Stigma is Killing Us

I relapsed for 3 weeks on New Year’s Eve, and it almost killed me.

It’s hell out there. I’ve been a substance user since I was fifteen. It’s taken me places that I don’t care to remember. This time it was totally different.

It’s a whole new ballgame, folks. And it’s time to change the rules.

Since I stopped using, people say that I made the right choice; that I saw the light; that I can’t worry about who I’ve left behind because they’re not ready yet.

That’s bullshit.

The only difference is, as a vocal advocate for safer substance use, I’m privileged in my recovery. I had a personal support team around the clock, every day of the week. I literally had the golden treatment. Even with everyone I needed to lift me up, making decisions when I couldn’t, doing everything for me, it was the hardest thing I have ever done.

And that was after three weeks.

So how the fuck do we expect people who have been out there for years to get out? People who don’t have similar support? People who have that desperate need to stay well and can only access the very limited and most basic services Monday to Friday 8am-4pm? How can we expect anyone to succeed?

We can’t. Not with where things are currently headed.

We need a safe supply of drugs. ALL DRUGS. Stop picking and choosing what people can use. You are playing Russian roulette with human lives. Legalize and regulate the drug supply.

Simple. Stop worrying about what people think and do the right thing, Canada!

Stop letting hundreds of us die every week.

Stop blaming us for this problem.

Stop shaming us for society’s mistakes because we didn’t create this monster.

You did.

The monster grew as you slowly took away our pills and patches, busted shipments of cocaine coming in. The monster grew as we watched our access to services shrink, services we needed and depended on. This is what brought this monster into this world: supply and demand. Taking away the supply only made the demand higher. And it’s been filled with poison. Analogue after analogue of opioids, crystal meth, and God knows what else poured onto the streets, and you stood back with your brows furrowed, your arms crossed and shamed us for using them. You shrugged when we started dying all around you. You blamed us.

“You made this choice. If you didn’t want to live like that, you wouldn’t.” “JUST STOP USING!”

Simple solution, right? Not exactly.

Even with the best doctors, nurses, counsellors, and case managers at my disposal, this detox has been the worst I’ve ever experienced. It’s been eight days, and I’m still withdrawing like a motherfucker. That’s with a buck forty of methadone, a whack of kadians and benzos, buckets of clonidine, and Tylenol and Advil pumped into me. I can barely sleep. When I do, it’s nightmares and sweats. I still spend half the day with my arms and back crawling. I have the worst restless legs, and I ache head to toe.

But I am one of the lucky ones.

I ONLY had a safe place to do this because I am privileged in my recovery. Without that privilege, I wouldn’t have made it.

Three weeks was all it took to bring me down.

As I said, I am surrounded by the best of the best when it comes to substance use support. I have been for a long time. And I still picked back up.

But that is not the point of this. We need to make the same resources and level of support available to everyone trying to make this same step. Give us the help we need to get out of this hole that you have dug for us.

Policing the matter only drives it further underground and makes it worse. That’s where the violence lives. That’s where our shame is fed. It is nurtured in those dark places, and that’s where it flourishes. That’s where we get stuck. You can’t arrest your way out of this thing. It would be over by now if that worked. Things have only gotten worse.

Instead, try asking us what we need. Guaranteed, you will get answers. Aside from a safe supply and safe consumption sites, we need housing. It is impossible to find accommodation for anyone in Brockville, let alone affordable housing. We don’t even have a shelter. We JUST opened up a warming centre at night but there is nowhere safe to go during the day. Even the traps and flops that we used to have are no longer safe. This needs to change immediately.

This poison is changing people.

We used to look after each other, and now it’s everyone for themselves. People are being robbed, raped and beaten regularly. We are intentionally overdosing or hot shooting each other just to see what we can get. That’s not the world I left a few years ago. It is not one that I did well in either.

We need more access to medical detoxes. It’s not safe for people to go through withdrawal from these substances without them. They are chock-full of benzos, antidepressants, antipsychotics and all sorts of garbage. We can’t expect anyone to try to do this cold turkey – even in a detox facility. It needs to be done medically. Anything else would be so dangerous it would be negligent at this point.

We also need to get day treatment options going, and not 12 step-based either. That’s not treatment, and we need to stop pretending it is. We need evidence-based, trauma-informed programs happening. Our city started an excellent program for people under 30. It is a 30-week program where people are paid to build tiny homes. It is being run by an amazing lady who has developed therapeutic relationships with each and every person who has participated in that program. Not only are they learning this trade and making some money doing it, they are being supported and connected wherever their needs are. These are the types of programs we need, and that is the kind of person we need running them.

STIGMA. Fucking stigma. Stigma, stigma, stigma.

Stigma keeps us from getting better. Stigma keeps us full of shame for your failings. Stigma keeps you from offering the services we need. Stigma puts your mistakes on our shoulders. Stigma needs to go, and that’s only going to happen by talking about it. People need to be educated. It’s 2021, not 1951. “Just say no” is over; it didn’t work. The time for tough love has come and gone. Abstinence does not equal recovery. Homelessness doesn’t equal worthlessness, and substance use is not a moral failing. We all deserve the same level of care and compassion.

You need to hear our stories. Not just the people who have found recovery, got their families back and are grateful for every second they’re alive.

We need to hear from the people who are struggling every minute of every day.

We need you to know how awful this life is and how hard it is just to survive. Maybe then you’ll understand how desperately we need these services, and how different our lives could be if we have them. Maybe then you’ll act instead of talk.

Maybe you will start caring about the hundreds of people who are dying every WEEK in this country and do something to stop it. People don’t need to die. We’re dying because of your bad policies. We’re dying because you refuse to change them. We’re dying because you don’t care.

Remember, you created this, not us. You need to help us out of it. It’s not going to go away without it, and it’s only going to get worse until you do.

– Jes Besharah, a Canadian substance user

Jes Besharah

Jes Besharah (she/her) is a drug user who is now a passionate advocate for drug user rights and harm reduction strategies around substance use. She has initiated many conversations in the hopes of putting an end to the stigma that surrounds drugs and substance users in her community. Jes is a graduate of the St. Lawrence College Addictions and Mental Health Program. She works as a Harm Reduction Support Navigator for the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit, and a Peer Support Worker with Canadian Addiction Treatment Centres. She was instrumental in the launching of the Brockville Overdose Outreach Team (BOOT). She also sits on her local Municipal Drug Strategy committee and is a lived experience advisor for different policy and research teams throughout Ontario.