I have a confession. Until recently, I didn’t have a lot of compassion for those using or addicted to drugs. I was a jerk…
It wasn’t a conscious decision. I have seen addiction affect people I love. But I think that I, like many others who are personally affected by someone else’s addiction, focused more on how it made me feel, rather than on the experience of the addicted person. I’ve come to realize that addiction and drug use ultimately hurts no one else more than the users themselves. And equally as important, individuals who experience addiction are no different than you and me.
So when it was suggested that our advocacy fellows and I visit the Harm Reduction Action Center (HRAC), I was eager. And anxious. I’d been a jerk, but improving oneself means confronting your jerk-ness firsthand. Not to mention that organizationally, supporting policies that address addiction, the opioid epidemic and treatment are important pieces of Healthier Colorado’s work.
So, this post is about our visit to the HRAC in Denver.
While you read, try to put aside your own biases, preconceived notions, and assumptions. See support centers like these for what they are: a safe place to take care of people who are going through deeply difficult times. See HRAC’s staff for the lives they are trying to save and for the innovations they are trying to put into effect to save even more lives.
“We know people are going to inject drugs. It’s not like not giving them a syringe will deter them from injecting,” – Teresa Hogon, Community Outreach and Volunteer Director.
True care for the people behind the disease is HRAC’s ultimate mission and you see it in every part of the clinic. Teresa Hogon, Community Outreach and Volunteer Director and our tour guide, informed us that after completing a mandatory health survey, patients are encouraged to safely dispose of their used syringes and grab a coffee. They then can pick up clean syringes, where they fill out another form and are offered referrals to mental health care services and substance abuse treatment. HRAC also provides onsite HIV, STI, and Hepatitis C testing.
Participants have twenty minutes in the bathroom — ten in the stall, ten at the sink — with a monitor outside with a timer. This sounds like an uncomfortable situation. I imagine it is. But the HRAC is set up with uplifting messages on the walls, encouraging stats including the number of syringes disposed (more than 2 million) and number of referrals made (nearly 43,000), and every staff person has a smile on their face. The majority of staff members are former injectors themselves which helps create a safe, comfortable space.
Discomfort about syringe exchanges and safe injection is understandable. But they save lives.
Individuals who don’t use HRAC are more likely to use dirty syringes or share with others. That exponentially increases the risk of HIV and Hepatitis C. One staffer, by teaching others to administer Narcan, has saved more than 700 lives.
Teresa ends the tour by leading us to a wall of photos of faces. These are faces of those who have died. These individuals have died of an overdose and other complications — complications like being homeless and not having a place to safely store your insulin.
What’s most striking about the people in these photos is that each and every one of them could be your friend, family member, or neighbor.
“It is from this wall that policies are made,” says Lisa Raville, Executive Director. Centers like these exist to prevent that wall from adding faces.
The wall doesn’t just make policies happen. It makes minds change. And it makes jerks less jerky.
Because you see it on every face on the wall: Individuals who experience addiction are no different than you and me.
Stress, fear, insecurity, and grief take different forms for everyone. Addiction and dependency are diseases that take lives every day and turning a blind eye or a cold shoulder to those affected is both harmful and heartless.
Before you draw conclusions on this center, syringe access, or addiction, remember that these are real people and real lives and that the best solution may not always be the most comfortable.
Saving lives and reducing physical, emotional, and spiritual harm often doesn’t take the shape we think it will. That’s why facilities like HRAC are essential. They put aside preconceptions and personal discomfort to provide care that saves lives. Care that doesn’t discriminate and doesn’t judge. And care that shows the human faces of addiction, faces we have to fight to protect.