Stella's Place Blog

What would Ben say?

A portrait of Ben Smith, photoshopped on a purple background. Ben is smiling and wearing a black hoodie. In the background is a dark purple brush stroke with white text on top that reads 'What would Ben say?" with the purple and blue Stella's Place logo in the bottom right.

Content warning: overdose, drug-use, mental health challenges

Ben died in Toronto on April 16, 2018 at 22, due to accidental Fentanyl poisoning.

Ben had no drug or alcohol issues in high school in Halifax, was an honour student, took music lessons, had part-time jobs and then went to Ryerson’s Media Production program on a scholarship. He worked weekends at the Toronto YMCA as a lifeguard and swim teacher. He loved staying fit. He was handsome, funny, smart and charming, but also impulsive and at times, tempestuous.

We now know from Ben’s notebooks, browser history and his friends that he experimented widely with drugs in Toronto. There is no evidence of addiction, but he tried LSD, cocaine, MDMA, opiates, mushrooms, and was a cannabis user. Once or twice a month, an acquaintance provided a pill from a parent’s Percocet prescription. He and a buddy bought a jug of Etizolam. These substances were just a click or text away.

We saw no sign of any of this.

We are a loving, stable family with close ties; he came home to Halifax three times a year, and we visited him in Toronto. When he had a problem or worry, he shared it and could count on our love and support.

But in the last year of his life, he was searching, and became less communicative. He left school to try his hand at music and art. Then he left the YMCA to work in a downtown restaurant. He told us he hoped a busier job would help with his growing anxiety.

He had tried traditional counselling but ended it when he left school and was off our health plans. He didn’t want us to pay, but then did not use his own YMCA health plan. He assured us he had all the tools he needed, that he was meditating and exercising.

But having the tools and using them are two different things. According to his phone history, in late March 2018, Ben bought an opiate via text. He bought from the same individual 4 or 5 times between March 23 and April 14. Even close friends had no idea he was doing this. The final purchase killed him. He was alone in his bedroom, with headphones on.

How could this happen? We’ve turned ourselves inside out to figure that out, and what we missed as parents. Maybe because he was anxious, because he was searching, because he was adventurous and creative, because drugs were common in the social group and music he loved. Perhaps just because it was available: he was vulnerable and could easily satisfy an impulse. Or maybe experimentation had evolved to something else.

Ben's Family

Ben’s Family

When he was a teenager in Halifax, Ben was independent and responsible. In Toronto, he never missed work and paid his own bills. Days before he was poisoned, he proudly texted his dad that he completed his own taxes for the first time, and “felt like an adult.” He was in touch with an ex-girlfriend; he told her he was tired of his anxiety running his life, and would explore counselling options at Stella’s Place. He bought a money order for first and last month’s rent on a new shared apartment.

Things were looking up, but he then bought a drug that he had no idea was laced with Fentanyl. The coroner told us he didn’t have a chance; the drug had 7 times the lethal dose of this poison.

Ben’s story is important because he wanted to go to Stella’s but never got there.

His death tells us that anxiety, mood disorders, and substance abuse can affect anyone. And yes, tainted drugs stole the opportunity to work through a difficult phase of life. The risk for vulnerable young people is so high in the Fentanyl age. No second chances.

But there’s something else: He lied to the people he loved.

We believe he was trying to protect us, but really we just lost a chance to help. On a Skype call one night, he told us: “I carry a lot of guilt and shame.” He said the reason was that he felt he should have been working harder on his music, should be more focussed. He told us, without telling us.

He texted a close friend a few weeks before he died. He said he was going through a rough time and was tempted to self-medicate. She offered love, help and support but he laughed off his previous text, said he was just fine.

This was a pattern with friends. Reach out, mention drugs or anxiety, and then say he was just joking, that he was okay.

Guilt and shame, and perhaps pride, kept our son from getting the help and support he needed. He was so very hard on himself.

Ben did not make it to Stella’s and it breaks our hearts. We want to help other young people access these resources, and to encourage them to do so. Most of our Stella’s donations came from Ben’s own bank account. He worked hard for that money; he would be so proud to help others.

We think he would tell them:

Please reach out. Please accept help and support, and don’t wait.