Sean tell us his story. We had been told that there was trauma at the root of his depression and his use of drugs. While we were aware of some traumatic events, we were shocked to hear that our son had been abused by a neighbor for two years, from the time he was 5 years of age to 7. This was a man we knew, one that went to church, and one that left town suddenly. We just didn’t have a mindset that would consider that he could be abusing our son. Sean has been receiving major counseling as a victim of crime as part of his treatment.
Since then, and since watching Sean go into treatment, thrive, and emerge as a leader, I have learned a lot myself and I want to share some things in the hope that our family’s experiences may help others. First and foremost, openness and a willingness to talk about drugs, and mental struggles is important. John, Courtney and I spent 4 days in a family support program at Top of the World Ranch, where it was reinforced daily that Sean’s struggle was Sean’s struggle. As parents, we want to fix things and make things right…but I couldn’t make Sean better, It had to come from him…and he has to manage his life daily. I also learned, largely through the people I met at the treatment center, that depression, addiction and struggles with drug use are not restricted to people living in poverty, or out on the street. We met highly successful business people, athletes, and others who came from relatively privileged backgrounds. When Sean went public, we had so many people contact us and I can tell that there are many people in our community, and beyond, that have family members that are struggling with depression, past hurts, and need help. Since then, I have read a book entitled Beautiful Boy written by a father about his son’s struggles with drug use. It has reinforced the research that drug use cuts across socio-economic status, race, families of all structures. I don’t want to scare anyone, but we need to all take this opiod crisis incredibly seriously. I hope that we will all be more prone to accept that people with mental struggles need our support the same way that people with physical illnesses do.
I know that having family love, and support has helped Sean. Since leaving treatment, he has continued a program to help him recover, had another son, is getting married in September and been promoted to manager at his job. He manages a junior hockey team and started a program called Breakout, focused on athletes dealing with mental health and substance use issues. My hope for all of you that you never go through what are family has gone through, but we are in unprecedented times. Take care, and be responsible for each other. Beware of pain killers. Young people face stresses, and also tend to view themselves as invincible. Please talk to your children about drugs…and what is happening right now. Please don’t look down your nose at families with children that turn to drugs, or struggle with issues.. Proactivity is really important, so please recognize, that below the surface, there are many people who are struggling and I invite anyone to call and talk to us. I am proud of our son…proud of him for being courageous enough to go public with his story and proud of the time he puts into helping people that are in crisis. We all love our children and want the best for them, and I can say with pride how much I appreciate Sean’s leadership in turning our family’s and his own personal crisis into something so constructive. Right at the end of his treatment, he told his dad and I that he intended to be very public in the hopes that he can help others..and I hope I can too.