Bart Manson tucked a teddy bear under the arm of his son before paramedics took his body, wrapped in a childhood blanket his mother made him, out of the house on an April afternoon earlier this year.
The 61-year-old father of two and retired registered nurse added the stuffed animal so the next person who laid eyes on his youngest son, Aaron, would know the 26-year-old, who died in his bed from an illicit drug overdose, came from a loving family.
The day Aaron died, April 20, 2021, was a parent’s worst nightmare. His mother, Troylana Manson, 58, anticipates Monday (Sept. 13) will be another hard day.
Sept. 13 would have been Aaron Manson’s 27th birthday. He would also have been starting the final year in pursuit of his bachelor of business degree at Thompson Rivers University.
As a tribute, TRU will be lowering its flags to half-mast for Aaron — something the post-secondary institution is known to do for various students and causes, and which was offered to the Manson family when they notified the university to remove Aaron from his classes.
While there is no ceremony, the Mansons — Bart, Troylana and older brother Levi — plan to be on campus on Monday, grab a coffee and bite to eat and do some of the things Aaron liked to do, such as a yoga and a hike in Peterson Creek Park.
The family members said Aaron felt ashamed of his drug addiction — something they feel was a major contributor in his death, alongside a toxic drug supply. They have decided to speak publicly about their son’s passing in the hopes it will help break the stigma felt by others struggling with addiction issues amidst the opioid crisis.
They feel robbed of Aaron’s potential, saying that for the past two years, he had been making great strides to get clean of his cocaine addiction and was turning into the man they knew he could be — eating healthy, exercising, meditating and taking private counselling for his drug habit — when any chance of getting back on track was erased by a fatal relapse.
He had also recently moved back into his parent’s home to avoid the temptation he felt when he lived on his own.
“Everything you could imagine a person in recovery could do,” Bart said. “He was working so hard.”
He said his son would go for months without using drugs before slipping up and using again.
Troylana said her son could see his cocaine use was affecting him and his relationships and made an effort to change.
Levi, a recent graduate of TRU’s nursing program, told KTW his brother confided in him that he didn’t like the way the drugs made him feel.
Nothing seemed amiss leading up to son’s death
Aaron had been at a friend’s house the night before he died, returning home by about 1:30 a.m.
When Bart got up at about 6 a.m., Aaron was just on his way to bed.
He said his son told him he had slipped up and used while out, but was feeling all right.
“There was no red flags. I said we had been through these slips before, not a problem, get a good sleep,” Bart said. “When he gets up, we’ll talk about it, make a plan and get back on the recovery path.”
His son went off to bed and everything seemed normal.
“If he had been at all concerned, if he could have just said, ‘I don’t feel quite right. Could you check on me once in a while?’ But I think [with] the guilt and shame, he wanted to hide it,” Bart said.
Troylana went to check on her son at about noon, having heard him snoring a couple of hours earlier.
When he didn’t respond to her, she shook his arm, thinking he was in a deep sleep, but she couldn’t wake him up.
She told KTW she knew right away it was an overdose.
She grabbed his leg, shook it and hollered, ‘Bart, I can’t wake him up!”
Bart pulled his son onto the floor and began CPR.
“In my head, I’m going through the actions because I’ve been trained that way, but I’d get these flashes — this is my son. This just can’t be real,” Bart told KTW.
Levi, who was downstairs getting changed for the last shift of his nursing practicum, heard the commotion and came upstairs, where wound up administering naloxone to his younger brother, but it had no effect. Paramedics responded within minutes, but Aaron had died.
The family hasn’t yet received a full toxicology report to determine what drugs were in Aaron’s system, but has been informed it was an opioid overdose, Troylana told KTW.
Ashamed of the addiction
The family said cocaine was something Aaron came across in social settings — when he worked construction in northern Alberta after high school and at parties in Kamloops when he returned home to attend university.
Troylana said that while others in Aaron’s social circle could use drugs recreationally, her son couldn’t and would use more later on, sometimes disappearing for days.
“With Aaron, if he had a drink, he’d have to have a second drink, and if he had a second drink, then he was on the phone calling for cocaine,” Bart said, noting his son had attention deficit disorder, suffered from anxiety and seemed vulnerable to substance-abuse challenges.
“We all have different vulnerabilities. The person beside him could be trying the exact same stuff and never have the challenges that Aaron ended up with,” Bart said.
Levi noted the prevalence of party drugs amongst young people.
“For so many young people, especially at TRU and [while] partying, the fact of the matter is cocaine is everywhere and all it takes is trying it once for some people to get into it more and more, and I think Aaron was someone who was around it and he developed an addiction to it,” Levi said.
He said his brother didn’t want to be known as someone who used drugs.
“He was very ashamed of his addiction,” Bart said. “He didn’t want anybody to know that he had weaknesses. He cared abut others and the challenges other people had, but he didn’t want anyone to worry about him.”
Levi said his brother wouldn’t let his family members know ahead of time when he had urges to use, but would be transparent and confess afterwards to them that he had used.
Education, safe supply needed
Asked for their thoughts on B.C.’s steps to date — registered nurses being able to prescribe medications to treat opioid addictions and safe-injection sites — Troylana said it’s not enough.
She said more treatment beds and safe-injection and drug-testing sites wouldn’t help someone like her son, who would avoid such things because he did not want to be associated with using illicit drugs.
The Mansons would like to see a safe and regulated drug supply available in a liquor or cannabis store setting — the presence of which could help lessen the stigma associated with drug users.
Troylana said she uses her son as an archetype in her advocacy for a safe supply, noting she has heard many stories of people just like him since Aaron’s death.
She said someone like her son would not plan out their cocaine use — it would be an impulse buy made at two o’clock in the morning. In calling for a safe supply of illicit drugs, Troylana said it is needed so those trying to stay clean can have every opportunity to do so without risking their lives in a relapse, noting a gambler who relapses doesn’t have to worry about dying from his or her vice.
Bart noted the drug decriminalization system in Portugal has had positive impacts and likened a safe drug supply to the prohibition era, pointing out that bootlegged batches of illicit alcohol were known to kill people until liquor was again regulated and controlled.
He said more education is something that could help end the stigma of drug use, which is why the Mansons have decided to donate money to TRU to fund speakers to visit university classes to discuss mental-health and substance-use challenges.