Changing the face of addiction: Loved ones left behind share their stories

The NDP government has faced recent calls to declare a state of emergency over the fentanyl crisis in Alberta but, for one Calgary woman, it comes too late to save her partner.

“Our treatment, both from a policy and treatment perspective, has failed. It failed me, it failed Nathan and it failed Nathan’s family,” said Rosalind Davis, who watched the man join the ranks of the hundreds of Albertans who have lost their lives to the deadly drug.

Davis and her partner, Nathan Huggins-Rosenthal, purchased a house together in the autumn of 2014, and with Nathan helping out with renovations, their lives were growing together exactly as they had planned.

However, after injuring his back during the process, Huggins-Rosenthal took a prescription painkiller that led to addiction. Just 18 months later he was dead, and Davis was left with a lifetime of questions without answers.

“It was so incredibly senseless, but I didn’t think the addiction was that bad,” she told Postmedia.

“You wake up every morning and you feel like your skin is crawling . . . you check your phone every morning and you check your text messages because you don’t think it’s real.”

Huggins-Rosenthal wasn’t what the public generally envisions when thinking of a “stereotypical” addict.

“He had his MBA, he worked as a successful stockbroker . . . he wasn’t what would be considered a stereotypical user,” Davis said.

“Our typical weekend morning was just drinking coffee and reading the paper. We weren’t people who went out every weekend. We’d go to the dog park, we’d go to yoga. All of those normal things, and then one day he just lost interest in life,” she added.

After five or six months of being in the dark, Davis confronted her partner about the problem and they agreed to seek treatment in February 2015.

However, the system failed him, in Davis’ eyes.

The couple faced a four-month wait after being referred to an outpatient program at Foothills Medical Centre, and Davis believes it was a contributing factor in his death.

Now, six months after Huggins-Rosenthal’s overdose death, Davis wants to shed light on addiction, and try to stop that same system from failing someone else.

“It’s so easy to ignore when it’s not a problem that directly hits you. But it’s an epidemic, it’s touching more and more people,” she said.

“When you bring it out into the open you have more control over the situation. The more they push people into the shadows, or punish people who are addicted, you’re creating a bigger problem” Davis added.

Not far from the home Davis still resides in, a different family followed a different path, but endured the same tragic result.

John Cliffe — whose 35-year-old son Jason died recently from the drug — is begging anyone who may even think about taking fentanyl to think twice.

“I feel like I’ve got to do something for my son,” he said.

Jason was heavy into hockey in his youth, said his ex-wife, Jennifer.

“Boxing, too,” she said. “He was a bronze and silver glove winner in his first year, I think he was 12. He was a five-time gold gloves champion, and a Canadian champion until he gave it up at 19.”

Jason went to Father Lacombe High School in 1997, before leaving in 1999 with a clear path for himself in mind.

He worked as a roofer for a number of years before finally opening his own business based in Calgary, Cliffe Exteriors, as a legacy for his two kids, who are five and nine.

Jason’s father and ex-wife want the public to know that the addict and the person are not one and the same.

“He was a wonderful boy and he was married, he had two little kids,” said his dad.

“He went to rehab last year, he was so good, and then he relapsed. He had money one night and he thought he would have some fun . . . and it killed him.

“You shouldn’t go before your children,” he said of his son’s death that now leaves two children without a father. “I just turned fifty-nine two weeks ago and I’m just broken.”

Jennifer said even though Jason battled addiction, he remained a good father.

“Even in our marriage, I had to separate the addiction from the person,” she said.

“Even through a lot of it, though, he was there for the kids.”

The death toll from the potent synthetic opiate has reached 153 in Alberta by the halfway point of 2016, adding to the 274 people who lost their lives last year.

John Cliffe said it’s time for action, to keep parents, friends and family from going through the same pain they’re going through now.

“It’s terrible. The government has to do something, and something soon,” he said.

“It’s like a disease for these young people. One time and they’re dead.

“He was old enough to know better, but it was an addiction. Age doesn’t matter, it doesn’t discriminate. You grieve for everybody when they die . . . but a son? It’s so hard.”

The grieving dad said his message is simple — and he hopes those who can make a difference are listening.

“If my message can save one kid, that’s all I care about.”

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