Addressing the opioid crisis begins with shifting attitudes

An open invitation for discourse

The other day, I saw my first government-sponsored commercial addressing stigma around opiate addiction. To an audience perhaps less in touch with the life of a drug user, objectively, this would seem to be a progressive step in appealing to the needs of addicts.

Having crawled through a seven-year gauntlet of opioid dependency myself, however, my first embittered thought was “too little, too late.” Opioid abuse had begun to reach epidemic status in the early ’90s, birthed by a sharp increase in prescriptions for pain management. This issue is not new.

We’ve all heard of the opioid epidemic. It’s been harming us and our loved ones en masse for nearly 30 years. This afterthought of a 30-second commercial makes for a super transparent olive branch and a tongue-in-cheek reminder to addicts like myself that our government is not making active strides to show up for us.

The question becomes, who WILL show up for us? Who will hear us out, who will advocate for those who are too sick to negotiate help for themselves? Those who are still largely considered dregs of society? What is the right answer here?

We can begin to unpack this by addressing the subject of stigma and resource accessibility, which is absolutely debilitating to a drug addict looking for motivation to get clean. In Winnipeg specifically, we have felt (and still feel) the opiate crisis across all ages, social classes and professions.

With methamphetamine use at an all-time high, especially among opiate addicts and people experiencing homelessness, we need to face the reality that narcotics are extremely effective at disguising a miserable existence as something relatively tolerable.

For a person dealing with poverty and homelessness, illicit drugs are an ace up your sleeve:  a welcome distraction mentally, as well as something to suppress hunger and keep you awake (which, in -40ºC weather, is akin to “alive”) and walking all night, until you can warm up somewhere come morning.

Meth-addicted individuals have been reportedly sleeping on the floor of the West Broadway Community Ministry for lack of anywhere else to go. Thin gym mats were provided by the ministry, though some staff members spoke out about their limited capacity to deal with this sort of thing.

So why don’t these people just “get jobs” and move on with their lives? Well, in order to get a job, you need to be employable. In order to be employable, you need to be relatively healthy.

And in order for an addict to get healthy, they need to jump through an inordinate amount of procedural hoops, which can feel pretty disheartening and downright impossible to somebody experiencing physical and mental debilitation due to substance abuse.

For one, accessibility to methadone treatment in this city is laughable. Methadone is touted as the end-all be-all of opiate addiction treatment and management, especially when looking at efficacy rates.

However, the programs have many unaddressed pitfalls concurrent with an epidemic-sized problem, such as the dreaded waitlist that one is placed on upon contacting a clinic for treatment.

These waitlists often stretch up to as long as a couple of months, and with this comes the warning that you need to be actively using at the time of your induction, otherwise you’ll be refused treatment.

This is really, really difficult to manage for this reason: addicts don’t use as regularly as most people believe. Opiates especially are very expensive, and addicts will often fall in and out of withdrawal cycles between use due to the fact that they simply can’t afford or access it.

So when you’re broke and sick and have somehow managed to reach out through all of that to try to get clean, and a condescending voice on the phone with a tone that says “I have to explain this to you dirtbags all day” tells you that it will be five weeks before you can be admitted, AND you need to ensure that you have the drug in your system at that time (providing you have enough money and your dealer is available), it’s truly overwhelming to digest.

Then, assuming this cosmic alignment of events happens for you, it’s time to deal with the treatment program itself.

For those of us without cars (common for an individual who spends most of their available funds on narcotics), the required daily commute to our clinic can be brutal, especially if you’re preparing to reintegrate as a productive member of society and maintain a day job (most of the clinics are not open past the early afternoon).

And, if you opt to arrive first thing in the morning, you’re subject to waiting in long lines with other like-minded patients selling each other pain medication. I spoke with a friend of mine who had also done the program at a different clinic and reported that the line would almost, without fail, extend out the doors and wrap around the building, so that people desperate for their medication would wait outside in the Winnipeg winter for upwards of 20 minutes.

We need the conversation to continue, and we need to pick up the pace. We need to speak up for people who are not in a position to seek help and for the victims of these crises who are no longer with us. We need to educate ourselves on the signs and symptoms of addiction and withdrawal and on how best to help somebody you may believe has a substance abuse issue.

We need to look into expanding our facilities and clinics, into training and hiring competent staff that can deal with the sheer numbers of this issue. And we need to stop perpetuating that addicts are weak, are unintelligent, are trash.

If we can’t rally our own communities for support, we certainly can’t depend on officials with the means to make a difference on a provincial or national level.

The volunteer who wrote this piece has chosen to remain anonymous due to the stigma surrounding addiction.

Published in Volume 73, Number 21 of The Uniter (March 14, 2019)

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