Of all the hurdles people dealing with and recovering from addiction have to face, the most difficult is the stigma.
That’s what Jasmine, a harm reduction HIV and Hepatitis C outreach worker with AVI Campbell River has found. Jasmine, who did not want her last name used in this story, has a history of drug addiction and homelessness. Through her long difficult journey she found that the stigma and othering that people feel towards addicts is the most difficult thing to overcome. In her experience, it is people who do the exact opposite and treat each other like human beings who make the real difference.
Jasmine started using drugs in high school, though at the time her use was more about partying and having a good time. Eventually, she ended up encountering heroin, which changed everything.
“Long story short, eventually me and heroin, our paths crossed and that was kind of like I found the one for me. It was the ultimate relief,” she said. “I was travelling a lot through the States and Canada… Eventually, I (found I) can’t dabble in a drug like opiates at all because… it kind of locked me in place in Vancouver. I couldn’t travel because I would end up getting sick.”
After a few years, Jasmine found herself living in a tent on one of the main streets of downtown Vancouver with winter fast approaching. At the time she lived with a partner, and her partner’s family ended up tracking the pair down and moving them out east.
“The state we were in at the time, I didn’t have any ID, I had a dog, we couldn’t just jump on a plane or jump on a bus. His mother flew to Vancouver and rented a van and drove us to New Brunswick,” she explained. “The woman was a trooper, because we used all the way across. I know it was so distressing for her, but we didn’t feel at the time that not doing that was an option. We ended up kicking it in a farm in Sussex, New Brunswick. It was wild.”
Jasmine and her partner recovered at the farm, but recovery from opiates is one of the most difficult things a person can do. Eventually, her partner’s mother brought them to the hospital.
“There was a doctor there… when I walked in the room he sat down and said ‘Jasmine it’s really nice to meet you. This is the best decision you’ve made and I’m so looking forward to you becoming a part of my community,’ ” she said. “I can’t tell you… the emotions that that brought up, just having a doctor be kind and welcoming me to his community and like saying that he was looking forward to it, a click happened and this belief in my self kind of happened. I realized ‘OK I can be a part of the community, even the doctor wants me here.’ We all know doctors are seen as some of the leaders of the community… it has been 13 years and that is still something that brings up emotions in me to this day.”
Jasmine stayed in Sussex for two years after kicking her habit, learning how to be a person again. Her partner’s family had no judgments, and helped her learn certain social norms and rules. After a while she returned to B.C. and started building a life here again.
“It has been a long journey,” she said. “There’s a lot of emotional stuff you have to deal with. My belief is that stigma is by far the most damaging thing to people, especially while they’re living it, while they’re homeless, while they’re using and even after. Afterwards you have a hard time connecting with people, and that’s what you need. You need the connection ultimately to really thrive, and its really difficult to connect with people because you know that there’s a stigma to that.”
After a few years of living in B.C., Jasmine got news that her partner with whom she had travelled to New Brunswick had died of an overdose. She became determined to be a part of the solution and started working with AVI, which works to break down barriers and stigma for people like Jasmine.
Through her work, Jasmine found a community that did not judge the life she used to live, and that built her confidence.
“I wouldn’t have told you this story three years ago,” she said. “I would have been absolutely terrified that you would have judged me, and now through these groups I found the empowerment of wanting to break through that wall of stigma more than being worried about being stigmatized. It’s incredibly empowering to not see the life that I lived as a shameful part of my life, but just a part of my life,” she added. “And also to be told that having the knowledge of that lifestyle is valuable, that is something that allows me to bring better understanding to the work I do now.”
Since the pandemic started, Jasmine said her clients at AVI have reported feeling left behind. Things were closing, businesses were shutting down and services still have not come back to the place they were a year ago. While many people have been able to cope with the changes in some way, those most vulnerable members of the community were left out in the cold.
“For a lot of the people I’ve worked with, part of what they were feeling is left behind,” she said. “Reach out to the people that you are connected to. Let them know that that’s how you feel and have a conversation.”
People who are living outside, living with addictions or are recovering from addictions are no less members of the community, and no less deserving of compassion.
“Compassion is so valuable. People don’t realize it. No matter what you say to somebody who is homeless or using drugs, it’s never going to be as bad as the way they feel about themselves. They’re being told little tidbits of that every day anyway,” she added.
“I wish I’d known that being somebody who used drugs didn’t make me subhuman.”