Remembering the Patron Saint of Harm Reduction

Where does one begin to describe the loss of a man responsible for saving thousands? The passing of our friend, mentor, and hero, Dan Bigg of the Chicago Recovery Alliance, this past August, was and is a devastating loss for harm reductionist around the world.

Dan who pioneered harm reduction, safe syringe needle exchanges, and naloxone access was the most compassionate, fierce and loving advocate for public health, HIV, and substance use disorder. His empathetic, genuine, servant leadership- a difficult leadership style to pull off and one in which Dan managed so effortlessly- is responsible for the public’s access to the life-saving overdose reversal drug, narcan.

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The impact of his years of advocacy is immeasurable as Dan, who was named Chicagoan of the Year in 2017, trained and advised countless individuals, like myself, to administer naloxone.

I feel deeply honored to have worked with Dan, privileged to have had the opportunity to learn from him, and forever changed by his unique, insightful, and sensible perspective on drug use, harm reduction, and creating positive change.

Last fall I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dan over coffee to interview him for a class project. While my typical interactions with Dan were all business- picking up naloxone and speaking at various events with him- that day I snagged his time to learn about him, the formation of CRA, and what he believed was necessary to change the world’s understanding of HIV and drug use.

During our time together, I scribbled down notes about his work on Native American Reservations, where he first saw harm reduction practiced, how he and a dozen friends noticed a lack of services or organizations that addressed HIV and drug use simultaneously so consequently formed one, and how CRA took a year to define “recovery” as “any positive change”.

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But what I took away most from our meeting was the profound acceptance and compassion for “meeting people where they are at” in recovery as CRA defined it. It is a tid bit of advice I carry with me and strive to apply in all aspect of my life everyday and will continue to do so while carrying on the work Dan dedicated his life to.

Dan’s dedication to harm reduction through compassion is at the core of Wake the Nation’s values.

Over the last month our team assembled 1000 naloxone kits for CRA’s trucks which are strategically stationed throughout the Chicago area. We encourage you to learn more about Dan’s work, the Chicago Recovery Alliance and how you can access naloxone, better yet, we invite you to contact us to become an overdose prevention trainer and carry on the life-saving work Dan made possible.

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Language matters: “Achieving” Sobriety, Defining your Recovery, and Reducing Harm

 

Sobriety is defined as the state of being sober and the definition of sober, is outdated, referring to being unaffected by alcohol. (Interesting, how it only mentions alcohol, right?) Today most people reference being sober in regards to being free from mind altering substances. And truthfully, when you factor caffeine, nicotine, and psychotropic medications in there, most people are not sober. So can we talk about the glorified pedestal we put sobriety on? And maybe take it down a notch?

When people use the phrase “achieving sobriety” they inadvertently imply that not being sober is an act of failure -if that’s the case, the majority of the world is failing at life. Fortunately, that’s not the case. (Sidebar: Psychotropic medications for example have been an effective and beneficial option to those who need them.) Sobriety isn’t something you achieve or fail to accomplish. Yes, if you can do it, be proud, because it’s definitely difficult to do and maintain, especially for those who have had an addiction. However, let’s be sure the language we use doesn’t put others down in the process.

^^This reminds me of the mom politics surrounding childbirth. Women who endure the pain of a non-medicated vaginal delivery are often proud of their pain medication-free delivery method. And to them, I say, “Way to go!” However, it does not make you a better mom than the woman in the room next door with an epidural.

Not having substance use disorder doesn’t make you a better person than someone who does.

All this said, please consider the word “achieve” when you are talking about sobriety.

Further, in a recent conversation with Dan Bigg who is often referred to as the, “Patron Saint of Harm reduction” and the director of the Chicago Recovery Alliance, I found myself reevaluating the word, “recovery” a term he defines as, “any positive change”. This coincides well with the definitions of recovery according to various dictionaries which define it as, “the act, process, duration, or an instance of recovering” and “a return to a normal or healthy condition”. With recovery often being seen as a process, or current state of being, and seeing as most people don’t use it in the past tense claiming to “be recovered” from substance use disorder, perhaps recovery is what we should encourage people towards, instead of sobriety.

You see, sobriety, being looked at with its high and holy zero-tolerance policy, it’s pretty difficult to acquire. As mentioned, most people don’t have it going on. Further, the word has recently evoked controversy among those in recovery over whether those who use medically assisted treatment are able to consider themselves sober. By current definition, which only references alcohol, the answer is yes. And if you are going to use today’s interpretation of the word – free from mind altering substances- well than no one who uses caffeine, nicotine, psychotropic medications, or has an occasional alcoholic beverage is ever always sober.

See the word sober, as it’s defined, carries no real time frame. So I’m not sure when or why we allowed sobriety to be the golden standard of recovery, but I think it’s time we all see recovery as individualized as the people and treatment plans for those with substance use disorder.

Perhaps those with substance use disorder and those impacted by substance use disorder should simply work toward recovery through reducing harm and any positive change.

#DefineYourOwnRecovery