Sherry McMillan sat in her truck in a McDonald’s parking lot on Victoria, B.C.'s Pandora Avenue on Thursday, afraid to get out, scared of what she might find.
Finally she stepped down from the truck and tentatively walked past the tents dotting the street. She said hello to some people and tried to give space to others who were slumped over, some twisted and catatonic.
As one man flailed on the ground and another screamed, she crossed the road to head back up the other side.
The trip seemed futile.
The last time the Kelowna woman had seen a photo of her son, he was in a Crime Stoppers post. The last time she heard from him was February. Before, McMillan could always count on a call every Mother’s Day. “But on Mother’s Day 2023, there was nothing.”
One of his two younger sisters living in Saskatchewan — where their father also lives — phoned Victoria police to make a missing person’s report. Police told her they had had dealings with her brother. They told the family his street name is Skittles and suggested the family search Pandora Avenue.
On Tuesday, McMillan arrived from Kelowna to empty her son’s storage locker. It had been almost three years since he slipped back into addiction, lost his job and housing, and walked out of detox.
He was supposed to pick up the contents of the storage locker on Jan. 21, 2021, but he never did. His father had been paying the monthly rent ever since.
In a posting on an Esquimalt Facebook page, McMillan wrote: “my son is an addict living on the streets of Victoria and we have stopped paying for his U-Pak Storage locker beside the Wholesale Club.”
McMillan had taken what she could from Locker No. 391 — a TV for his former wife and two daughters living on Salt Spring Island — and offered the remaining bits of furniture and clothing for free to any groups or families in need, a family new to Canada maybe.
“You have until 5 p.m. [Sept. 13] only, to help yourself,” she wrote.
About 60 people commented on her post. Some shared their own addiction experiences — one woman has been in recovery for 19 years. Parents who had been down the same heartbreaking road with their children offered empathy.
One woman applauded the mother’s generosity adding: “this is the saddest post I’ve seen in a long time.”
McMillan said her son had packed food in the locker as if he’d be back on his feet soon. Poring over the hockey-card type memorabilia he kept from his childhood, and his daughters’ trinkets, she cried.
McMillan lifted shirts out of one box and found her son’s first teddy bear.
“It’s like, oh my God, I gave birth to this child,” said McMillan. “I don’t know what to do. I can’t dwell on it. I am very willing to talk about it and I’m very willing to support somebody there going through it but … the not knowing where he is or if he’s dead or alive.”
McMillan and her former husband met in the military. They had three children in military postings in Cold Lake, Alta., Ottawa and Moose Jaw, Sask.
Her son began drinking and using marijuana at age 14 in Moose Jaw. McMillan wonders if the time she left the family for three months when her son was eight damaged him, or if it was the couple’s separation a decade later. She knows his anxiety didn’t help.
When he dropped out of high school at 17, his parents insisted he get a job and pay rent — a small amount to teach responsibility. Even after he moved out, the couple drove him to and from work.
When he was in detox in Saskatoon, the family hatched a plan to pick him up the day he finished the program and move to Kelowna for a fresh start. But McMillan said Kelowna was too expensive, forcing the family to live in the low-income area of town, where drug use was rampant.
“The girls said to and from school they were offered drugs on the street and that was 2004.”
Eventually through Alcoholics Anonymous on Vancouver Island, her son met a woman and they had two girls together. As parents, they each had long runs of sobriety. He was clean for eight years, but then COVID hit and his work and life went sideways, McMillan said.
She said she tells her granddaughters that their dad has a mental illness and needs medication, but he is taking the wrong kind of drugs.
On Thursday, after dealing with the storage locker, McMillan was ready for the difficult trip up Pandora, on the hunt for a glimpse — or at least news — of her son.
A group of people was sitting outside CareMed Pharmacy. They seemed coherent and approachable.
Finally, she could ask her question: “Do any of you know a man who goes by the name Skittles?”
A muscular man in a black hoodie, pants and baseball hat said: “I know him, he’s a friend.”
The man was Jimmy Sarasin of SOLID Outreach Society, a peer-based organization in Victoria that helps to reduce harms from substance use. He was in the middle of checking samples of illicit drugs for toxicity. “We’ve had a couple of overdoses this morning,” he said.
Sarasin said he originally met McMillan’s son when Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre arena was used as temporary housing for Victoria’s homeless in 2020 during the pandemic, and again in 2021.
“Your son’s a great guy,” he told McMillan. “He’s doing well. He’s one of the people who is more functioning. He’s more aware. He’s very present. I don’t ever see him really dishevelled.”
It was then that McMillan broke down and the tears came. “It’s OK,” he told her. “It’s not OK,” she said.
Sarasin offered her his personal phone number and to help connect mother and son. When and if her son is ready, he said, he’d help find him a treatment program — drive him there and stay connected with him through the process.
“We’re down here every day,” he told her. “We’re the only group that gets out to all the parks every day, whether it’s my team or the mobile team or the Indigenous team.”
Sarasin told McMillan that he and his wife Megan were on the streets just five years ago, so they are able to gain the trust of those on the street now.
“Tell him we all love him, especially his daughters,” said McMillan.
She left with Sarasin’s phone number. The two promised to keep in touch.
“I’m happy he’s alive but I still want to hug my son,” she said. “I will one day. I need that thought to keep me going.”
On Friday, Sarasin called and put McMillan’s son on the line. McMillan is now contemplating moving to Vancouver Island.