He was a Calgary Flames fan, a man who would spend his last dollar to help out his friends and family and a loving father of two.
That is the portrait that Irene Kohalyk painted of her son, who died on January 3, 2011 after hanging himself in a Cranbrook RCMP cellblock. The mother of the man showed a different side to her son on October 10 at the coroners inquest into his death. It was the first time the jury heard the details that led up to his tragic suicide. Irene presented her statement and said she was doing so to honour her son Collan Kohalyk and remember the good in his life.
“I just want others to know who my son really was,” she said. “Drugs and bi-polar made Collan into someone at times I wouldn’t know.”
Through tears, Kohalyk remembered a happy, content baby that grew shy as he entered grade school in Golden. Around Grade 4, Irene said Collan began to get in fights at school and met with a school psychologist.
Irene and Collan’s father Nick Kohalyk divorced when Collan was 13. He was left alone at home a lot so that Irene could work at the town’s mill.
“He was such a handsome boy,” Irene said.
Her son loved cross country running but eventually the athlete was afflicted by a serious ankle injury that later required surgery and painkillers. Collan eventually stopped going to school and took a job at the same mill as Irene.
“I don’t know when the drugs and alcohol became a problem,” she said.
After leaving school, Collan moved around a lot. Irene remembers packing him up and moving him in or out over and over again, always willing to help. Collan eventually purchased a lot at a trailer court and had a daughter with his girlfriend.
When his girlfriend left with the girl, Irene said her son was devastated.
“Collan took that very hard,” she said, adding that he talked about suicide then.
Collan was further hurt when his daughter began to call her mom’s new boyfriend “dad,” but he maintained a long distance relationship with her.
Collan returned to Golden and slowly spiralled out of control. Irene had no idea how to help him.
“If only I had understood a little more about it,” she said.
When Collan was 27, he was severely beaten and taken to hospital in Calgary. This assault changed the course of his life according to his mom.
“I always wondered if he sustained a brain injury from this,” she told the inquest.
Collan went to rehab where he was diagnosed as bi-polar. Irene said it was an ah-hah moment that explained much of Collan’s troubles.
“We began to see where some of the highs and lows came from,” she said.
Collan again went to rehab in Abbotsford, and Irene visited him there. When she arrived, she was stunned at the squalor of the facility, and worried when she discovered her son was working under the table for minimum wage for a friend of the rehab centre’s owner.
“If you have thousands of dollars you can get a good rehab,” she said.
His family struggled to keep up with his treatments, but Collan did not tell his family what was going on. Irene said she begged to have access to his medical records so she could be aware of his situation, but privacy laws prevented her.
“Lying is a part of this sickness,” she said of her son’s addictions.
Through the under-the-table construction job, Collan learned skills that he happily brought home to help out his mom.
“Whenever he came home he was eager to help me fix something on my house,” Irene said.
Collan also had another child, a boy, and the mother of that child left in similar circumstances as his previous child. His life spiralled downward again, and he lived out of his car until it was impounded after an accident in Vancouver.
“Somewhere in all this the stress was overwhelming and the drugs came back,” Irene said.
Collan lost his job and ended up on Vancouver’s crime-ridden East Hastings Street. He was mugged and assaulted again.
“I wanted to go down to Hastings and find him, but that was so scary for me,” Irene said.
In Collan’s final years, Irene began not answering her son’s weekly phone calls because she couldn’t handle the drama anymore.
“I so wish I could change that. I feel so guilty. Collan needed his mom.”
Collan was then sent to Cranbrook to again attend rehab. He began going to church, but again he was beaten and sent to the hospital. He was left with vision impairment and was living with roommates who were using drugs.
“I was desperate to find him somewhere stable,” Irene said.
The last time Irene saw her son, he was living with a girlfriend in Cranbrook. He was on methadone attempting to get clean and he came home for Thanksgiving 2010 to celebrate his father’s 60th birthday.
“I drove him back to Cranbrook, not knowing I’d never see him again,” Irene said.
In December, the final pieces of Collan’s life crumbled. He heard from ICBC that he owed $26,000 from the accident in Vancouver, and learned that his daughter was changing her last name to reflect her step-father. He was unable to make it home for Christmas, but Irene remembers speaking to her son just hours before his arrest.
Irene spoke of her isolating grief, but said she cherishes the time she had with her son.
“I want to put away the darkness and remember all the good,” she said. “I’m thankful to have had him for those 36 years.”