November 30th, 2016
“Those people will steal you blind,” said the hair stylist as I sat in the chair.
She and I had been discussing my upcoming trip to San Diego, a city she was familiar with. After she shared with me a list of San Diego’s best restaurants and “have to see” sites, she asked me why I was going.
I told her it was to attend the National Harm Reduction Conference, so we talked a little bit about what harm reduction means, and why I was involved in advocating for people who use drugs, particularly people who inject.
That’s when I told her that it was my oldest son’s 45th birthday that day; and so our conversation turned to Michael’s death four years ago, due to a heroin overdose, with prescription drugs and alcohol also involved.
Most people can find examples of difficulties with drugs from their own lives, either directly or through the experiences of others they know. The hair stylist told me about a friend of hers.
The friend had two adult children, both of whom were suffering with substance use disorders. In frustration, this friend kicked them both out of the house and changed the locks on the door. Some days, this friend finds one of her sons asleep on the sidewalk in front of her home, but he is not allowed inside and has to leave when the sun comes up.
That’s when the hair stylist said, “Those people will steal you blind.”
Now, I get the general idea of what “steal you blind” means, but after hearing it like this, I looked it up: The official definition is to “rob or cheat someone in a comprehensive or merciless way.”
Many of us whose loved ones have struggled with substance use disorders can relate to the feeling of having them take things from us that were not theirs to take. In my case, I was on first-name terms with the local pawn dealer from having to go to him to retrieve some of the same musical instruments over and over again.
But let’s describe what happened accurately. I wasn’t “stolen blind.” The act was neither comprehensive, nor was it merciless. It was not deliberate cruelty or disrespect. Rather, I have come to understand, it was about desperation and fear.
It was about the fear of going without heroin, for reasons both psychological and physical—of stomach cramps, uncontrollable diarrhea, hot-and-cold sweats and “dope-sickness.” Perhaps the fear of a world that seemed unbearably harsh without the comfort of a drug.
And when you understand that someone has done something they shouldn’t because they were frightened, it becomes very difficult to speak of them in that accusing tone.
But I didn’t say any of that to the stylist.
“Oh yeah, I know who they are,” said the gray-haired, robustly built Uber driver. “They’re the ones who need to find something better to do with their lives, like a hobby or something, to deal with their problems instead of drugs.”
He looked rather as if he was medicated for his high blood pressure or high cholesterol to ensure his own long life.
I leant against the back seat of his car, taking deep breaths, and absorbed his words, which had come out after I answered his first question: “Why are you visiting San Diego?”
Having just left about 1,500 advocates for change and a day chock-full of discussions about empathy, understanding and stigma, I wondered what I could say to this man in the five minutes I had left in his company.
My friend, who was with me in the back seat, made eye-contact with me and responded on my behalf: “If it were only that easy…”
During the uncomfortable silence that hung in the car after that, we agreed without speaking that this one was better to leave alone—there just wasn’t time for the kind of discussion we needed to have. We discussed the weather in San Diego for the remainder of our ride.
But again, I was frustrated with myself. There, right in front of me, had been the opportunity to have a debate, to stand up for my work, my story and my beliefs. I knew that if, in answer to his question, I had said we were there to support people with breast cancer, I would have immediately been perceived as an angel of mercy—not viewed with distaste, as an enabler of those who “did it to themselves.”
“What did I tell you?” said my first responder acquaintance.
He had just responded to an address in North Carolina he was familiar with, having been there twice before.
But this time, it was too late. The young man did not recover from his heroin overdose following two doses of naloxone.
“What did I tell you?” said the first responder. “The first two saves were a waste of time, when I could have provided lifesaving care to someone who actually deserved it.”
The hair stylist and the Uber driver might well have been little acquainted with the issues around drugs, substance use disorders and harm reduction. But this was a health care provider, one with whom I had had many discussions about overdose, Narcan and saving a life with no judgment—lengthy talks about who deserves and who does not deserve (the answer is nobody) another chance to live.
This time, I really couldn’t believe what I had just heard. I was speechless.
During the short time-span in which I had all three of these encounters, I spent the better part of a week with folks from across my country and from other countries discussing the humanization and non-judgmental care of people with substance use disorders. Each day that week, I felt elated and excited. This was my tribe—these people thought like me, had goals for change like me, and loved unconditionally like me.
What we didn’t address so much—at least not in the meetings I attended—was what it is in our society that keeps us from our goals.
It isn’t the cost of lifesaving drugs. It isn’t the lack of financial support for harm reduction organizations. What keeps us from being abundantly successful in providing this underserved population that we love with what they need to reach their potential is the stigma that society still harbors for them—one hairdresser, one Uber driver, one health care professional at a time.
I’m disappointed in myself that I couldn’t find the words, in those circumstances, to change any of their minds. But I think many other harm reductionists may share my feeling.
Read more from The Influence:
We must know that 1,500 activists hugging each other and celebrating our successes is good, is merited, but isn’t enough. It isn’t enough for me to go to conferences of like-minded folks who are mostly all on the same page and a great encouragement to each other.
Until we can find ways to reach the people in our society who have no connection to this echo-chamber—ways to help them see that people who use drugs have the same feelings, needs, compassion and potential as anyone else—we haven’t succeeded.
Of course we are not going to change every Uber driver’s mind about addiction, but we should find the fortitude to frankly discuss the issues with him, even if it is only for five minutes. We could speak out enough to encourage the hairdresser to rethink her position on substance use—to see it, even if just for a moment, through the eyes of her friend’s son. We must be able to impress on the health care provider, never mind hurting his feelings, that every single person deserves the chance that naloxone brings—because would any of us stop to consider whether a person “deserved” it before pulling them out of the path of an oncoming truck?
I need to do better. Most of us need to do better. If we can’t convince those we encounter in our daily lives to recognize drug users as people, then we are, as my grandmother would say, just “spitting in the wind.”
Diannee Carden Glenn is a grandma who put down her quilting and became an advocate for harm reduction after her son, Michael, overdosed. She is a member of the Florida Viral Hepatitis Planning Committee and affiliated with H.E.A.L.S of Florida. She is the board president of North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition and secretary of Pitt County Coalition on Substance Abuse. She writes and speaks about Michael, his passions, his shortcomings, his death and the effect it had on her family.