Leila Attar was unconscious on the floor of her Ottawa home when a loud knock at her door shook her from a drug-induced blackout at 2 a.m.
“It was non-stop … I thought it was the cops because of how loud it was,” she recalled.
It turned out to be a close friend coming to check on her because Attar, now 19, had stopped responding to texts. Later, she would be told by doctors that she was overdosing on fentanyl after taking pills she thought were Percocet.
Today, she recognizes that day in November 2016 as a gamechanger.
“If I didn’t have that overdose I don’t know if I would have stopped … At that point you don’t care if you live or die,” she said.
In 2016, 363 people died from fentanyl overdoses in Alberta. Attar speaks from a rare position of experience. She overdosed, but lived.
Now, she wants to warn others and is using her experience to reach out to youth across the country as part of a nationwide tour on the dangers of fentanyl.
It was a turbulent adolescence that led to Attar smoking marijuana at a young age. When her mother found out, she dropped her at a bus stop and said she was no longer welcome at home.
Attar found herself living on the streets at 16. Feeling abandoned by her family, drugs became her companion.
“You don’t know where you belong,” she said. “It’s traumatizing in a sense.”
‘Your drug dealer is not your friend’
Attar transitioned from homelessness and found an apartment and a job in the service industry. She started taking prescription pills as a way to calm her anxiety while working long shifts.
Her preference was the opiate Percocet. A combination of acetaminophen and oxycodone, it’s about 200 times weaker than fentanyl.
She said even as she heard of fentanyl overdoses becoming more common, she never thought she’d become a statistic. Opiates are increasingly laced with deadly fentanyl, but Attar figured it wouldn’t happen to her.
“I thought I know who I’m getting it from, they’re my buddy, it’s fine.”
Now, one of the messages Attar hopes to emphasize with young people is this: Your drug dealer is not your friend.
When she confronted the dealer who sold her pills, whom she considered a friend, he sort of shrugged his shoulders and said ‘sorry’.
“That was a huge eye-opener,” Attar said. “I realized this guy doesn’t care about me.”
Life after near-death
After her overdose, Attar returned to work in the service industry but didn’t feel right.
“I had overdosed before but never to the point where I felt that sick. So I knew something was wrong,” she said.
In a sense, the traumatic experience actually helped her get off drugs.
“For the rest of that next week I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, and I couldn’t put any more drugs into me,” she said. “So I guess that’s how I detoxed.”
Attar has been sober for about seven months. She compares quitting drugs to a bad breakup.
“I had a relationship with drugs, it was like my love,” she said. “It was like you guys have never hurt me, all you’ve done is help me escape and now I can’t even have that. So I felt completely alone.”
Today she no longer feels alone. As part of her tour, she’s been speaking with individuals who are struggling with drug addiction or parents who have lost their children to opiate overdoses.
“The biggest thing for me is hope, to know there’s a way out,” Attar said. “And I never would have thought that ― when you’re in that dark spot, you’re so buried by darkness that you just can’t see a way out.”
But Attar knows intimately that if you search hard enough, there is a way out. But it takes hard work, dedication and the desire for change.
“There’s no magic pill, rehab isn’t just going to fix your problems … at the end of the day it’s your life and you have to value it enough to change it.”
A brighter path forward
A positive to emerge from Attar’s meeting with grieving parents is she realizes how many people across the country, from all walks of life, are affected by the drug epidemic.
“It’s very emotionally taxing, but it provides a lot of insight into the stigmas their kids face, the mental illnesses their kids had, and what did or didn’t work for them.”
The breaking point for Attar was when a 14-year-old in Ottawa died of a fentanyl overdose.
“That’s when I wanted to take my experience to help people,” Attar said.
And while her intention was to help others, she has also found the tour to be a healing experience for her personally.
“The more I’m able to talk to people and share my story, it helps me not feel shameful about my past … I never thought I would be able to live a life like this at all.”
Anyone looking to get in touch with Attar can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.