By Dan Walton
Remembrance Day 2017 was the first year that local military mom Jill McCullum attended the ceremony since losing her son Nick Stevens.
After returning from the war in Afghanistan around four years ago, Stevens had developed post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and then an opioid addiction. He tried taking several paths towards recovery and had the full support of his family, but an overdose took his life in March.
“I don’t care if people know Nick had a drug issue that he finally succumbed to,” McCullum said. “Kids don’t just wake up one morning and decide to become an addict.”
While Stevens was facing the demons that come with PTSD, he was prescribed opioids as a solution only to the side effects – depression, anxiety and a sleep disorder. So at a time when he was coping with deeply painful memories, he was given access to an extremely powerful drug.
By 2015, “He fully grasped that he was masking his issues with drugs.”
At the end of 2016, Stevens entered a rehabilitation program in Cranbrook to treat his addiction. And although he completed the program, it proved ineffective – the doctors even admitted they aren’t schooled enough to treat addicts with PTSD.
“He needed to see people whose prime objective is to treat PTSD; he should have been using the skills, strategies, techniques, and medications that actually work. But instead he was in a hodge-podge facility of 22 or 23 beds with people affected by all sorts of addiction issues.”
Stevens’ family was optimistic that he would be able to take his place again after completing the program.
“They told us not to be in his face right away, so I didn’t go near him for a week, and when I did see him he was like a ghost. He had taken 10 steps back even more. Whatever it was designed to do, it didn’t work.”
It was recommended that Stevens check into a clinic in Ontario that’s tailored for patients with PTSD, but he wasn’t prepared to leave the Okanagan.
“He had his reasons for not going and not assessing that help,” she said. “It was wrong, in hindsight, he should have gone.”
Between the staff at the Cranbrook facility and the medical professionals around the Okanagan, everybody was well-intentioned and experienced at treating addiction, but they weren’t able to properly treat Stevens. “I wish he had been more open with his family.
I wish I had been more knowledgeable. If that had been the case we would have sought out a qualified veterans PTSD program instead of shuffling around with psychiatrists here in the Okanagan.”
In the years leading up to his death, Stevens would travel to Prince George each year for Remembrance Day. He went to console the family of his best friend, Corporal Darren (Fitzy) Fitzpatrick, who was killed at the age of 21 by an improvised explosive device while on foot patrol near Kandahar. That happened during a mission that Stevens would have been a part of if he wasn’t recovering from surgery at the time.
“I think there was survivor’s guilt, he felt like he wasn’t there for his buddy.”
While Stevens was grieving himself during visits to Prince George, he was there to support others, and “There was no one to say to him, ‘You know what, it’s okay to cry. It’s okay to shed your heartache.’”
Another close friend of Stevens was killed a year later. At the age of 28, Master Corporal Byron Greff was among 17 killed in Kabul by a suicide bomber. He was the last Canadian soldier to die in Afghanistan.
Stevens, Fitzy and Greff were all part of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry from Edmonton. Stevens decided to honour both of his fallen comrades by having their names tattooed on his leg.
“They were all handsome young men who are missed by loved ones,” she said. “I had no idea until one day I saw these names on his leg and I asked who’s that? And he told me. If I knew then what I know now I would have asked him to talk about it; I would have been a concerned individual. But I was naive, I didn’t know the depth he’d plummeted.”
Stevens’ death was the result of numerous issues that had been compounding for years, but it was his time in Afghanistan that marked the beginning of the end.
When he came back to Canada, “The light had gone out of his eyes. He was not the bubbly young man that I remembered.”
Stevens excelled as a soccer player and loved literature. For somebody like him who grew up in a small, nurturing town in the Okanagan while studying at Tuc-el-Nuit Elementary and Southern Okanagan Secondary School – it’s difficult to rationalize the way life is treated in a war-torn, poverty-stricken place like Afghanistan.
“Your neighbour knows you here, they’ll help you. Everyone looks out for each other in Oliver. Then you’re all of a sudden thrust into a war zone. It was the most horrendous thing he’s ever smelled. They burn tires to heat their homes, animals are overburdened and kicked and abused, and Nick was a very caring, loving kid who loved animals.”
As overdose deaths in B.C. have been drastically rising over the past several years, McCullum wants to minimize the number of families that go through the same experience as hers, so she’s been advocating to reverse the trend. Speaking candidly about a loved one’s severe addiction can feel like a taboo topic, but until the stigma can be overcome, victims are being deterred from accessing help.
“It’s not just the victims of drug addiction that go through the pain, it’s the thousands of people connected to them.”
To anybody suffering silently: “Confide in people you trust. Speak it, talk about it. Don’t have a stigma. You are more than the sum total of an addiction.”
As a response to the ongoing opioid crisis, the province of B.C. has recently launched a pilot project in Penticton, and McCullum was invited to take a tour.
“They have four doctors experienced in drug and opioid issues. You can walk in off the street and get help immediately. They treat patients with sympathy, timeliness and with compassion. It’s not just lip service”
Unfortunately, the program didn’t launch until after Stevens’ death.
“He was my son. He was his girlfriend’s someone. He was a person with a brain that could have contributed towards society. If my other son has a child, there’s never going to be an uncle.
“Nick worked very, very hard to beat his demons, he will always be my hero for trying the best he could with what was available to him.”