Life, Death and Strength: The Story of a Mothers’ Love
“I never saw him in the morgue, but when I saw him in the coffin, I cried out, ‘Why, Jonathan, why?’” says Jennifer Johnston, describing the last time she saw her son. Jonathan Johnston died of fentanyl poisoning on April 20, 2016 at 25 years old. What he thought was heroin turned out to be 99 percent fentanyl and one percent cocaine.
Fentanyl overdose occurs when the potent opioid bonds to endorphin-releasing receptors in the brain and prevents the body from regulating oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. The fentanyl Jonathan unknowingly smoked, was so powerful that it violently knocked him to the ground, causing severe abrasions to his head. Found by a security guard at the corner of Yonge Street and King Street in Toronto in the early hours of the morning, Jonathan was pronounced dead at 4:04 a.m. Opioid-related overdoses claimed the lives of more than 2,450 Canadians in 2016. That number continues to rise in rapid fashion.
“It’s about money. Drug lords at the top make more money by camouflaging fentanyl as other drugs. They don’t care that it kills somebody’s someone,” says Johnston. Jonathan was a son, a brother and a boyfriend. He was a professionally trained chef with an impressive roster of restaurant gigs under his belt, including La Societé and Origin, which was owned by Master Chef Canada judge Claudio Aprile. “[Jonathan] was always self-sufficient and a go-getter. He was witty and had the best laugh in the world. He was larger than life,” Johnston says, clearing her throat. Her son’s drug addiction started with what she calls “a damn bad decision.”
He began crushing and snorting OxyContin as a party drug. He then swapped it for heroin as a cheaper option to sustain his addiction. Jonathan went to doctors to seek help but never received it, so he tried to wean himself off heroin with the help of his girlfriend, explains Johnston. “I try not to blame myself. I didn’t know that weaning yourself off heroin is impossible. The doctors didn’t help him and he seemed to be handling things okay,” Johnston says. “But when your child dies from social injustice, there will be a fire burning under you.”
Johnston created an advocacy group called Niagara Area Moms Ending the Stigma (NAMES). The goal of NAMES is to demolish the stigma surrounding drug use, decriminalize specific drugs and force the government to put better resources and support in place for people addicted to opioids. Johnston and the other mothers of NAMES write letters, talk to the press and try to prevent other families from experiencing the same tragic pain. “It’s hard to be around a lot of people because I get jealous when I see them happy, but you truly never know what other people are dealing with.”
When she’s not advocating for overdose awareness or working at her part-time retail job at a formal wear boutique in St. Catharines, Johnston lives her life in what she calls ‘moments of happy’. “I’m happy when I eat chocolate. I’m happy when my other children bring home good news. I laugh every day. But I always carry an emptiness.” Above all else, Johnston says her loss has given her a new empathy for people she encounters. “No matter what your struggle is, if you give kindness and empathy to the universe, you’ll get strength back in return. And let me tell you, women are strong. We are so fucking strong and we can make change happen.”