In June of this year I lost my boyfriend/fiancé to a heroin overdose. He was only 26 years old and was a beautiful human being. He was an active member of his communities-- his passions included skateboarding, music, cooking, playing guitar, plants and horticulture, trucks, films-- and in his past, graffiti.
He was a lover and a pacifist. The joy he got out of making people laugh was one of his greatest, and he would do whatever it took to get a smile and chuckle out of whoever he was with. He was a loving partner, a dependable friend, a caring son and brother, and an inspiration to those struggling with addiction.
While he himself was battling a brutal opiate addiction, that didn’t stop him from cheering others on in their sobriety-- or giving counsel to those who wanted to get well.
Being with him moved me and opened my eyes to the challenges people with addiction face. One of those challenges being constantly stigmatized. He was the first person I’d ever dated who had struggled with an opiate addiction, and he was sober when we met. I learned from him that he’d been battling depression most of his life as well. These two things seemed to go hand in hand to me. Often, people suffering from addiction are also depressed or anxious people. To me, using is a learned behavior in order to cope. Being someone who has battled with depression/high anxiety for most of my life, I could see the appeal of escaping with substances.
I should disclose that I am one of those people who view addiction, not as a disease or lack of morals but, as a matter of brain wiring-- like a learning disorder or chemical imbalance. I believe that addiction is in the same box as ADD, OCD, depression, dyslexia, etc. This collective opinion in the medical/scholarly world is relatively new and considered pretty controversial. I have experienced gruff reactions when talking to some people who advocate for abstinence/12 step programs. I believe that ANYTHING that works to keep people alive and happy (or on their way to a happy life) is worth doing.
I’ve been volunteering at a residential housing community for people living with AIDS/HIV who also struggle with addiction for 17 years. The program incorporates harm reduction methods, which are still seen as taboo in most parts of the US.
Harm reduction means that rather than imposing abstinence/sobriety on people with addiction, they are instead given options to “ween off” and stay alive until they are ready to quit. Things like replacement therapy (methadone/suboxone/etc), needle exchanges (where people using intravenous drugs can bring their old needles in for new ones--or simply just get new ones), or ‘shooting galleries’ (where users can be in a safe environment while they inject) are some examples of harm reduction. They may seem extreme and reckless to people who are not educated on addiction, but if you begin to look at addiction with compassion you understand that these are the kinds of options that can keep people alive.
Since he passed away I felt compelled to share the story of my life with him-- and how wonderful of a person he was, with the world. I want to give him legacy and honor through helping others who might be grappling with addiction and/or depression.
I believe that a better collective understanding of addiction, mood disorders and learning disorders (and how they affect millions of people every year) will start to remove the stigma from these topics. With compassion and empathy we can bring people out of the darkness of shame and into the light of love.
DEATH TO SHAME, NOT TO PEOPLE.
words and images: Musa Alves
Naloxone/Narcan (which can reverse the effects of a heroin or opiate overdose) is available without a prescription at the University Medical Center (UMC) Outpatient Pharmacy - 2000 Canal St. or the Crescent City Pharmacy at 2240 Simon Bolivar Ave.
METROPOLITAN CRISIS RESPONSE TEAM
(24/7 serving Orleans, Plaquemines, and St. Bernard Parishes)
JEFFERSON PARISH MOBILE CRISIS TEAM
(After hours, nights, and weekends)
NOLA HARM REDUCTION
(504) 269-COPE or (800) 749-COPE
CITY OF NEW ORLEANS BEHAVIORAL HEALTH RESOURCES