Harm Reduction, Harm Reduction and Recovery
I recently visited a “Go Fund Me” page posted by a family that cares for broken and discarded animals. Day or night, anyone in the neighborhood can call this family to pick up an abandoned animal and nourish it back to health. The pictures showed animals with mange, protruding ribs, matted fur and hollow eyes. Many seemed too weak to even hold their heads up for the picture. These animals were found discarded in parks, or abandoned homes, or at rest stops. But they were rescued, tenderly taken care of, vaccinated, brushed, loved and brought back to a state of health to prepare for a new life.
I wish we had more places like this for people.
We are so quick to condemn human beings based on appearance. If a man were to wander into our neighborhood in anything near the condition of these animals, would we feed him, nurture him, love him, give him a bath?
I don’t think so.
Many years ago my family was staying with a friend in Illinois. My oldest son, Michael, a high school student at the time, had long hair. He wore black high-top Converse sneakers, held together with duct tape, along with a leather jacket depicting the hands of a man with a cigar squeezing a bleeding world.
At one point, Michael went outside our friend’s house with a soft drink and his skateboard to sit on the curb. Within minutes, three police cars—one arriving from each direction—had him in their cross-hairs. Several residents had called to report a suspicious person in their neighborhood.
I wonder, if they had seen a mangy, emaciated dog instead of my son, would they have called the police, or offered it food and water?
Recently, in my own community in Florida, I saw a disheveled, long-haired young man with an amputated leg, holding a sign asking for help and food. I drove to a nearby fast food restaurant, picked up lunch and a drink and an apple, and drove back to hand it to him, along with five dollars. He thanked me, blessed me, and when I pulled away I glanced back to see him hungrily eating his lunch.
The child riding in the car with me told me that I “shouldn’t give that man money because he will just buy beer.”
That’s when my son Michael’s voice played through my mind: “If he did buy beer with the five dollars, that would be okay.”
Michael, you see, is my moral conscience.
He moved to New York in 2000, in his late twenties, as a bright summa cum laude graduate with a Master’s in Rehabilitation, Substance Abuse and Clinical Counseling.
He was at that point “in recovery” from an addiction to heroin. And he wanted to work with people who were under-served and who endured stigma, like he had.
And as he began his work, for an organization that provided Hepatitis C and HIV testing, as well as underground needle exchange, it became clear that he understood exactly what his clients needed. He also became my teacher. As he poured out his heart in his new job and talked to me about his clients, I learned to love them just as he did: just as they were.
The people he served—mostly non-English speakers, many of them homeless, living mainly in New York City’s outer boroughs—learned to trust him. He was not judgmental, always had time to listen, harbored no agenda and showed up, often with paper plates of hot dogs and chips, no matter where these people were in their lives or in their addiction. Despite the language barrier, many would ask specifically for Michael because they knew he loved them.
There were times, after midnight, when I walked with him to the subway near where he worked, walking down darkened streets and past boarded-up buildings. From the darkness voices followed us, calling out his name, telling him good night. He responded with their names as well.
Michael’s priority was to make sure they always felt safe and knew that someone cared about them. He taught me to see them as someone’s child, mother, husband, or brother—people who needed non-stigmatizing love and respect in their lives, just like I do.
Michael isn’t around any more to guide people towards that hope, at least in person. He struggled with his own addiction for about 20 years, with significant periods of recovery and then relapse.
He overdosed and died on April 9, 2012.
He was 40 years old. He had been drug-free for about a year prior to his overdose, which would have decreased his tolerance. His death involved heroin, but—like the majority of opioid-related deaths in the US—it also involved other drugs, probably prescription drugs for depression. And although there was no alcohol noted in the autopsy, we know that Michael bought two bottles of wine that afternoon, and the empty bottles were found in his apartment.
I speak now in his memory, as I promised him I would do, in support of the people he loved serving.
How did this promise come about? Michael and I had an agreement that if he relapsed, he could call me with no judgment, and between us we would decide the best thing to do. Oftentimes he would come home and detox while I cared for him. Then one time, he called to tell me that he was making his life insurance policy out to me and needed my social security number.
We had a long discussion about what that meant; parents aren’t supposed to outlive their children. That’s when I asked him what, if it were to happen that he lost his life before me, he would want me to do with the money in his name.
He said: “Mom, you know who I am, where I’ve been and what I believe. Do what you think is best, but whatever you do, do it for change.” So that is what I do. He was a fierce harm reductionist.
The promise I made to my son is not as easy as I thought it would be. It’s clear to me that many people who suffer from substance use disorder need someone to love them, to listen to them and to meet them wherever they are in their journey, without judgment. And I thought that it would be easy to appeal to the public in support of these under-served members of our communities.
It should be easy to advocate for basic human needs: water and food; a feeling of safety; to love and be loved; to have shelter; to be respected. It should be easy to appeal to the hearts and minds of our faith communities, our community leaders, and our neighbors. It should be easy to offer hope to people who are less fortunate than ourselves.
But that’s often not what I find.
It is not easy when churches don’t want “those people” in their sanctuaries, attending their services, sitting in someone’s self-assigned seat. It’s not easy when community leaders enact laws that destroy the tents of homeless people, leaving them with no shelter—nor when parents create barriers to prevent their own children from being contaminated by the child next door who may have a substance use disorder.
Because stigma against drug use is so powerful, it still seems easier for us to put love, attention and money towards the rehabilitation of abandoned pets than to give those things to an unclaimed, disheveled, desperate human being. It is a tragedy. There should be room in our hearts for both.
Diannee Carden Glenn is a grandma who put down her quilting and became an advocate for harm reduction after her son, Michael, overdosed. She is a member of the Florida Viral Hepatitis Planning Committee and affiliated with H.E.A.L.S of Florida. She is the board president of North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition and secretary of Pitt County Coalition on Substance Abuse. She writes and speaks about Michael, his passions, his shortcomings, his death and the effect it had on her family.