Sudden Silence: Hidden Voices
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Sudden Silence: Hidden Voices is an adaptation of a photo voice project funded through a Vancouver Community Action Grant. The purpose of this project is to highlight the tragedy of the overdose crisis and introduce some of those who have been lost. Their loss is most keenly felt through their loved ones. Their grief cannot be described in words and is their constant companion. This project also focusses on the impact of the stigma for using drugs and of how safe supply might have made a difference.
Photo by Gabrielle Beer
By Kathy Woudzia, Jessica’s mom
Caring, Considerate, Creative
How and when did using drugs enter into Jessica’s life?
The best way to learn about Jessica’s story is to read a news story which was featured on CBC in November of 2019. This story won 2 national journalism awards and I shared it in order to raise awareness among suburban communities.
“JESSICA’S SECRET”: Google "CBC Jessica's Secret" by Jodie Martinson and Bridgette Watshon.
*An update to the story: Jessica’s partner is now 5 ½ years sober and their daughter is in French Immersion-grade 2 / 3, a split class and is thriving in school and gymnastics & dance.
I first became aware that Jessica was experimenting with cannabis when she was around the age of 16. I thought it was a phase that many, including me, have gone through in their teens. I wasn’t too worried as it didn’t seem to hinder her school work-she made honour roll every year. Reference letters from teachers and employers all say Jessica was a diligent, hard working, pleasant student and employee. She graduated from high school with merit and service awards and was accepted to UBC in the faculty of Science.
Why might Jessica have been drawn into drug use; did she feel that drugs helped her in some way?
Jessica was drawn to drug use for both biological [nature] and trauma related [nurture] reasons. Her biological predisposition for substance use disorders came from both sides of the family. Her father battled Alcohol Use Disorder [AUD] which later led to use of cocaine and ultimately led to his death at the age of 41. On my side, my brother also battled AUD and lost his life to complications from it at the age of 55. AUD has been a factor on both sides of the family for generations. For my side, I have been diagnosed with both ADHD(Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) since her passing, and dealt with my struggles using addictions to food, exercise, cannabis, prescription medication and shopping.
From a nurture point of view, Jessica was the daughter of a father who didn’t or couldn’t show love because of the trauma incurred by his father upon him as a child. By the time Jessica was born, his struggles with alcohol along with other substances such as cocaine and cannabis became more and more prominent and created a dysfunctional living environment. Jessica’s personality type was such that she was a people pleaser but try as she might, she couldn’t please her dad. Her dad and I separated when she was 9 years old.
As per the separation agreement, I was given full custody and guardianship of Jessica and her two younger siblings; their dad was given weekend visitations and so, if he arrived sober, or at all, to pick them up, they were allowed to go with him. That didn’t guarantee he would stay sober during their visit and that became a problem, especially for Jessica.
Jessica didn’t share with me what had happened between her and her father during some of those weekend visits. Later though she confided in her friend, whose mom contacted social services. It was then brought it to my attention that her father had been sexually abusing her while intoxicated. She was “finally” getting that much longed for attention from her dad, albeit in a very confusing and egregious way which is why she didn’t want to tell me. She said “I was afraid you weren’t going to let us see dad if I told you”. When police and social services encouraged Jessica to press charges against him she said “no, dad didn’t do it on purpose — he was drunk”. Can you imagine, a young girl so desperately wanting her father’s attention, that her standards for what a father should be were influenced by her perspective that “this” attention was better than nothing. Tragic.
In spite of what happened, and in the absence of counselling — Jessica refused to go for help, not wanting to relive the trauma — life seemed to continue normally for Jessica. She graduated from high school with several awards, and then from UBC, BSc in Cellular Biology and Genetics. A year later she won a scholarship in the faculty of UBC Education, where she received her teaching degree along with the distinguished award for “Most promising teacher” of the 2012 graduating year.
I believe it was during university that Jessica began experimenting with drugs outside of alcohol and cannabis. Just like some children inherit poor physical health genes from their parents, Jessica inherited poor mental health genes, and so right out of the gate, coping in life was more challenging. Coupled with the trauma she suffered during her short life on earth, and not being able to perhaps recognize, admit, or disclose her struggles with addiction to anyone — counsellors [she tried], or me until it was too late, life often felt like too much for this girl to handle. This is why Jessica felt her only option was to self-medicate to feel that she could cope.
The impact of the stigma of drug use can be summed up in one word: INSURMOUNTABLE. Jessica was a professional, a high school teacher and she felt was held to a higher standard both by herself and others. She was not willing to disclose - to anyone (at first), and then only to close family members (when she finally needed help) - that she was self-medicating with illegal substances. She was deathly afraid of being judged and rightly so. She was living in a suburb of Vancouver [South Delta], which lacked the kinds of options and resources available to folks living in Vancouver.
Four years after her passing she would likely have suffered a similar fate, as suburbs are still lacking many resources. Also without a safe supply, the drugs that most people including Jessica purchase, are toxic and so more unnecessary fatalities can be expected.
In 2015 when I first learned of Jessica’s struggles with SUD, government sponsored programs available in South Delta were extremely scarce and difficult to find. The closest available programs were in Surrey, so not in a place Jessica felt ‘at home’ or comfortable. She also found these humiliating and demoralizing. Some staff would react in a condescending way after learning Jessica was a teacher. Had Jessica been suffering from any other physical illness, she very likely would have been shown care and compassion in a respectful environment, with an array of options.
Jessica often wrote in her diary about how she was disgusted in herself — she despised herself for using substances for coping; she had high standards and, yes, she was ‘stigmatizing herself’. She truly believed her only option was abstinence, exercise and counselling, but she was unwilling to disclose to her counsellor her addiction to opioids and would only reveal that she was anxious. Jessica was successful for 10 months, until she had one unsettling setback. That one setback was me, her mom, her main support, being put on life support myself for using an energy powder [Notropic] ordered on line to cope with my own undiagnosed ADHD and BPD, Type 1. So many people who are addicted know they can use drugs to relieve the pain (physical or psychological) and the fear they have. She may have thought she was losing the one person who was her everything. Her coping strategy was to use and this time, the drugs were tainted and she died.
How might the availability of a safer supply made a difference to Jessica?
Simply put, a safer supply of drugs would have allowed Jessica to make a mistake and it would not have cost her life.
When is the last time you or a person you know, who has abstained from using a legally regulated substance such as alcohol, nicotine, prescribed opioids, a category of food, or really, anything “legal”, died when relapsing due to toxic poisoning? It doesn’t happen because ‘what you see is what you get’ with legal substances. In other words, you are allowed to fall, get back up, and try again. Jessica didn’t get that chance.
Had she been given an option for prescription opioids, or opioids not tainted with unknown amounts of fentanyl, she would have had a SAFE supply the night I went on life support and she just could not cope. She relapsed. If there had been access to safe supply, Jessica would still be here to watch her precious little daughter grow up and use her incredible teaching skills to help teens through high school. Before she died, North Delta Secondary School was promoting her to head science teacher.
What is the world missing because Jessica is no longer on the planet?
Here’s what some of Jessica’s loved ones say…
“On the most basic level, and what I miss the most is a partner and co-parent, obviously. On a deeper emotional level I miss the way she challenged me on my opinions and ideas.”
“We are missing an accepting, considerate, intelligent, non-judgmental human being.”
“The world is missing someone who cared passionately about education and connecting with at risk students; she was supportive and nonjudgmental and helped many through difficult times”,
“We are missing a caring, creative, and encouraging person.”
Sands Secondary School — a 10 metre long Tribute banner for Jessica giving staff and students an opportunity to write about her after learning of her passing and an excellent science teacher who could relate to troubled teens better than anyone.
“You impacted a lot of lives in a positive way and it really showed how much you cared about the kids. You made a difference."
“Thank you for always being patient with us and telling funny jokes." An other student wrote, “You made Sands a happier and brighter place for everyone; every time I saw you, you had smile on your face and you were laughing.”
“I don’t remember mommy”.
Me, her mom:
“I’m missing an incredibly talented, witty, intelligent, vibrant, and giving daughter who was also one of my best friends. I miss the twinkle in her eye when she gave you that cute grin with the little dimple on her chin. I miss her sense of humour. I miss the homemade cards she used to give me on special occasions. I miss hearing her complain about how much hiking with me annoys her because I don’t enjoy the beauty in my haste to reach the top. I miss every little detail about Jess.”
“An intelligent, compassionate, curious, giving social justice warrior; a champion for the underdog”
A favourite story about Jessica:
I have many favourite stories about Jessica but I think this one describes best who she was, not only as a daughter, partner, mother, sibling, friend, colleague, and teacher, but also a human being.
It was a very cold, snowy January early evening, when Jessica zoomed up in her Hyundai Elantra, to our townhome in Ladner, which was located right next to the Ladner United Church, a hub for underprivileged populations. After day of teaching at Sands Secondary School, she was coming to pick her daughter up from my place after daily caretaking.
Often the two of them would stay for dinner. Jess was always happy to spend time with family and enjoyed discussing her daily trials and tribulations with myself and her step-dad, who also worked in education. She was in full recovery from her substance use disorder (SUD) and thriving. We had a lovely dinner; Jessica and my granddaughter packed up and drove off.
A few minutes after they had left my phone rang. It was Jessica. She was in tears. “Mom” she said, “there is a homeless man sleeping outside of the United Church and he’s going to freeze to death. Can you please bring him a blanket. He’s suffering.” We found the name of the pastor for the church and called him. He, in turn called the Delta Police who picked him up and gave him a ride to a 3 day, free of charge, stay at one of the local hotels, shelter from the terrible storm and relief, if only for a few days.
Jessica made a difference in someone’s life that night because she cared. I asked many people to describe Jessica in one word and the word “caring” came up time and time again. Not a day doesn’t go by that I don’t miss her. The world has needlessly lost a compassionate, brilliant, beautiful human being who had so much to give.
Let’s learn from the past and find a way to make our illegal drug supply as safe as our alcohol, nicotine, cannabis and prescription medications because most of us make mistakes. We fall off the wagon, whether it be diet, alcohol, whatever “poison” you choose, (or, more likely, chooses you) based on a combination biological factors and life experience, and this is proven.
However, should you fall, relapse, your options are safe - your poison won’t kill you, at least not instantly. Consider yourself very lucky and then ask yourself this question:
Should you or your loved ones ever find yourselves in Jessica’s shoes, how would you like to be treated?
Jessica - a poem
With her smile and twinkle in her eye
She could light up schools, stadiums and the sky
A passion to teach; she loved to learn
How very quickly life can turn
When the drug that helped her cope
Was only sold as illegal dope
So Jessica vowed never to use again
A slip; that ONE mistake; that’s when
She bargained “I’ll do it just this once”
And suddenly she had no pulse,
That’s the price for her last craving
Ask yourself, was Jessica’s life worth saving?