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Fentanyl crisis: One New Westminster family's story

This local mom is speaking out to help raise awareness in honour of International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31 - and so no other mother has to lose a child
Moms Stop the Harm, Overdose Awareness
Moms Stop the Harm, a network of Canadian families impacted by substance-use-related harms and deaths, is part of a nationwide effort to mark International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31.

Ayden Shoulak desperately wanted to be normal.

That was his word, “normal.” His mom, Mari-Lou Nidle, can’t help but remember that. The same way she can’t help but remember everything else about the big-hearted, smiling, talented son she lost two years ago, when he was just 23 years old.

Shoulak died of fentanyl poisoning six days after completing a treatment program.

His story is not a solitary one. At least 95 New Westminster residents have been lost to the drug crisis since 2016, and Nidle has come forward with her son’s story to help raise awareness in honour of International Overdose Awareness Day Aug. 31.

Nothing about that story is simple, and Nidle struggles to find ways to make it make sense.

Did it all begin in childhood, when five-year-old Ayden was assessed as gifted?

“He was an exceptional reader, writer and communicator,” Nidle recalls.

He was also on the spectrum of ADHD, and, although he was a good student in elementary school, he struggled more with focus as he got to high school. That’s not an unusual story, Mari-Lou notes. Since Shoulak’s death, she’s gotten involved with Moms Stop the Harm, a network of Canadian families impacted by substance use-related harms and deaths. In hearing other families’ stories, she says, concurrent disorders like ADHD get mentioned a lot.

“So does the fact that they were empathetic,” Nidle says.

Mari-Lou Nidle, Ayden Shoulak
Mari-Lou Nidle and son Ayden Shoulak celebrate their last birthday together. Nidle lost her son two years ago to fentanyl poisoning.

Shoulak was extremely empathetic, she says, a trait that was especially noticeable in childhood, when most kids aren’t truly aware of anyone’s needs or feelings beyond their own.

“I’ve often wondered if people with this overly empathetic, generous type of personality feel not only their pain more, but the pain of others,” Nidle says.

He stayed that way as he grew up. He was always kind, always smiling, ready to chat with anyone.

“He had lots of friends, and his friends’ parents and grandparents always liked him,” Nidle says. “He was that kind of guy.”

He was an active guy, too – he had been a competitive swimmer, a hockey player, a skimboard and snowboard instructor, a competitive bodybuilder with a newly minted B.C. title to his name. He was getting ready for an upcoming international competition, where he hoped to earn his International Federation of BodyBuilding and Fitness pro card.

But at times he struggled with substance use. His family was aware of his struggle, which Nidle says was long and hard. Shoulak thought it may have started with using pot, because it lessened his anxiety and pressure. That escalated to Xanax (both prescribed and illicit), then to opioid use.

The family struggled to get him medical help and then mental health help – but, like many substance users, he resisted at first.

“He didn’t initially want help, and that is when we feared the most that we would lose him,” Nidle says.

But in the final two years of his life, that changed. He was actively involved in his own treatment, and he was desperate to get help so that he could live his best life.

That was when his family lost him.

Nidle says the family stayed with him through his struggles; they didn’t embrace the idea of “tough love” or the suggestion that supporting and not punishing was enabling.

“You are not going to understand addiction by pushing it away from you,” she says.

She understands a lot more about addiction now – though she’s quick to note she’s not an addiction expert or a health expert.

But she knows that her own son in no way fit the profile of what people may picture an “addict.”

While people often assume that substance use and addiction stems from lack of personal control, Nidle notes that didn’t describe her son at all.

He lived at home. He had a loving family and friends. He had a long-term girlfriend. He had no trouble finding a full-time job. Add in his life as a competitive athlete, and Shoulak appeared to be the picture of stability and control in nearly all facets of his life.

It was just that he also struggled off and on with steroid and opioid use – and that he sometimes gave in to his impulsive side.

He did not, however, use fentanyl – and that’s one message Nidle wants to get out there loud and clear. She notes that most of what have been described as “overdose” deaths in the face of B.C.’s fentanyl crisis have, more accurately, been fentanyl poisonings – in that the substance the user was taking was, unknown to them, tainted with fentanyl because of B.C.’s toxic supply.

And, as the shame and stigma associated with substance use keep it all hidden from view, that stigma drives users to a toxic supply.

“Rarely does stigma and shame play that much a part of other diseases,” Nidle says, “other than mental health illnesses, and many with addiction face mental health issues, too. What other disease can you not just go to your doctor for treatment and have it covered by MSP?”

The treatment journey can be a long one, she notes. If a person has a drug-related addiction and can’t get help right away – because it’s hard to find availability when you need it, because it’s expensive, because it’s not a straight path that can be finished in the 30 or 90 days available in many treatment programs – then it can be all too easy to fail.

“If they have one slip, one mistake, they will most likely be turning to a toxic street supply,” Nidle says. “And often because they are ashamed that they need to use, they hide it.”

That’s why Moms Stop the Harm and other groups calling for harm reduction and evidence-based treatment programs are advocating for safe supply. And no, Nidle stresses, that doesn’t mean “free-for-all drugs.”

“Safe supply is simply being able to go to your doctor instead of your dealer and get the equivalent of what you are using until you can stabilize, get treatment, and get to that place where you can control your own health,” she says.

“No other disease forces you to pay for your own treatment if you desperately need it. No other disease or medical injury treatment says, ‘well, you consciously chose to smoke, live unhealthy or did this or that, so we are not going to treat you.’”

She wishes more people understood that.

She admits she still struggles to tell Shoulak’s story publicly because he always told her, “I don’t want to be the poster boy for addiction. I want to move past it and be that guy who inspires people through fitness.”

He, like many of those with addiction, was ashamed of it, and if he slipped, he would opt to hide it out of guilt rather than to seek support.

“He self-stigmatized, like society does: If you use opioids, you are the ‘worst of addicts,’” Nidle says. “Addiction shouldn’t define anyone. People are much more than their addiction and what you see walking through the Downtown Eastside, or what you don’t see with guys like Ayden.”

She finds some comfort, and more than a little irony, in the fact that her son did get to be a hero - after his death. He was a registered organ donor, and so he was able to save four lives through organ transplant.

“Few of us get to save a life, let alone four,” she points out.

Four people got a new life because Shoulak lost his.

And Nidle will hold onto that fact as she forges ahead to raise awareness of the epidemic people don’t want to talk about.

Because she’s a mother who lost a child, and she doesn’t want to see another family lose theirs.


International Overdose Awareness Day: Aug. 31

The very words ‘overdose epidemic’ may call to mind the Downtown Eastside.

But, in fact, the greatest number of illicit drug toxicity deaths with fentanyl in 2020 is happening right here in the Fraser Health Authority (which covers the terrain from Burnaby to the Fraser Canyon).

The majority are young men, in the 19- to 39-year-old range, who have homes and jobs in the trades. In many ways, those men may be more at risk, because they aren’t on the streets and in the Downtown Eastside where supports are available, and many will choose to hide their substance use rather than seek help.

The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to an increase in overdose deaths. Factors include an increasingly toxic drug supply, due to the closure of international borders, and a higher frequency of people using alone because of physical distancing measures.

Some numbers:

  • More than 16,000 people have died in B.C.’s overdose crisis since 2016.
  • There have been at least 909 illicit drug deaths in B.C. so far this year.
  • In New Westminster, 95 people – sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers – have died due to overdose caused by contaminated drugs since the crisis began four years ago.
Here are some of the events happening locally:
  • New Westminster City Hall and Anvil Centre will light up in purple to mark the awareness campaign.
  • A memorial spearheaded by the New Westminster Community Action Team Peer Allies program, supported by the Purpose Society, is being set up at Anvil Centre to honour and celebrate the lives of those who have been lost. It has been painted by a local street artist and is adorned with photos, messages, poems and other artwork from friends and family members who have lost loved ones. It will be on display Aug. 31 to Sept. 5.
  • The Peer Allies program will have an information table set up across the street from the New Westminster SkyTrain station. It won’t hold any gatherings due to COVID-19 protocols.
  • The Victoria chapter of Moms Stop the Harm has organized a virtual vigil, at which provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry will be one of the speakers. The event will be livestreamed on Aug. 31 at 7 p.m. – join in through @MomsStopTheHarm on Facebook or see to learn more. (You can register ahead at Eventbrite)
Sources: New Westminster Community Action Team and Moms Stop the Harm