Winnipeg advocates’ purple ribbon campaign hopes to lessen stigma of addiction

By | August 1, 2020

When Barb Ashley thinks of her son, Robert, she still pictures the witty little boy who was always one step ahead of her.

But as she attached his photo to a tree with a purple ribbon on Friday, she remembered the 26-year-old who faced barriers at every turn as he struggled to find help recovering from an opiate addiction that eventually took his life in 2018.

“He had so much potential and he tried so hard,” she said, voice crackling with grief. “He should have made it.”

Barb and her daughter, Rachel Ashley, were among a small group of people putting up dozens of ribbons and photos of loved ones lost to addiction near Churchill Drive to kick off a month-long campaign leading up to International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31.

“I guess we’re after education and kindness,” Barb said of the initiative organized by Overdose Awareness Manitoba to commemorate those lost to overdoses and other drug-related harms.

“And the realization that it can happen to anyone. If it happened in our family, it can happen in yours.”

As Rachel looks at her brother’s photo, she remembers how he loved music and the people in his life; how he helped her with schoolwork when she was going through college. And she thinks about how he’ll never get to meet his niece, who was born six months ago.

“I miss him so much. And I wish she would have known him,” she said.

Arlene Last-Kolb stands next to a tree with a purple ribbon tied around along Churchill Drive. The campaign, which will run all month, is meant to destigmatize addiction and addicts leading up to International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Robert dealt with some substance abuse issues as a teen, but spiralled after a broken elbow in 2015 left him addicted to painkillers. But for the most part, he kept his struggles with addiction to himself, Barb said. 

She said she didn’t realize the extent of the problem until he told her he was going to Vancouver for a treatment program in January 2017. He stayed there for about four months, and came home to find he didn’t have the resources he needed to maintain his sobriety.

“There were really no supports. Same circus, same monkeys,” she said.

That’s part of what Barb and Rachel say they’re hoping to address with the third annual campaign: more understanding around the stigma surrounding addictions, and more support for people looking for help.

WATCH | Purple Ribbon Campaign reveals the faces of loved ones lost to addiction:

Photos tied with purple ribbons to trees along Churchill Drive in Winnipeg are meant to destigmatize addiction and addicts during Overdose Awareness Month. 2:22

More access to overdose antidote needed

Among the 44 photos is Arlene Last-Kolb’s son, Jessie, who died of a fentanyl overdose in 2014 at the age of 24.

Since then, Last-Kolb has been organizing campaigns in Winnipeg to bring awareness to the harms caused by drug addiction, and the changes needed to address them.

Right now, she wants the province to change the legal classification of naloxone — which can help block the effects of an opioid overdose — so it’s more accessible.

Last week, a provincial spokesperson said Manitoba Health is considering changing it from a Schedule 2 drug to an unscheduled drug. The shift, which advocates in the province have suggested for years, would mean the drug could be distributed outside of licensed pharmacies.

Last-Kolb said she’s hoping that adjustment will happen sometime this month.

Purple ribbons are tied along trees near Churchill Drive to commemorate people lost to addictions in Manitoba. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Since Jessie died, far too little has changed, she said. New people join the group all the time, some within weeks of losing a child or partner to an overdose. Others can’t bring themselves to do it until years later.

It’s not an easy job, she said; the sting of loss never fades away. But over time, it begins to pale next to a determination to stop it from happening to someone else.

For Last-Kolb, it took years to get to this point. She can now get through an interview without bursting into tears, but still hasn’t been able to bring herself to drive down the street where Jessie’s house was.

“Everybody does this when they’re ready,” Last-Kolb said. “This is the last thing I thought I’d be doing.”

As people walk through the neighbourhood where her son grew up this month, she said she hopes they look at the faces scattered among the trees and see how quickly and how often addiction can unravel a life.

And she hopes that in some small way, her son’s death meant something bigger than itself.

“Our lives have changed completely,” she said. “But he did leave a legacy.”

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