Stigma is still the main reason why people are not open about drug use and do not seek drug treatment. Drug use is still seen as a moral failing. A recent Pew survey of Philadelphia residents found that a majority — 58% — thought opioid addiction is something people bring on themselves. Forty-two percent believed that opioid addiction islike a disease.
If people do choose to use, it does not mean that they deserve to die. Such a survey implies that it is acceptable to have us average around 1,000 deaths from overdose each year. Those lost were friends, partners, children, parents, siblings, humans. Their lives matter, as do so many other individuals with substance use disorders.
I myself am an overdose survivor, and my life matters. I remember during my struggles, I looked for compassionate care somewhere, anywhere, but encountered much stigma, judgment, and adversity. Maybe it was due to the times, as this was many years ago.
I was lucky and am still breathing today. My sister, on the other hand, lost her battle with addiction. She died alone. If she would have gone to a supervised consumption site, like Safehouse, would she have survived? Yes, I believe that for sure.
As an advocate and recovery specialist, I work with vulnerable people who need a safe place to use. In the absence of that place, they will still use — just without any safeguards protecting their lives. Individuals are especially at risk of death after an extended period of abstinence from opiates via recovery, incarceration, or hospitalization, due to their lowered tolerance. This specific population suffers from internalized stigma, such as guilt and shame. Being able to process a return to use with a peer specialist or mental health professional could open a new pathway in their recovery, or simply keep them alive another day. Saving a life means saving a life, even if a person uses after they are revived with oxygen or naloxone.
One of my primary responsibilities is to support an individual in the aftermath of an overdose. The stories repeat themselves as I sit bedside with individuals in the emergency room. My work is not restricted to the medical setting. I recently reversed an overdose on a city block, while another man was saved after being released from incarceration. That gentleman looked at me and said, “I don’t want to die.” I know that feeling in my soul.
Throughout my recovery, I have unfortunately seen many friends die due to use after some time abstinent. Gratefully for me, I have cultivated relationships with harm reductionists committed to helping people with addiction stay alive and get help. I know who to call when I need help, and I do call them because “I don’t want to die.” I’m a harm reductionist now, too. Everyone should have such a network of supporters who meet them where they are and treat them with unconditional love, dignity, and respect. Sadly, many people don’t have that kind of support.
I advocate for all the beautiful lives that could be saved. Addiction is a disease worthy of medical treatment and care. I did not deserve to die simply because my disease involved drug use. If I had not been revived from an overdose, my beautiful son would not be here, and my daughter would be without a mother. I would not be here today working as a recovery specialist helping others in need of support. We all deserve a second chance, and a place like Safehouse will provide the breath of life for many just like me.
A federal court ruling earlier this month deemed that the efforts of the nonprofit Safehouse to bring a supervised consumption site to Philadelphia are legal. That brings Safehouse one step closer toward becoming this nation’s first such site, located in Philadelphia, where the need for addiction assistance is extraordinary. As U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh wrote: “The ultimate goal of Safehouse’s proposed operation is to reduce drug use, not facilitate it.”
Let’s work together to open the doors of Safehouse now — to reduce the destruction of this epidemic and save lives.
Nicole M. O’Donnell is a certified recovery specialist and a board member of Philadelphia’s Angels in Motion community group.