It is dinner time. I am making grilled cheese sandwiches. Some chocolate ice cream and chamomile tea – to follow. The four of us are sitting at the table. Friendly chatter, yellow ceramic mugs with flowers, orange sunset, cherry blossoms outside the kitchen window. We are having a lovely dinner, the four of us – a drug dealer, a robber, a prostitute and myself, a youth worker. Four roles, four unique lives, four people. Three of them withdrawing from hard drugs – and I am there to support them on this often unpleasant journey. How did I end up here, again?
I have always been a straight age kid. By the end of high school the worst things I have ever done was kissing a couple of girls (and a lot of boys), ditching a class in medieval literature, binging on vanilla ice cream, sniffing tobacco and smoking tea (yes, Lipton tea, it sucks and tastes nothing like England). I finished high school, then university, in the top five of my class. I worked in event management, journalism and even video games. Yet I somehow gravitated towards an area which at the time I’ve had a very limited knowledge of, not to mention pretty much zero exposure.
Drugs have never really appealed to me, at least from a consumer point of view. But a few years ago I found myself drawn into this new world. I wanted to go deep into a murky and gooey world of addictions. Smack into the middle of darkness, pun intended. But I didn’t want to shoot up, smoke up or snort. I haven’t smoked a single joint in my life – and I am turning thirty next month. I wanted to stay clean –for I wanted to work with drugs and drug addicts. I found myself fascinated by the processes that go into forming an addiction (very easy, very fast) – and the processes that go into breaking it (very long, very difficult). All the risky and dangerous things that I have done so well avoiding in my life – I now found myself in the midst of them. Best part? I loved it. Worst part? I loved it. Working with addictions has become my passion – more than that, it has become my very own form of addiction.
A very tall and lean girl, dark circles under her eyes, hair that hasn’t been washed in a while. She looks like a black swan, with that long neck of hers and dark shiny hair. She is biting her nails, chamomile tea is steeping in front of her. At the detox centre where I work, kids (I call them kids, although they are close to twenty in age) can’t have much caffeine. No stimulation of any kind is allowed for the organism that is detoxifying itself from drugs. So there we have boxes and boxes of herbal tea, peppermint tea, those “cozy bear” and “dreamland” brands – all that crap that an average teenager stays away from. But when not your average teenager is going through withdrawal from hard drugs like heroin or crystal meth, they would give a try to pretty much anything legal that can make them feel a little bit better. Withdrawal symptoms are far from a piece of cake and can include shivers, sweating, body aches, head aches, dizziness, vomiting, nausea, fatigue, cramps and more. Think a very bad hangover multiplied by ten. Chamomile is no weapon in the war on drugs, but if it helps you fall asleep faster and not shiver through the night – fire away. Whatever helps. So, the girl. She is sitting in front of me. I am peeling an orange, nails digging deep into its orange skin. Wanna go out for a smoke? I don’t smoke, but the rules of the house are if a client wants to smoke, we accompany them on the patio. It is one of many simple rules of the detox house that is open to anyone under the age of 21 who wants to get off drugs or alcohol.
She lights up – I see her brittle nails bitten to the flesh, nails that are barely there, just raw skin, exposed tissue. We talk. She jitters every time a male worker passes by – she is afraid, but also paranoid, thanks to all the substance abuse. Her story is not uncommon, yet it is never an easy path. She was a professional athlete – a scholarship in high school, then a scholarship in a good university. As it often happens, she started hanging out with a new group of friends. Got very drunk one night – and was raped, by more than one man. Unable to recover psychologically or seek help, too embarrassed and scared, she started smoking a lot of weed, within a week moving on to oxycontin and within two weeks there was heroin. Once heroin enters your life, you can’t just politely ask it to get the hell out. Heroin is an expensive habit and it is here to stay if you don’t mind being an addict. So that she didn’t – and she started working in escort services to support her new addiction, and what happened later – you can deduce from here. She dropped out of sports, out of university and moved in with the boyfriend, whose sole source of income with selling drugs… She smokes a cigarette until it burns her poor mutilated fingers. It is starting to rain. She looks up and I see blue track marks – bruises from injections – on her long pale neck. She is quiet and looks up into the sky like she wants to just fly the fuck out of here. The next morning she is gone – we are not a mandatory facility, sometimes clients can’t fight the addiction and they run away. There is no judgement. If she comes back – we will welcome her again and will start all over again. Because if you think you can kick addiction to the curb from the first attempt – think again. It is stronger than you. It is stronger than anything you know. You just gotta be more stubborn and have nothing but a bulletproof desire to win. If there is no desire – there is no victory. Drug addiction is not going to go away by itself. It is not a flu.
I feel this dark magnetic glow of narcotics the same way that shamans feel the power of sacred places, the same way the echo-devices feel the landscape deep below the ocean. It is larger than me, it is scarier and bigger than anything I have seen before. I am a little and stubborn warrior of addiction. I want to if not eradicate it fully (let’s be realistic), then to at least minimize it, castrate it and disempower it. And yet I am in awe of the power that I have set myself to battle with. I am in awe of all the kids I see in my work, kids who are so frail, beaten and bruised by addiction, but still find the desire and anger within to rebel against what is enslaving them. Facilities like ours are voluntarily – youth comes there on their own accord, because they want to. And it is their only ace up a sleeve. Their motivation is their only lifeline. Chances are they will lose a battle a few times until they win the war. Without wanting there won’t be any change. The drugs are a sticky shit. You gotta want to fight to get out.
Where I come from, the drug addicts are chained to the bed. They are restrained, sometimes abused and isolated. At least this was the case ten years ago. The war on drugs is scary in my country – because it stigmatizes the drug addicts rather than drug dealers. It considers drug addiction a misbehaviour, rather than an illness. What we fail to see is that drug addiction is not really a choice – it is an enslavement of your body, physically and mentally. When I say you need to have a desire in order to get out – I mean the desire to make the first step and to keep standing. While you are on it, local health care system and social services in this country do its best to whisk you away, like an elevator – up, up and away into being clean and restarting your life. There is a system in place – a working system of linked detoxes, rehabs, social programs. It is not ideal, but it works – for those who make an effort to get clean and stay clean. Back in my country there are no rehabilitation programs for drug addicts, there is no pathways for them to get integrated back into the society. While in this country the help is available in many shapes and forms for those who find enough motivation to seek it.
Before the detox facility, I worked part-time at the 24 hours crisis response centre. Think of it as an emergency counselling, support and even food for those teenagers living on the street. “At risk youth” is what we call them. They are the youth who are stuck between an often abusive childhood, an unstable adulthood and living on the streets. Although in my opinion many of them are way beyond the risk – they are standing right in the face of danger.
I felt that I could stand up to this danger as well, resist it, deal with it, battle it. I wanted to try to save and protect those who are in trouble, and if I can’t save them – then at least I would let them know what the options are. It was my own challenge, my own barrier to jump. Moving from a rookie perspective of “saving them like kittens from the pond” onto a rudimentary social work approach of “we offer options and encourage, they make the first step towards them” – that was my own transition and a big lesson to learn. I thought I was strong enough to start and win my own anti-drug war. Singlehandedly. I was an idealist, and I was wrong. There was not much war happening. With occasional fighting, at that place it was mostly about survival.
But I wanted to fight the war – knowing that even if I didn`t win, then at least I have fought on the side of the good guys. So I started – back at the crisis response centre. The contents of the movie “Requiem for a dream” have spilled out of the TV screen – and into my work routine. Syringes, guns, needles, knives, swearing, infected wounds, piss-drenched clothing, sweat, tears, cigarette buds, dirty fingernails, police reports, pinned out pupils – those became my weekends. My sweet glowing summer night, my blueberry nights, as I worked occasional “graveyard” shifts from midnight to 8am. There at the crisis response centre I was harshly baptized and welcomed into a brand new world. The kind of world that you see through the back alleys – the kind of world you don’t look into for too long, or it would look back at you and say “Boo!”
I was working with kids who didn’t want to necessarily get out of drugs or street life – they wanted to keep living on the streets and keep doing drugs, but do their best and not die or be robbed or raped. They mostly needed help getting through the night. They needed a Band-Aid for what to me seemed like a deep gashing wound. Running away from abusive parents. Abusive boyfriends. Do you have some socks and a toothbrush? Maybe a condom or two as well? Too rainy to sleep outside. Too young to sleep outside. Too high to sleep outside. Can I have some tea and cookies?.. If you ask me, no kid should sleep outside, no fathers should rape their kids and no drug dealers should even exist as a breed. But I am not the one making rules – I am just trying to minimize the risks for those who are already living in an environment with its own fucked up rules.
One sleepless night I am talking to a kid who is new to the streets. A kid from a very good family, from a very good part of town. His parents walked on him shooting up heroin – and immediately gave him an ultimatum: heroin or them. Stay or get out. Not the smartest thing to do, but who am I to judge. The choice was not difficult to make for the kid. Heroin is the king. He packed up his $600 leather bag as if he was going for a sleepover at his friend’s place. Clean shaven nineteen year old kid, still smells like aftershave and hair gel, expensive haircut paid for by the parents. Brand new suede shoes, clean finger nails and platinum chain on his neck. He just shot up heroin. There is a tiny kiss of blood on his elbow fold. He wasn’t too careful. His cashmere vest is more expensive than my best pair of shoes. He came by wondering how exactly to sleep outside. As if there is some kind of a manual that we hand out to newly homeless kids to welcome them to this lifestyle. Shall I have some sort of a blanket? Or shall I sleep on the bench? Under the bridge maybe? You can’t really see he is scared yet – there is too much heroin behind those blue eyes. But he is trying to problem-solve as effectively as he can. So he is here with us, at the crisis response centre – high as kite and a little bit perplexed. His own crisis is unfolding right now and he is yet to realize it. He can no longer go home to his own bedroom in a beautiful waterfront home but he is not apt for living on the streets either. He is in limbo. But he is not making his choices now – heroin is a kind helper. Right now it is all about harm reduction. It is a beginning of a very long downward path for him.
Next time I will see him a few days later, the platinum chain will be gone, the leather bag will be stolen, the wallet will be lost and he hasn’t showered for a week. But all this is yet to happen. Right now it is the very beginning of a personal disaster that drugs bring on. It is a scary moment to witness, knowing what follows next. It is like a moment a doctor brings you in for the test results that are yet to be announced, but you know they are already there, on the white piece of paper folded in doctor`s steady hand. Better sit here with us, kid, while we try to find you a shelter for the night. No, you don’t get your own room in a shelter. You don’t even get new sheets. But it is still better than someone`s dirty mattress under the bridge. It is going to be a very long night for you, one of many to come. The daylight lamp is having a seizure under the ceiling. I hate this kind of light – it makes awful things feel too real, too sharp. His platinum chain shines like scalpel on his neck. He is slurring his words. Heroin makes you oh so cozy, like a warm and fuzzy blanket of joy. Hey, don’t fall asleep, you can’t sleep here – I am making a cup of tea for himself and one for me too. We are talking a little bit about Bruce Lee movies. He nods. He is drifting away. Kid’s eyes are like two blue frogs swimming belly up in a pond. Bruce Lee kicked them right into the head. He looks at the stack of DVDs we have on the desk. Hey, this one is a cool movie – “Requiem for a dream”, love it! No you don’t love it, I am thinking to myself. You are pretty much in it already. We go over his options for the night. Again and again. There is already a stain on his left shoe. He nods, but doesn’t want to make any decisions. All he wants is his warm heroin blanket. He can’t stay too long, some kind of a decision needs to be made soon. The doctor is already unfolding the paper… No one said it would be easy once you start doing drugs. You have half an hour more and then you have to go – either a shelter or the aforementioned bridge. Want more tea?..
Initially, when I first moved here, the harm reduction paradigm was bewildering to me. Straight on shocking. Back home, drug war is still a modern day inquisition. The idea of giving out needles on the street seemed to me as shocking as giving out condoms in a kindergarten. This is out of control, I thought, what an invitation to keep using. I was fuming, but soon my brain kicked in. I have gone a long way from a judgemental vanilla bitch to a curious youth worker who can’t get enough of stories and underground fairy tales that kids from the streets are willing to share with anyone willing to listen. I was a grateful audience and a quick learner. I have escaped a thought prison of post-Soviet union mentality – and right into the liberal, progressive, solution-seeking environment of this country. I was a refugee from toxic thinking – and a newly converted adept of harm reduction, support and philanthropy. I felt like my own frogs are coming back to life. I found a way to overcome my fears and this is where I found my strength.
From the crisis response centre I went on to the detox facility. Similar population, different goals. While at the crisis centre you get to help some kids survive, at the detox house you help them move beyond survival – and more towards better and healthier living. The youth that comes to a place like this needs a physical barrier between them and “the dark forces” (their drug of choice, the street life). They want to get clean, but in order to start serious medical and psychological treatment, they need to stay clean for at least a few days. And those few days might as well be the hardest days of their life. Psychological dependency on a drug takes a backseat for a few days, and hard core withdrawal symptoms take over. Managing them on your own at home is a no fun – you won’t last, you`ll cave in, you’ll call a friend, a dealer, a neighbor – whoever can make you feel better again. Because drugs are stronger than you are – no matter how well you fool yourself into thinking otherwise. They claim your body faster than you finish reading this sentence. Choo! – and you are theirs now, not your own. Ciao, bambino.
Don’t do drugs. Not because it is bad for you. Not because it can make you very sick. Not because you will quickly lose your health, your friends and your family. All this is old news.
Don’t do drugs because you won’t be able to stop. Drugs subordinate you. Don’t do drugs – because once you do, your precious freedom of choice is gone out of the window. You no longer make your own choices.
Don`t do drugs because on the other side of this battle is a lot of youth workers and counsellors who have seen it all and who know that out of ten people who use maybe only two or three will succeed and get out. But it is not impossible. It all starts with one small but valuable ingredient – your motivation. Use it to stay clean – or to get out, once you are knee deep in it already.
It is another day at work. I am sitting at the Narcotics Anonymous meeting. It is my first one. I peek around the room. Quite a diverse crowd. Rough looking dudes with skull tattoos, older ladies, gorgeous girls in tight dresses and high heels, soccer moms, white collar office guys with clean haircuts and shiny handcuffs, pregnant girls, young guys in comic book t-shirts… When I was growing up, drug addiction had a face. It was a very peculiar face with sharp cheekbones, uneven movements, bad skin and brooding eyes. You could see drug addicts from far away – and maybe cross the street. They stood out. It is different now. A drug addiction no longer has a poster child. There is no face of addiction – it can be anyone`s face. Your child`s, your friend`s, even your own. It makes a war on drugs so much harder – like a battle with an invisible enemy. You never know where the next hit is coming from. Drug addiction is a big fat monster that is omnipresent, often invisible and, regardless of all our efforts, is ever growing. I look around the room. The room is full. People sit on the floor, they crowd in the the doorway. There is no more space. My name is Joe and I am an addict. Who is next?
Don’t do drugs – there is no more space for you. Don`t feed the monster. He is too big already. Don`t add work for us. There is already too much work to do and too many battles to fight.