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

Emily Schuss has been missing since Sunday, May 2nd. She was last seen at Nechako Centre in Kitimat B.C. If you have any information about Emily's disappearance contact the local RCMP at (250) 632-7111. (photo supplied)
Kitimat local reported missing since Sunday: May 2

If you have any information contact the local RCMP at (250) 632-7111

Rio Tinto donated $60,000 to BC Children’s Hospital as they look into the impact the pandemic has had on the mental health of young Canadians. (BC Children’s Hospital logo)
Rio Tinto supports BC Children’s Hospital mental health study

“This study will help us find out how we can better allocate mental health resources for youth”

Traffic impacts in the downtown Kitimat area are expected to be finished by 4:30 p.m. (Jacob Lubberts photo)
Traffic impact in the downtown Kitimat area

The impacted intersections are Haisla/Lahakas intersection and Kuldo/Haisla intersection

“Skeena,” by John Hudson and Paul Hanslow is one of five fonts in the running to become the default for Microsoft systems and Office programs. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Font named after Skeena River could become the next Microsoft default

One of the five new fonts will replace Calibri, which has been Microsoft’s default since 2007

Water will be turned off in Service Centre on May 5th, from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. (Black Press Media files)
Water in Service Centre will be turned off for system repairs

The water will be turned off on, May 5th from 9 p.m. until the following day at 5 a.m.

Protesters attempt to stop clear-cutting of old-growth trees in Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew. (Will O���Connell photo)
VIDEO: Workers, activists clash at site of Vancouver Island logging operation

Forest license holders asking for independent investigation into incident

(Kamloops This Week file photo)
Federal police unit takes over probe of B.C. regional district’s spending

Financial Integrity Sensitive Investigations Unit is now reviewing the case

A black bear made a visit to downtown Vancouver Tuesday, May 4. The animal was spotted on train tracks in Gastown shortly after at 2:30 p.m. (Twitter/Craig Minielly)
VIDEO: Black bear spotted meandering around downtown Vancouver

The bear was reportedly tranquilized by conservation officers Tuesday afternoon

Flow Academy is located at 1511 Sutherland Avenue in Kelowna. (Michael Rodriguez/Capital News)
Interior Health locks out Kelowna martial arts gym following COVID violations

Actions were taken after all other steps to gain compliance were exhausted, says health authority

A man who allegedly spat at and yelled racial slurs at an Asian family was arrested for hate-motivated assault Tuesday. (Black Press Media file photo)
Arrest made after man spits, yells anti-Asian racial slurs at Victoria mom and kids

The man was arrested for hate-motivated assault near Quadra Elementary School Tuesday

A lady wears a vaccinated sticker after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Canada may find it challenging to reach herd immunity from COVID-19, experts say

Level of immunity among the population changes with the variants, especially the more transmissible strains

B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Dip in COVID-19 cases with 572 newly announced in B.C.

No new deaths have been reported but hospitalized patients are up to 481, with 161 being treated in intensive care

Solar panels on a parking garage at the University of B.C. will be used to separate water into oxygen and hydrogen, the latter captured to supply a vehicle filling station. (UBC video)
UBC parkade project to use solar energy for hydrogen vehicles

Demonstration project gets $5.6M in low-carbon fuel credits

Most Read