Tara Levis struggled with substance abuse for several years. She is sharing her story as a part of the “We Are Human” project, put on by AIDS Vancouver Island in honour of International Overdose Awareness Day, Aug. 31. Photo contributed

Tara Levis struggled with substance abuse for several years. She is sharing her story as a part of the “We Are Human” project, put on by AIDS Vancouver Island in honour of International Overdose Awareness Day, Aug. 31. Photo contributed

B.C. woman shares her painful experience with opioid addiction

As International Overdose Awareness Day approaches, Tara Levis shares story of multiple overdoses

Tara Levis has short, sandy blonde hair and an infectious smile.

She is a 33-year old Victoria woman, who grew up in an upper-middle class family that moved across the country. Her father was a doctor, and her mother stayed at home to care for her and her sister.

That is one chapter of Levis’ life. Unfortunately, the chapters get darker.

As a young woman, Levis struggled with mental health. She developed an eating disorder that she said laid a pathway for addictions in the future.

After Levis came to terms with her sexuality, she fell in love with a woman who struggled with her own mental health problems, and used illicit drugs to cope.

UPDATED: More than 130 people in B.C. died of illicit drug overdoses in July

While they worked hard together to get through these issues, in the end Levis’ partner could not find an answer.

“She committed suicide, and that was the thing that tipped me over the edge,” Levis said. “I was the one who found her, and the trauma from walking into that, I ended up using drugs to cope.”

Levis worked at what is often the front lines of addiction, a homeless shelter. She had a home herself, and hid her drug use from her employers so she wouldn’t lose her job. But her loss and her drug use took a toll.

“I developed PTSD because I didn’t deal with the pain right away,” Levis said. “I lost my job and eventually lost everything.”

Levis ended up homeless for five years, couch surfing and staying with friends or local drug dealers.

During this time, she started using heroin. As the supply slowly became poisoned with stronger and stronger levels of fentanyl, she found herself addicted to the substitute. She said that after awhile, when she got pure heroin she couldn’t even feel it anymore because she was so used to fentanyl.

RELATED: ‘Stigma is on every level of our society’: Victoria to mark International Overdose Awareness Day

Levis has overdosed many times, and watched her friends overdose, too. Sometimes she could revive them and other times they passed away.

“I’ve lost a lot of people to overdoses, I lost a friend last week,” she said. “It makes it hard to form relationships with people, one flip and they’re gone.”

Levis recalls that being revived from an overdose with naloxone is one of the most painful experiences you could have, since the medication blocks the effects of opioids and essentially puts people in immediate withdrawal.

“When I’m high, I’m in a comfortable and warm place,” she explained. “When I’m overdosing I’m not aware, and then all of a sudden you’re shocked and the world is bright and loud and my body hurts and my head hurts and I feel like I’m going to throw up and I’m sweaty.

“It’s like your worst case of food poisoning times 1,000.”

Levis said she would wake up very angry. Despite just overdosing, she would often wander off to try and find her next dose to stop the pain.

ALSO READ: Grade 10 Belmont student dies from suspected overdose

But that was just another chapter in Levis’ life.

Things recently changed when she was able to find housing and get access to trauma counsellors and a detox program.

“I really couldn’t get myself together until I found a home; it’s hard to stop using when you don’t feel safe,” Levis said. “The irony is that the drug use kept me alive long enough to stop using, because I was so depressed and suicidal that it was the only way to stop the pain.”

Now Levis has found some stability. She has been clean for more than nine months and has been accepted into the nursing program at Camosun College. She hopes to become a public health nurse, inspired by the people in that role who have saved her life many times.

Levis also volunteered to be a part of AIDS Vancouver Island’s “We Are Human” project, a photo display depicting the stories of the many different people who have lived with addictions in the time of the opioid crisis, in honor of International Overdose Awareness Day (Aug. 31).

Levis’s hope is to reduce the stigma around drug use, instead creating passion and understanding.

“I’m not the voice of all drug users,” she said. “I’m just my experience. I always say, don’t judge my story by the chapter I’m walking on; when I was using it was the worst chapter of my life. It’s important to read the whole book.”

VIDEO: A guide for overdose survival

Within the province, there were 134 suspected drug overdose deaths in July 2018, which represents a 12 per cent increase of the number of deaths occurring in the same time last year, and a 25 per cent increase over the number of deaths occurring in June 2018.

The number of deaths in July equates to about 4.3 deaths per day for the month. The three townships experiencing the highest number of illicit drug overdoses in 2018 are Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria.

So far this year, 88 per cent of illicit drug overdose deaths occurred inside private residences, etc., something which Sarah Sullivan, manager of Aids Vancouver Island for Courtenay and Campbell River said the organization’s outreach programs are hoping to assist.

“We want to work with the larger housing providers in the area and build the capacity within the community. There is such a stigma regarding illicit drug use, and that’s why so many people use alone.”

RELATED: Look who’s moving in next door: the research behind supportive housing

On Aug. 29, to align with International Overdose Awareness Day, families, friends, partners and others will gather at Victoria’s Centennial Square for an evening devoted to remembering those lost to the opioid crisis and educating the public.

The International Overdose Awareness Day event runs from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.

— with files from Black Press

nicole.crescenzi@vicnews.com


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

international overdose awareness dayopioid overdoseoverdose crisis

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A sign indicating a COVID-19 testing site is displayed inside a parking garage in West Nyack, N.Y., Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. The site was only open to students and staff of Rockland County schools in an effort to test enough people to keep the schools open for in-person learning. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
4 more deaths, 54 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

This brings the total to 66 deaths in the region

11 more cases of COVID-19 have been linked to a cluster on Big White Mountain. Pictured above is TELUS park at Big White Ski Resort, Jan. 26. (Big White Ski Resort)
11 more cases of COVID-19 linked to Big White cluster

This brings the total case count to 225, according to health authorities in a Tuesday update

Okanagan Clinical Trials is looking at gut bacteria as a way of slowing down the development of Alzheimer’s. (Alzheimer Society of B.C. photo)
Okanagan study looking for volunteers of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s

The study is looking at how gut bacteria may help slow the disease

Kevin Lee Barrett pleaded guilty to the aggravated assault of his mother Eleanor Holmes on Tuesday, Jan. 26. (File)
UPDATE: West Kelowna man who beat his mom could be sentenced up to 9 years

Kevin Barrett entered a surprise guilty plea to the lesser charge of aggravated assault on Tuesday morning

A bus at downtown Kelowna’s Queensway Transit Exchange. (Michael Rodriguez - Capital News)
Kelowna transit system poised for recovery: transit manager

2021 numbers already show ridership levels at or higher than the projected recovery

Dr. Penny Ballem, a former deputy health minister, discusses her role in leading B.C.’s COVID-19 vaccination program, at the B.C. legislature, Jan. 22, 2021. (B.C. government)
B.C. holds steady with 407 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday

14 deaths, no new outbreaks in the health care system

Vernon Fire Rescue Services responded to reports of a structure fire on Valleyview Place Jan. 26, 2021. (Brendan Shykora - Vernon Morning Star)
Fire snuffed in Vernon home

No visible smoke, flames from area of reported structure fire

A Cessna 170 airplane similar to the one pictured above is reported to be missing off the waters between Victoria and Washington State. Twitter photo/USCG
Canadian, American rescue crews searching for missing aircraft in waters near Victoria

The search is centered around the waters northeast of Port Angeles

Interior Health reported two more COVID-19 deaths at Sunnybank Retirement Center in Oliver Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. (File photo)
COVID-19 claims lives of two more South Okanagan care home residents

Five residents of the Oliver care home have died since the outbreak was first declared

Vernon now has an approved 13 cannabis shops in town. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
Vernon, the ‘Pot capital of B.C.’ greenlights two new stores downtown

Two more shops, within 240 metres, approved, despite neighbouring businesses opposition

Jonathon Muzychka and Dean Reber are wanted on Canada-wide warrants. (Courtesy of Victoria Police Department)
Convicted killer, robber at large after failing to return to facility: Victoria police

Dean Reber, 60, and Jonathon Muzychka, 43, may be together

Oliver Elementary School
Former Oliver PAC treasurer charged with fraud returns to court

Belinda Yorke will be in court to fix a date for trial in February

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Two fibreglass bees were stolen from Vernon’s Planet Bee Honey Farm Nov. 22, 2020. (Facebook)
Stolen bee returned to Vernon honey farm

Two months after thieves buzzed off with two bee sculptures, public tips led police one of them

Most Read