For a time, Daryl Owen Sen had it all.
The Calgary man had a great job as market manager with Mac’s, the convenience store chain, and was loved by his colleagues. He owned two condos. His passport was inked with stamps from dozens of countries. And he had a big, loving family in the city.
“Daryl was one of the nicest guys in the world,” his brother-in-law and close friend Jeremy Campbell said.
“He was one of the smartest guys I ever met. His heart was open to everybody and everything. That’s why I guess we got along so well.”
But Sen also struggled with substance abuse. For many years, alcohol was his drug of choice.
“It started changing him a little bit, not right off the bat,” Sen’s younger sister Becky Campbell recalled.
The addiction became progressively worse, Campbell said, and “when alcohol wasn’t a strong enough high, that’s when drugs got introduced.”
Sen was in a treatment program in Calgary for alcohol addiction when someone introduced him to fentanyl, the synthetic painkiller and illicit drug at the heart of the opioid crisis.
Fentanyl is 100 times stronger than morphine. It can be smoked, injected, snorted or swallowed in pill form.
“Someone offered him some for free,” said his best friend, Marie Hermanson. “He was hooked right away.”
Eventually, she said, Sen was using carfentanil, too — an even more potent analogue of fentanyl that’s used to tranquilize elephants and rhinos.
Becky Campbell remembers how angry she felt when she found out her brother was using fentanyl.
“When he told me, I got mad at him,” she said. “I was like, ‘What are you doing, are you trying to kill yourself? It’s like you’re attempting suicide every time you take it.’ I guess he felt like, with everything else he’d done with his body, he maybe thought he was immune to it.”
Jeremy Campbell remembers talking to his brother-in-law again and again, suggesting he curb the habit.
“As things got worse and worse, we’d have that conversation again and I’d say, ‘Man, you need to stop all of it, because I don’t want to tell my children you’re dead.’ He’d say no, it’ll never happen. And we actually started to believe that as a family, because he’d pulled through some really crazy times. It seemed like he had nine lives.”
In 2017, 569 people in Alberta died of accidental fentanyl poisoning. That’s more than 80 per cent of all the accidental opioid poisonings in the province.
Sen was one of them. Late one Thursday afternoon in early March 2017, he was watching a basketball game at a Calgary rec centre when he collapsed on a bench. Less than 12 hours later, Sen was dead. He was 39 years old.
“He didn’t want to die. I know that. He did not want to die,” Becky Campbell said. “This was not a choice for him. It was bigger than he was. Unfortunately, he couldn’t stop.”
The fallout for Sen’s family isn’t just the fact they’ve lost a man they love dearly in traumatic, sudden circumstances. It’s the fact they now have to contend with all the judgment and misunderstanding surrounding opioid addiction.
Becky Campbell doesn’t tell just anyone how her brother died.
“To be honest, I watch the crowd and I watch the audience,” she said. “There’s some times where, I don’t know why, I feel ashamed, I feel embarrassed, but not for myself, for him, and I don’t want to embarrass him. That’s what’s hard. I don’t want people to think bad of him. I don’t want the last outcome of Daryl to be that he was this addict, because there was so much more to him than that.”
Jeremy Campbell said his own perspectives on addiction have dramatically shifted.
“I used to think it was a certain group of people,” he said. “Knowing Daryl, I have a different outlook when I’m driving through the streets of Calgary. I see a guy on the street, on the corner. Maybe I had a different outlook on him before.”
What runs through Campbell’s mind now is, “That’s somebody’s uncle, that’s somebody’s dad, that’s somebody’s brother. He’s probably a good guy and he’s caught up in this addiction world.”
Daryl Sen’s father, Surhit, said his son was a generous, lovable and kind man who called him twice a day to see how he was doing. Surhit Sen doesn’t tell people what happened to Daryl.
“I keep it secret,” said Sen. “I didn’t even mention it to my friends, or anybody. Feeling shame. It’s a bad thing, people taking the drugs, you know?”
“I keep it to myself. I feel good this way. At least I didn’t tell anybody. I was so proud about him.”
Many of those who’ve lost loved ones say the judgment hurts almost as much as the grief.
“The stigma is so thick,” said Katherine Pederson, whose teenage daughter Angelina died of accidental fentanyl poisoning at a Calgary Stampede party in 2017. She was only 16 years old.
“The thing about this crisis is, it doesn’t discriminate. It will take out whoever.”
That’s why Pederson and her husband, Matthew Faulds, prefer to say “fentanyl poisoning” instead of “fentanyl overdose,” because the latter implies some sort of intent.
Faulds doesn’t shy away from using the “F word” when he tells people how his daughter died.
“They give me this look, and I go, ‘Think a kid’s going to take a pill at a party? You remember ecstasy? It’s not ecstasy anymore. It’s whatever they cooked up — with fentanyl. Guarantee it.”
He doesn’t deny Angelina had a drug problem, but said she didn’t want to overdose.
“Did she mean to get high? Absolutely. But the days of innocent drug use are gone. You don’t get second chance.”
Teresa Wiebe’s son, Nick Leinweber, died of carfentanil poisoning in October 2017. Nick was 25.
For several years, he had struggled with a meth addiction, but Wiebe said he was not known to ever use opioids. She was shocked to find out how he’d died.
“When we got the [toxicology] report and I saw that it was carfentanil, it made it seem almost to me like murder. I know it’s not, I know whoever is concocting this stuff, putting it together, has no experience, is not a chemist, is not a pharmacist, is not a doctor. They don’t know what they’re doing, they’re trying to make money. That’s what they’re trying to do. They don’t know how deadly this is.”
‘Hierarachy of stigma’
It will be a year this month since Leinweber died, and for Wiebe, what makes the grief doubly challenging is what she calls “the hierarchy of stigma” around addiction.
“It’s OK for everyone to smoke weed,” she said, especially once cannabis becomes legal in Canada. Cocaine is seen as a drug for the wealthy, like doctors and lawyers. But once you get to meth, you’re “getting down into the wrong side of the tracks,” Wiebe said, and opioids like heroin or carfentanil are “probably the worst.”
“People didn’t want to know that [Nick] would be using heroin, that would be a step down from meth. It’s like a caste system for addiction.”
Yvonne Clark lost her son Connor to fentanyl poisoning in 2013, before most people had even heard of fentanyl. Connor was 21 years old, earning $100,000 a year as a power engineer with an oil and gas company, and drove a Porsche. He tried to get clean, then took a fentanyl tablet over Thanksgiving weekend, and never woke up.
For the past four years, Clark has been speaking to kids and parents in Calgary schools about the risks of popping pills at parties. She wants people to shed the notion it can’t happen to them. Dealing with the misconceptions was difficult in the early days following her son’s death, but it didn’t take long before she decided she had to act.
“I just woke one day and I realized that such an innocent, beautiful person can vanish. Just vanish in the blink of an eye,” she said. “Over a tiny little pill. I just figured the stigma was doing nothing. If you’re going to stay behind a door and not speak out, nothing’s going to be solved.”
With fentanyl deaths continuing to rise in just a few short years, she said, “Someone has to speak.”
Pederson also refuses to keep quiet. She thumbs her nose at shame.
“I want to talk about [Lina] all the time. I’m not ashamed of her addiction. Well, the addiction, I could kick its ass, but [Lina], no. There’s so many people and they’re hurting. They’re hurting and they’re in despair. I look at people and want to tell them, hug them: ‘People love you.'”
Wiebe worries about others. It’s the reason she wants people to hear her son’s story.
“I just panic about it,” she said. “I hear about it all the time. Friends who have kids who are starting to dabble and stuff like that. It’s like, ‘Oh man. Here, I want to give you a picture of my dead son to show your kid.’ Like, pictures with him with all the equipment on his face.
“The worst pictures are a week later, when we went to say goodbye, because by that time, his face is all blotchy and he just came out of a freezer, and he’s freezing cold when you put your lips on his forehead. Frozen, frozen, frozen.”