In this episode of Unsilencing Stories, you’ll hear Kym Porter interviewing Kari Ursulescu in Medicine Hat, Alberta about her partner Riley Dawson who experienced a fatal opioid overdose in 2016.
Jenna Keeble 00:00
Unsilencing Stories is a podcast that reflects the voices of people in small towns and communities in Canada, who have lost loved ones to the toxic drug supply crisis. Since 2016, more than 30,000 people have died from fatal overdoses in Canada and that number continues to climb. The risk in smaller towns and communities is much higher than urban areas because of a lack of harm reduction services, and stigma against substance use and people who use drugs. This podcast is part of a community based participatory research project, facilitated by Aaron Goodman, Ph.D., a faculty member at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, B.C, along with students, Jenna Keeble and Ashley Pocrnich.
The aim was to assist collaborators in publicly memorializing their loved ones and expressing grief as well as challenging silences imposed by dominant media organizations and stigma from society against substance use and people who use drugs. We hope these nuanced stories make it clear why the government needs to be doing more to prevent further deaths. In this episode, we'll hear Kim Porter interviewing Kari Ursulescu in Medicine Hat, Alberta. They discuss Ursulescu's partner Riley Dawson who died from an opioid overdose in 2016.
My name is Kari Ursulescu and I live in Medicine Hat, Alberta.
Who are you going to speak about today?
I'm going to talk about Riley Dawson today, who was my boyfriend.
Okay, and how old was Riley when he died?
Riley was 31 when he passed away.
And were you living with Riley here in Medicine Hat when he died?
Yeah, we had bought a house together about six and a half, almost seven months before he had passed away. We lived together before that in Calgary and decided to get a better start.
What do you mean by having a better start?
With Riley's addiction and whatnot, he was getting a bit out of hand, and we just wanted to kind of get away from that. I didn't know much about addiction at the time. So, I thought that by removing him from the city would have been like a good option. Somewhere where we knew no one.
How long ago was it that Riley died?
Five years ago, five and a half, almost.
If you could use three words to describe Riley. What three words first come to your mind without thinking about it too much?
A genuine, caring, and loving person.
Okay. What's one of your first memories that you have? With Riley?
Probably when we went on either second or third date, we went to a pool hall, and we were having a couple drinks. We were playing pool and I had never played pool in my life. But I told him, I had and that didn't go very well and so I ended up losing and I had to give him a painting in exchange for it. Yeah, he very quickly put me in my place.
Did you make a new painting for him? Or was it one that you'd already done?
No, I made a new one for him. I still have it here actually.
So that's one of your first memories. What's one of your best memories that you have involved with you and Riley?
One of my best memories probably when we decided we'd go to Jasper, we decided to go in the middle of a snowstorm. It was probably one of like the worst snowstorms we've had here but we still went anyway. But he made the mistake of also surprising me with the new Adele CD, it was brand new and just came out and Riley like a punk rocker, he didn't listen to this but for the entire drive up we would listen to the same song on repeat over and over and over again. That was like the start to our nice romantic getaway, and I think because nerves were incredibly shot driving through the mountains and listening to the Hello song from Adele on repeat nonstop.
I think that maybe sounds like the moment that you feel deeper in love with him.
Are you comfortable to talk about Riley's death, Riley's leaving? And if someone didn't know about it, what would you want them to know about it?
Oh, I would want them to know that Riley tried. He had struggled for 14 years with a heroin addiction, and he didn't talk very openly about it until the end. It wasn't until he needed to have open heart surgery and he was already; I think it was seven months sober at that time. It was just great when we moved here to Medicine Hat. And so, he had this open-heart surgery.
And that's kind of what put him into this relapse because he had been sober. I mean, he tried everything to stay sober before that moment, like we had tried everything to kind of make sure he hadn’t been given any kind of opiates or anything, anything like that. It didn't take very long after that surgery before he like, wasn't a full-blown relapse and obviously died. But I mean, he tried everything before that, like he was going to meetings, he had support systems in place, like he went to the hospital for help, which didn't really work. But I mean, he tried, he didn't, he wasn't happy. He didn't want to be addicted to anything and he tried, but he could not be. But I think you're really out between addiction. And then what happened at his heart surgery.
What would you say is one of the biggest obstacles that Riley overcame in his life, and then also an obstacle that you and Riley overcame together.
Well, for Riley definitely like dealing with his heart surgery, like that was a huge, huge thing. He was born with a heart defect. And then when he had heart surgery, even he died three times during that alone, his whole heart was pretty much replaced. So that was huge. That was really, really huge. He probably shouldn't have made it out of that. But he still did. So that was a really big thing. And for us, we were constantly dealing with issues with his addiction, like pretty much from the beginning. Even last night when I was thinking, like all the good memories, almost every single one of them has some kind of part of addiction played into it.
So, it kind of takes away from the good stuff, which is kind of sad to think about now. Because every happy one I have, I'm like “Oh”, but then this happened right after, this happened that night. It was hard for us to overcome obstacles because every time we would try to, there was always something else. Something else would always happen. Nonstop. Even the first year we were together, it was pretty much every week or every two weeks, he's in the hospital or that I was my health issues. It was just like one thing after another. So, I don't know if he ever really overcame anything, but we tried.
Wait, you said that he was going to meetings? What kind of meetings was he going to?
Oh, I guess he didn't go that very often. But he went to a couple AAA meetings and NA meetings in Calgary. He was in treatment before we moved out here, he was actually in treatment while I put my condo for sale and bought the house out here. So, he didn't even see the house that we're moving into. It was like, supposed to be a smooth transition, it was supposed to be very quick. So, things weren't really set up into place when we moved here. I thought they were, but I probably should've looked into that myself. So, I don't know how much of the meetings he went to while we were actually out here. He said he was going.
What was something that you and Riley couldn't agree on? Or that it was constantly a bone of contention or a thorn for you two as a couple.
I don't know we got along with everything, pretty well. Like you're usually able to like work through things but probably just throughout his addiction just like the small little lies, like little white lies. I think that was always a big thing. Just you know, like to be one of the things that come with addiction, I guess, you know, going to the store because he needed the juice at two in the morning. Like he did things that, you know, that's not what he's doing. So, then it's just hard, right? Because then how do you trust when he actually really does need to go to the store to get juice? Like that's just an example.
What was something that Riley did that that made you smile?
He always kept his word with everything he said, no matter like how small it was, he was always very, like observant of little things. Things you probably wouldn't even notice. I thought that was really, I don't know, that's one reasons I fell in love with him. He's just very attentive. I know he's a good person. He is always in a good mood. He's always laughing, he's always smiling. Everybody loved him. So, it was just it's hard to not, I mean I was very mad at him a lot of times. I'm not going to lie. But I mean, there were a lot of smiles too.
So physically, how would you describe Riley to somebody? Like what did he look like?
Probably the gentle giant. He is pretty tall. He was like covered in tattoos. We had the stretched ears. People will probably be scared of him if they saw him, like he looked mean, mustache, the beard. But yeah, he was like the complete opposite of what he had looked like.
Did he have any? Did he have a good sense of humor as far as you're concerned?
Oh, yeah, he was. Yeah, his humors were kind of lame. Like, mostly like dad jokes that was like that, but we were always laughing. If it wasn't me laughing, he was laughing, somebody's laughing. He's always making somebody smile and always joking around.
So, do you think back on things that he would have said? Or are there situations that come up that make you think, oh, Riley would have said this or done this, and it brings laughter to your heart?
Yeah. Yeah, definitely. It's hard for me to focus on those good things. I think when you're going through grief and stuff you get so stuck in the depression part of it too. So, I think for the last few years, I kind of focused on a lot of the bad things, or the sad things or whatnot. So, I'm trying to focus more on not, that there were a lot of really good moments. There's definitely a lot of those that happen. I mean, I think of him every day, like everything reminds me of him at some point.
What did Riley hope to do with some? You know, you and him were a couple. How did you see your future together? In particular, what did Riley want to do with his future?
Well, for us together we just bought the house like that was a huge, huge setup. So, we were going to kind of do all the house stuff, get out all like make it home whatnot. And then the next year, we were talking about getting married. Then originally when we moved out here, we wanted to open up like a small business too because he was a chef. Riley was a chef and he'd love to cook, he loved that kind of stuff. We wanted to do like a little retro vibe diner type thing and because I love all that kind of clothing and all that. He wanted to do the cooking side of it, and I want to do like a little retro boutique. So, kind of our plan or long-term plan anyway was to open up something like that. And then he also, something he always wanted to do is open up an animal shelter. I mean, I'm all for that. I'll take all the animals again. So, he would too. So that was something he really really wanted to do at some point, open up his own animal shelter.
So, you have, I've been in your home and it's quite artistically uniquely set up and decorated. Is that something that Riley would have been involved with? Or was that, is that just more, he would have left that to you and your style?
He didn't have a choice. I had everything planned out before we actually moved here. I had like a journal and everything. The only thing you got to do is pick out one colour in one row. And it's the one color everybody comments every time they come in the house. So, I never give him credit. But that's what he got to have. The thing was one color and it's everybody's favorite thing in the house.
What room is that, Kari?
The retro room that has that like teal kind of blue wall. Everybody loves that. Yeah, that's the one thing he had to say.
Okay. Oh, that says a lot about just that his choice of color there, that says something about that. Looking at Riley you wouldn't think he would have chosen that color.
So, in your grief story? How has losing Riley changed you inwardly? And then how has it changed you outwardly? I guess? Partly it's your journey through grief. What were your mourning like but then also where you're at in your life right now physically? How is that?
I struggled for the first couple of years for sure. I was diagnosed with severe depression and PTSD. So that was really hard because I kind of became somebody I didn't even know anymore. Today I'm just like, really, like I've changed a lot. I used to be very outgoing. I used to love being around people. I was always smiling and laughing now I feel like I just cry all the time, as you know. So no, definitely became more of an introvert and kind of, I don't know, I struggled a lot with mental health after I dealt a lot with, like a lot of guilt, a lot of anger, a lot of hurt, confusion. Plus, like not only losing Riley, I lost a lot of the relationships that were close to me, like my best friend of 25 years, I haven't spoke to her for four years now. That was probably, I mean, losing Riley was the most painful thing. But that definitely was the second because I still to this day don't quite understand that.
My relationship with some of my siblings changed, not for the better. So that was really hard, I didn't expect that. So, you kind of think those moments that people are going to kind of support you and those are the people I can count on. But it's still it's, it's hard, it makes it harder. But I get to kind of become somebody that people don't want to be around, or they don't understand. And sometimes it's easier to just not deal with it, and I get it. Right. So that was hard for my mental health, definitely changed quite a bit. Also dealing with my own health issues at the time, too. So that was kind of a kicker on top of everything. So, like my medical treatment, well I'm still doing it now, it was only supposed to take two years and now I'm like five and a half years in. So, it's been a little bit. Things have been challenging, not going to lie, let's try and deal with the most like, there's just a lot of things like that I didn't plan on happening, which you know is life, but it just was all at once. So, it was very hard.
On the plus side of it, like I became closer with my dad, Riley's parents, I talk to them all the time. So, my relationship, those people really improved. And then I also before Riley had passed away and even while we're dating, I didn't know much about addiction, I just assumed like, you know you chose it. I hate to say that out loud now, knowing what I know, but that's kind of my mindset, that is, okay you know, he did this, he did it, he can stop. And so, I think that was kind of where a lot of the resentment came from. So, after he had passed, I've actually taken the time, you know, I started to actually be more open minded, learned about addiction, what it actually meant and what it is, not just for, like the people left behind, but for people that were experiencing it. And it was really, really eye opening. And I felt like an idiot, because when you actually do the research, like it's so clear, or not clear, but it makes more sense, like why not be more compassionate, more empathetic, more understanding.
It just makes more sense, we can kind of understand a little bit more about addiction and how to treat people with compassion and kindness. I wish I would have known that when he was still around instead of being so angry and just so bitter. Doesn't mean if he could have stopped, he would have stopped. It just didn't work that way. But I know I've got some pretty amazing people since he's been gone. The advocacy has been really good and really helpful. So, it's not all bad. There are some good things, and you look for them.
If someone was to reach out to you who had just lost a loved one to the toxic drug supply, how would you? I guess comfort them and give them hope for the future? What might you say to them?
Oh, I got a few people reach out actually, I always refer them to Stop the Harm right away. Because I feel like that's what pretty much like got me through the first like couple years for sure. I don't know what I would have done without you guys. Like I don't know, I really don't. I think that group dealing with actual people, you know, family members, mom's, brothers, sisters, you know, just such a variety of people, different losses of different extensive loss.
That's really important. I think it's so needed because even when I was looking for support groups, like here in town, there was nothing like, there was nothing for people specifically for substance use issues, not for the losses or if you or the some of the grief versus specifically for suicide, but only for I think it was brother or siblings, I think was the only group. It was just very specific groups. And then so you're kind of left wondering like, what do you do? Where do you go? Who do you talk to? And it's such an isolating loss because it's different than other losses. And I've lost a lot of people in my life, like a lot. But losing somebody this way is it's so different.
I think trying to deal with the stigma and like the shame around it, and all the confusion and the frustration is really, really hard. And so, I think trying to find those groups of people you can connect with are so important, because then you feel less alone. I mean, you can connect with other people that are experiencing that too. I know it makes you feel less alone. And I think that's really important when you're going through that because you feel so alone and just, I don't know, so I don't know, I guess it would be my suggestion is connect to other people that have gone through what you're going through because you're not alone. Just take it like day by day, or moment by moment, not even day by day. Yeah, just connect with people that have gone through it and learn to just be compassionate with others and yourself.
Thanks. What's something that you've learned from Riley that you would say helps you on your day-to-day journey?
Probably just started appreciating the small moments, which I need to do more of, easier said than done sometimes. But I think just kind of enjoy the time you have with your friends and family that you have. I mean, as you know, I mean, tomorrow isn't guaranteed. Riley kind of took every challenge he had. It's like, his family and friends, I don't know, he took it. Because he had lost so much time with his addiction. When he was sober and whatnot, he took those moments he had with those people and he made the best of it. And that was really cool to see.
Because I mean, there's so much crap that had happened before. He could have been better. And same with the people in his life. Everybody could have, everybody could have held on to that resentment at some point. But he tried to make up for that time. I don't know. I thought that was really commendable of him. Yeah, just make the most of the time.
That's a pretty valuable lesson. If Riley were to show up, and you knew that he was going to be with you for the day. What would you want to know? From him? And what would be some of the ways you would spend that day together, but. The first part is, what would you ask them? What would you say? What? What would you want to find out about?
So, I knew this question was going to come up. This is the hardest one, I think for me of all the questions. I first would tell him that I love him and miss him. And tell him that I'm sorry, that I wish I'd understood and had taken more time to see things from his perspective. I'm sorry that I made him feel like shit. I should have been more supportive and understanding. I just want him to know that I love him. And I'm sorry for the things I said and the things I did during his addiction because I wasn't well either. I mean, and that's what happens, unfortunately, when you're kind of in new situations. So, I just wanted to know that it came from a place of love, I just didn't know how. I didn't know how to handle those emotions or those things that came up. I didn't handle them well and I wish if we could do it over again now that I have more of an understanding kind of a clearer picture.
We could redo it because I could do it with kindness. I just wish he could have seen that side because with me even when I was going through my health issues like he was nothing but supportive, loving, and compassionate. Like he was my biggest advocate. I was never dealing with anything alone. And he never made me feel alone but I was opposite with him and his addiction. So, I didn't look at it as being an illness. I wish I had, now it's like one of my biggest regrets because if I had, maybe it would be a different outcome because you wouldn't feel so alone, he wouldn't have felt like he needed use again I don't know and I try not to dwell on that but I know I just want him to know that if we could do it again it would be different.
Like for me it was always a little things with Riley like there's always just like lying in bed in the morning and then he get up to go to work and I would say like, “Stay back in bed for five minutes” and then he'd stay for five maybe ten. It was just like those little things where waking up and he'd have you know tea on the dresser and a little love note. You know, just going for drives like late at night, those are the things I would do again, like those are things. I missed taking the dogs for a walk or even just going to like Walmart or Home Depot. Just things I don't know. It's all the little things I missed the most. I don't know. Yeah, I just missed him.
Where do you think he is now?
Oh, I think he's with his family. When he was younger, he had lost cousin that I know is kind of what really impacted his, the way his addiction kind of turned out. So, I'm hoping that they're together and he can kind of get his peace without. I don't know, I don't. I don't know. I just hope he's happy and I hope he's at peace and I hope he finally feels good and happy with himself.
Two more questions. What's the one thing that you think you besides Stop the Harm but just very personal to you? What do you think you've done to help you? With your grief?
Adopting my dog, Charlie pretty much saved my life. I don't know what I would have done without that dog like I honestly don't think I'd still be here. Not to be dramatic, but I know I wouldn't be actually. So, I adopted Charlie, I guess it would be about seven months after Riley passed away and like this dog, he drives me nuts. But I take him with me everywhere. Like he's, he's a pain in my butt. But I love him. I don't know, I don't know what to do without him. Because even before that, like I think I spent the first year and a half pretty much like in a dark house, or I guess it was a year and half a year with you know, not opening my door or not answering my phone. I was kind of like worried myself and then getting the dog like it forced me to get out of the house, see people start smiling again, laughing again, yelling again. But so yeah, the dog for sure.
And then art. I got involved with like the art scene here in Medicine Hat. So that group definitely brought me out because I was always painting before like, hours and hours a day. And I stopped for a long time. But yeah, getting back involved with our community has been huge, huge, huge. Also, I think in the last year, I definitely kind of started to come around a bit more. I don't know what I would do without that either. A paintbrush and my dog, I need those things for sure.
The last thing is sound like I'm like a reporter. Is there anything that I haven't asked you, but that you would like to speak about? Or let us know about Riley?
I don't know, I just want people to know, like he had a huge heart of gold. You know, like he meant what he said, and you know, like he kept his word. He was a really good person. He just, he struggled. I think the addiction was bigger than him. He tried. It just got a hold of him. He wasn't a bad person. I mean, he may have done some bad things. But I mean, he had the biggest heart out of anybody. I feel like he was so easy to be around. Everybody loved him. Like he was just so caring and thoughtful and considerate. Like everybody loved him. I don't know, people could see that side of him and understand that side of him.
Even people that don't know him, rather than just knowing like he's another overdose loss, because that's not what he was. They just become another number, another part of like this opioid epidemic, even to the I know, some people don't even consider it that. He was a really good person. He had a good heart. He had good intentions, and he was loved. His parents did everything they could as well. So, it's not like, you know, he just had this horrible upbringing, and nobody cared like everybody loved him. And I mean, unfortunately, what happens is in for him, like his addiction started with like a prescription. And I think he was like, 14 or something like he was very young, and it spiraled out of control over the years, and it got to where it did.
Well, last thing, what are you going to do when we're done this interview? Because this is emotional. What are you going to do today? For some self-care?
Well, I'm going to take Charlie out because I can hear him whining at me already. Then I'm going to take Edward and Karen, two of our friends to the Red Clip, that little crystal store whatever it is. It's a little art shop.
You're going to connect with Charlie and the people that you care about, and they care about you. Thanks, Kari.
Jenna Keeble 29:38
That brings us to the end of this episode of the Unsilencing Stories podcast. To listen to more interviews in the series, please go to www.unsilencingstories.com, and if you'd like to share your thoughts on the episode, message us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you so much for listening and please share the project with other people you know.