Speaking her son’s name and sharing his spirit are the reasons Julie Cochrane has observed Black Balloon Day annually, since her family lost Cody Anders to the toxic drug supply in 2018.
“The least interesting thing about Cody was the struggle he had with addiction,” said Cochrane, who joined South Surrey/White Rock’s Community Action Team (CAT) mere months after she lost her son.
“He was just so kind and so loving, he would give anybody the shirt off his back. He was my heart.”
Black Balloon Day started in 2016 and is marked every March 6, where individuals raise black balloons in any space to remember those lost to overdose and also raise awareness for the ones who continue to struggle with substance use.
Anders, who was Cochrane’s step-son – though she considered him her very own in every way that mattered – struggled with heroin use for many years before he lost his life at 27.
“He really never got over the loss of his mom and, unfortunately, slipped through the cracks,” Cochrane said, explaining that Anders’ mother died when he was only 12.
Cochrane came into his life a few years later, when he was 15.
What started as experimentation with substances in high school evolved into Anders using drugs to escape the grief he was undoubtedly experiencing, Cochrane shared.
The situation was exacerbated when he moved to Las Vegas and started working in the night-life and entertainment industry. Being prescribed oxycodone after a car accident didn’t help and, soon, heroin was not the only drug he took recreationally.
“It was about numbing the pain,” Cochrane recalled.
The early stages of education began to take shape in Cochrane’s household, as they searched for ways to support their children.
Anders had previously received treatment in rehabilitation centres three times, but Cochrane came to realize that he had not been ready in any of those instances.
“I wish I had known earlier what I know now, as far as meeting people where they’re at (and) coming from that place of passion,” she said.
“When we shifted, Cody shifted. He realized that we just wanted to support him wherever he was at.”
After living in Las Vegas and California for years, Anders was ready to get treatment and so, his parents brought him home and found a private facility. Getting immediate entry into a publicly-funded facility was not possible, Cochrane said, because of the long waitlists that they did not want to risk sitting in.
“He used to be a bodybuilder, he won competitions. And (then) he was just a shadow of himself and wanted to get back to himself… This time, he really wanted it so much. He was starting to make plans for the future.”
After about three or four weeks in the facility, Anders slipped.
The heroin he took was laced with fentanyl and Anders was found the next morning in the washroom, unconscious.
“We didn’t lose him to an overdose, we lost him to poisonous supply,” said Cochrane.
A month after losing her son, Cochrane learned about Moms Stop The Harm (MSTH), a group of Canadian families who have been impacted by substance use and the toxic drug supply, largely consisting of and started by mothers.
“We haven’t been given the voice in most places to grieve like other people have when they’ve lost a loved one,” Cochrane said, adding that MSTH and South Surrey/White Rock’s CAT team were a safe landing place after losing her child.
Since a public health emergency due to overdose deaths was declared in B.C. in 2016, more than 11,000 people have lost their lives to toxic drug poisonings.
2022 was the second deadliest year of B.C.’s toxic drug crisis on record, with 2,272 people dying from poisoned drugs last year – an average of six people each day. That number is just 34 fewer people than died in 2021.
“These numbers represent people — people who were loved, who were valued and who are now greatly missed,” Lisa Lapointe, B.C. chief coroner said on Jan. 31.
“These deaths were preventable and their lives matter.”
During that announcement, Lapointe called for an “urgent” response from government.
The chief coroner added that the province needs a plan to provide a safer supply of drugs to reduce harm, drug-checking services, Naloxone, overdose prevention sites and a continuum of care so people can access safe drugs and treatment when they are ready for it.
Another recommendation, which recently came into effect as a three-year pilot project, is decriminalization of personal possession of drugs to reduce stigma around drug use. Now, individuals are allowed to carry 2.5 cumulative grams of illicit drugs for personal use.
The BC Coroners’ Service found that in 2022, 55 per cent of toxic drug deaths occurred in private residences and about 15 per cent occurred outside, while the remaining 23.6 per cent occurred in other residences, such as shelters, SROs or hotels.
A safe consumption overdose prevention site operates at Peace Arch Hopsital’s White Rock/South Surrey Mental Health and Substance Use Centre in the Russell Annex, overseen by Sources Community Resources Society.
-with files from Jane Skrypnek