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”.

naloxone

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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Reasons for the Holiday Memorial…

It might only be fall but the Wake the Nation team is preparing for winter.

Each year, the Wake the Nation team looks forward to hosting our annual Holiday Memorial. Though we dread the ever-increasing amount of ornament requests, not because of the work, but because it represents such loss, we feel sincerely privileged to be part of your family’s holidays.

Over the next week we will share all the details for requesting an ornament, but today, we want to explain what the memorial is, how it came to be and the many purposes it serves. The memorial is as significant to our team, as it is to honoring your loved one. If you aren’t already familiar with its origin, allow me to explain.

In 2012, my significant other passed away from a drug overdose, leaving behind our three-year-old son, the many nephews who looked up to him, his sisters, parents and dozens of friends. Wake the Nation was created within two months of his passing and was honestly, a way for me to avoid my grief. Six months later, while at the zoo with my son for the Holiday lights exhibit, I was overcome with the emotions I had been sweeping under the rug.

2012 Holiday season
My boyfriend’s nephews and our son the first holiday season without him, 2012.

Brookfield Zoo was the location of my boyfriend and I’s first date in high school, it was where we went so I could walk myself into labor, where we went for our son’s first outing after birth, and where we went regularly as a family on the weekends. It was our family’s spot and I was there without him.

Crying among the holiday trees and happy families I realized there was a way to maintain the significance of the zoo, my loved one’s memory during the holidays, and other’s loved ones, while simultaneously calling attention to the disease that took him from me. Thus, the Wake the Nation Holiday Memorial at Brookfield Zoo’s Holiday Magic was born.   

Holiday Memorial 2017
My boyfriend’s nephews (they are mine too!) and our son, 2017. They love decorating the tree!

Today the memorial’s purpose is threefold. It first and foremost honors the lives of those we’ve lost to overdose. It is not only about them, it is for them. In the months it takes our team to collect and hand write each loved ones’ name and prepare their photos, we come to genuinely feel connected to their stories, as so many of you share with us.  

Secondly, it becomes a space where families come to meet, share their love for the person they lost, and celebrate the holidays with others who know the pain of spending the holidays with grief, instead of their loved one.

Many of the families who come to decorate with us have come every year and we can’t tell you how much their friendship has come to mean to us and each other. This past year we ended up hosting a “tree undressing” just so we could all spend time together again! Please know, each ornament is prepared, handled, hung, and removed by our team and volunteers as if it was our own.

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The many people we’ve come to call friends who join us each year to decorate the holiday memorial.

Finally, the tree, being located at Brookfield Zoo, is seen by thousands of families visiting each weekend throughout the holiday season. Not only does the tree make a statement and raise awareness, as it represents the overdose epidemic our world is facing, but it let’s those impacted by it know they are not alone. Moreover, it reminds those who have not been impacted by overdose that those with substance use disorder, matter.
They are worthy of our love, honor and remembrance.

Look for our flyer in the coming days!
In the meantime, visit our Facebook page to see more photos of the holiday memorial’s evolution.

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

Language Matters: The dirty truth about the word, “Clean”.

The word “clean” has been a part of language surrounding drug use and addiction for years. But we use it for other topics too, such as clean eating and clean living. It sounds positive and health focused and we need those components when talking about substance use disorder.

However, clean’s antonym is “dirty” and “being clean” when referencing sober time, implies that someone using drugs isn’t clean, they are instead dirty. That is a really unfair and false implication. Phrases like, “She’s been clean” or “he had a dirty drop” reinforce the ignorant and old school image of a “junkie”. Which is synonymous with unworthy, unloved, and the various other words we discussed in our previous post on language and the word “addict”. It instills the image of a homeless person, living under a viaduct, “shooting up” with old, used, dirty needles.

And here’s the thing about that image, today’s typical person with substance use disorder, isn’t homeless or dirty. As it relates to the opioid epidemic, the typical person with heroin use disorder is from the suburbs, and quite honestly, that doesn’t matter. Regardless of if the individual is from the city, suburbs, or a rural area, regardless of if they are homeless or not. Heck, regardless of if they are clean or not. They are people, and they deserve the same respect, treatment, and dignity as anyone else. We have to stop dehumanizing people and undermining their worth.

These words; “clean” and “dirty” have roots in the past and we can look just to the early 1980’s with the development of needle exchange programs following the CDC’s suggestion to avoid injecting drugs and sharing needles to prevent transmission of HIV during the AIDs epidemic to see it. (It’s not that needle exchange programs are bad; by no means do I mean to suggest they are. Needle exchange programs have demonstrated endless positive impacts in reducing harm; there is scientific evidence to back them, and I fully support them.) It is however, at that time when people with AIDS were viewed as “dirty”. Their condition was considered a result of their “lifestyle choices” and they were often shunned, making it difficult, if not impossible to access care. Is this sounding familiar?

It sounds a lot like we are repeating history instead of learning from our mistakes.

The words, “clean” and dirty” don’t belong in conversations regarding Substance Use Disorder, just like they don’t belong in conversation about AIDS. So what should we be saying instead?

Well instead of suggesting someone’s drug test was “clean” or “dirty”, we should just say the result were negative or positive. And instead of saying, “I’m clean” to reference the fact that a person is not currently using drugs, why not just say, “I’m not using”, “I’m in recovery”, “I’m in remission”, or “I’m sober” any of which not only highlight sobriety, but also don’t put down those who haven’t gotten there.