Vancouver journalist Trevor Jang shares what it was like growing up after losing a father to a drug overdose
Q&A: My father struggled with drug use
Trevor Jang’s father died of a drug overdose when he was five years old.
Studies show that children of addicts are twice as likely to develop substance abuse issues and that one in five children who grow up after the early death of a parent are likely to develop a psychiatric disorder.
Jang wanted to find out not only why that is but—through sharing his own experience—what could be done to change it.
Jang is a Vancouver journalist whose work has appeared in Discourse Media, CBC Indigenous, BC Business magazine, and the National Observer.
He recently wrote a series for Discourse called "Kids of addiction."
Offering a personal perspective, Jang wanted to explore how history repeats itself in families facing addiction, what resources are available for children who lost a parent to the fentanyl crisis, and how long are people waiting to access treatment.
In the public retelling of his family’s story, he shares the events leading up to and following his father’s death. Jang also talks about his own struggle with depression, substance abuse and dares to ask if he will follow in his father’s footsteps.
Megaphone spoke with Jang about his work in light of the ongoing overdose epidemic that claimed more lives in B.C. than any other year on record.
Megaphone: What was it like to publicly share your personal experience of growing up with a father who struggled with drug use?
Trevor Jang: It was nerve-wracking right up until we hit publish. Then it felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Living with the legacy of my father’s addiction and death can be a heavy burden sometimes. Sharing his story gave some of that weight to the world to hold for me.
M: Why were you inspired to write about this experience?
TJ: I wanted to help humanize the opioid overdose crisis and de-stigmatize addiction and mental illness in general. There are many people who still view addiction as a moral or ethical failure, as opposed to the sickness that it is. I also really wanted my story to reach families who have been impacted by addiction to give them a sense that we’re not alone in this.
M: What do you remember about your dad? What was your family dynamic like growing up without him?
TJ: I don’t really remember him, which is hard for me. I only have a handful of blurry images in my head. And it was certainly hard after he passed. But my mom was very strong. She was in university when my dad died and she still finished school while raising two young kids on her own. Then she met my step-dad who is still in my life today. I’m also very close with my dad’s siblings and all of my cousins. I lost out on the whole dad thing, but I’ve been blessed with a great family regardless.
M: What did you learn through sharing this process? What has feedback been like?
TJ: I’ve learned that addiction and mental illness is extremely common. I’ve had people reach out who have struggled with addiction or know someone who does. I’ve also had people reach out who also lost a parent at a young age. Grief is a different process for everyone, but there are similar threads for people who lose parents at a young age. It bubbles up in adulthood in subtle ways. I’ve had people reach out and we’ve talked about that.
M: What resources were available to you as a child who lost a parent to an overdose, what was lacking? What's standing in the way for improvements today?
TJ: I don’t remember much, but my mother told me I had access to a counsellor for a few appointments and that was that. There really wasn’t any system in place to make sure I had ongoing support. I remember feeling all the emotions that come with grief: shock, anger, loneliness, and sadness but not having the cognitive ability to understand them. So I suppressed my emotions and they bubbled up as an adult. There wasn’t any societal safety net to catch the early signs of mental illness and do any prevention work. We were pretty much on our own.
M: What do you hope people will take away from reading about your experience?
TJ: I hope people come away with more compassion for people who struggle with substance abuse. Yes, we all have to take responsibility for our choices, but I want people to understand that people who have addictions are coping with a lot of unresolved emotional and spiritual pain. We can all do our part to make each other’s days a little easier by not judging—because we usually have no clue what that person might be going through. On the flip side of that, I also want people to have compassion for themselves. If you’ve made mistakes it’s okay as long as you own them and do the inner work. I want people to not give up on themselves.
M: What do you think could have saved your father's life? How can we make that happen for others who are losing their lives to the overdose crisis?
TJ: That’s a tough one. I’ve asked my family that question and we’re not really sure. My father went to rehab and tried to get clean for me. And he still failed. So if he couldn’t do it for his son, I’m not sure what would have motivated him. But that’s the power of addiction. The one thing I have learned is that the opposite of addiction is connection. Not just connection to others, but connection to a sense of meaning and purpose in life. If we can inspire people to find that for themselves that would help. But that lies in the realm of the collective consciousness. We need to see the suffering of others as the suffering of ourselves. Then we will be motivated to inspire people.
M: Given your experience, how can we remove barriers for the families of lost drug users to avoid becoming a part of these statistics?
TJ: There needs to be more resources for mental health services. Counselling needs to be as widely available and accessible as seeing a doctor at a walk-in clinic. Simple as that. But since that won’t happen anytime soon, I go back to the collective consciousness. We need to be there for each other and hold each other up because the system doesn’t.
M: You say that you didn't plan to live past 33—that's a very personal thing to share. How did you move past it?
TJ: My father died when he was 33 and it became this self-fulfilling prophecy that I wouldn’t make it past that age either. If he couldn’t make it, how could I? The development of a major depressive disorder was the biggest impact my father’s death had on me. It took years of counselling and a little trip to a treatment centre to shift my mindset to realize that I don’t need to end up like my father. His life was his life. My life is mine. I have the power to do whatever I want. And I don’t want to die at 33.
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