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'My son was a person — not a number, not a statistic'

Barrie mom hopes to educate others on the dangers of illicit drugs and the need for an SCS in the city

The fight for a supervised consumption site (SCS) in the city of Barrie has been raging for a while, but with advocate and passionate mom Christine Nayler on board, it isn’t going away.

An SCS provides a safe space and sterile equipment for people to use pre-obtained drugs under the supervision of health-care staff. Consumption refers to taking opioids and other drugs by injection, smoking, snorting, or orally.

Nayler says the need for an SCS stems from years of seeing her son use of illicit drugs and its tragic consequences.

“Ryan was almost self-medicating himself. He was bipolar and had bouts of psychosis,” Nayler tells BarrieToday. “I saw the need for something other than what we (as a society) were doing, which is pretty much nothing.”

Ryan died Nov. 29, 2020. He was 34 years old. 

It was a week before his 35th birthday and, in a heartbreaking twist to the Nayler family’s long struggle, Ryan was buried on his birthday.

“That was so hard, but the whole battle has been so hard. We’ve been through so much for years,” says the Barrie mom.

Ryan grew up mainly in Cookstown and Thornton, and went to Bear Creek Secondary School in south-end Barrie. He then went on to study at the University of Toronto, graduating with a bachelor's degree in Celtic studies and a master's degree in information and library sciences.

As is the case with many battles against addiction, there are small goals to accomplish, and that's where Nayler says she has been working hardest. She has been holding information sessions at her church as the chair of their outreach committee. 

“Oddly enough, many Christians aren't familiar with the deep-rooted causes of addiction and mental health. Through Zoom calls, we’ve not only helped those at my church see what is happening, but have educated others, too,” she says. 

Nayler is also a member of several groups, including the Facebook group Moms Stop the Harm, which is dedicated to supporting families with loved ones who are in active use or are in recovery.

“Ryan was really happy that I was doing this, and happy I was being vocal wherever I could because he knew it was a problem and was trying to stop using,” she says. "He wanted others to stop.”

Her son’s desire to stop using drugs saw long wait times for help and, most times, organizations were that already full.

“We tried  believe me, we tried  but stigma and wait times don’t help,” Nayler says. “My son was a person  not a number, not a statistic. A human being who wanted help.”

Nayler admits an SCS alone will not stop the toxic and deadly drug crisis. She says there needs to be a larger plan in conjunction with other measures. But without an SCS, there won’t be the proper help for those seeking who are it.

She wants city council to stop delaying the issue and get to work implementing a site.

In June 2019, council delayed making a decision on a facility site in order to have a third-party consultant look into it.

Since then, the topic has seen conversations at council, at general committee, at public meetings. The COVID-19 outbreak has put the discussion on extended hold at a time when Nayler says the facility is most needed.

“Every delay has added deaths in our community. Every delay,” says Nayler. “Stalling because you just don’t want it here or don’t think you’d like the look of one, is quite disturbing. We are literally losing lives because some people don’t think it is worth a try.”

And a try is something Nayler says she’d be happy with.

“Give it a year or two. I want council to stop stalling and say they’ll support it for a year or two, if they can’t commit to a permanent one right now,” she says. “Because I know, after that time, we can show the lives that have been saved and council and those opposed will get on board.”

Nayler believes those opposed are looking at it completely wrong. She asks them to open their minds and their eyes.

“If people don’t want an SCS because they feel it will bring drug use to their neighbourhood, I have news for you: Drug use is in our community, people are using it all over the neighbourhoods. This will just give them  human beings who are self-medicating and don't feel they have a choice  a safe place to use,” she says.

“Also, the needles won't be in the alleys and downtown where people are tired of seeing them, but also aren’t willing to do what is crucially needed to stop it.”

Nayler is blunt and open when talking about addiction. She also knows she has become a strong voice to not only those were are opposed to an SCS, but those for it.

“As a mother who lost a son, many people in our groups look to me for advice and my thoughts. Many people who are fighting for an SCS haven’t had a direct family loss; they just know the facility would work. People like me, and there are plenty, are able to communicate a level of grief that others may not have,” says Nayler.

“I’m happy to be able to help in that way, but I’d much rather not have to if it meant having help and services properly in place.”

Local statistics from the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit show there were 83 confirmed and probable opioid-related deaths in the region during the first eight months of 2020, which was 51 per cent higher than the average of 55 deaths from January to August in the previous three years.

While Nayler hopes people on the fence will come to Facebook groups such as Barrie Harm Reduction for insight and/or advice on how to learn more about the drug pandemic, she says the numbers tell a grim story.

“It's simple: The numbers do not lie and they are available for all to see,” she says. “Drug use is up. Lives are being lost.

"At some point, education and compassion have to kick in for everyone.”