The definition of stigma

Noun: a negative stereotype, which can become prejudice and has the behavioural response of discrimination.

As someone who has used heroin mostly for approximately 25 years, my own self stigma of the secrecy, legality, societal and cultural beliefs put me in a position to lie. I lied to protect myself, lied to protect my addiction and lied to protect various parts of my identity. 

If people knew about my addiction, they wouldn’t give space for my intelligence, musical ability or my educational and career accomplishments. I would shrink into a premade mold of what other people believe someone who uses drugs looks like. 

Like the person interviewed on Dr. Phil. The people milling around the streets. The folks briefly mentioned in the news articles, usually due to criminal activity. 

I would immediately encompass every combined detail, no matter how vague or specific, of those other representational people. It didn’t matter if I had zero similarities to them. We all filled ill-fitting clothing forced Upon Us by louder voices.

Making matters worse, I started to believe at times those clothes were the only ones available to me. There is little impetus to shout from rooftops: 

“I use drugs!” 

“Often too much!”

“I’ve been homeless because I’ve spent my rent money on them!”

So instead I kept it from everyone for years. Caving to pressures to open up yielded mixed results. I told my mom and it basically went over like a bad smell. After a long pause she went into Fix-It mode. Just get rid of the smell and all will be well. She wanted to fix it which meant paying for treatment. Anywhere in the world, she offered. She thought that money would solve it. I said no because I knew I wasn’t ready. 

I hoped the offer would still stand later, when I knew I authentically felt I was ready. It’s not like I was choosing to keep doing damage. Explaining authenticity is difficult. It’s understood or it isn’t. Which is how authenticity is. You feel it or you don’t. 

The offer was no longer available years later, when I knew I was ready. I was told there was no second offer of help, and that I had made my choice. Though opening up to others was different from this specific experience with my mom, the general vibe was the same.

My relationships were forever altered. Exes would prod and search for the slightest hidden clue. Assumptions were made that weren’t made previously and  a distance appeared between myself and the other people in my life. I was afraid that distance would always exist, even if my life changed for the better, which it did — but not before some deeply traumatizing experiences.

 In the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver BC, at the corner of the infamous Main and Hastings is a lovely library and community center called Carnegie. Outside, there would be on average between 10 to 30 people standing in groups selling their wares. This corner is mostly pills and pharmaceuticals, methadone, the odd cell phone. Inside, many locals eat for a few bucks, borrow or read books in the small but packed branch of the municipal library, or play games. Each floor has many groups of older Chinese people playing Mahjong, Xiangqi, and Wei Qi.

Many washrooms are ad-hoc injection booths. The alleyways that shoulder Carnegie are easily the busiest alleyways anywhere. No matter the time of day or night. This one night in particular, I noticed the alleyway behind Carnegie was oddly abandoned, with one exception. A younger guy at the mouth of the alleyway by the sidewalk. 

This was great for me because I happened to know him and he was a dealer, which is what I was looking for. Each night, before I left my house — a few short years before I was living in shelters — I usually took my ID, ATM card, and license out of my bag and put a small knife in my back pocket. Just in case. I had seen first hand the violence that poverty brings, and never saw myself as a victim. More of a Girl Scout mentality. I was prepared.

This acquaintance/dealer was acting a little odd, but he confirmed that he had what I needed. We did the requisite slow shuffle with our backs to the street as we slowly negotiated the deal. Only he continued acting oddly. He was very quiet which seemed even more so in the strangely empty alleyway. I asked him, “are you OK?” He nodded. I noticed he also kept peering upwards at all the windows and fire escapes that overlooked the alley. These were windows of the neighboring Regent Hotel on one side, And rooms off of Pender Street on the other. He scanned them. I felt very worried and a voice inside actually warned me that I was in danger.

“How far down do we need to go?” I asked him.

“Can I just get my ****?” I said.

He said it was stashed a little further down.

Then all of a sudden, he pushed me towards the brick wall beside an old nasty doorway. My face squished into the wall while his hand was on the back of my neck. His body weight pushed against the remainder of my body. 

He ordered me to remove my pants. A heavy moving blanket was tossed over my head. I instinctively smooth-talked as I reached for my back pocket. Quickly analyzing the danger, I stabbed blindly backwards into his stomach area. He stumbled back and I ran. I threw up when I got out of the alleyway and around the corner outside of Blendz Coffee Shop that was closed. My hand was sticky with blood. I vomited.

Just as I was leaving I saw a woman fall to her death from six stories. I was six or eight feet away; it happened just as I left my drug spot on Hastings. Again at that same Regent Hotel. She fell to her death right in front of me. 

Those are just a few moments. There have been various large traumas, and thousands of little ones woven into my life over the years. 

I know that it was me who put drugs in my body. For the first little bit I didn’t really feel too bad about it, the negatives hadn’t yet taken a toll. I still felt like myself. I didn’t yet feel the stigma that would creep in and weigh me down for the next 15 years. I can take responsibility for those times. However, I can’t help but wonder how different my life and the lives of those around me would be if the support around me was different. 

If I didn’t feel the weight we call stigma. If my identity, the way I saw myself, didn’t include the bias of how they perceived me. Treated me. Abandoned me. Or how I abandoned others because I saw myself differently. All because of one thing I did. ONE THING I did differently daily carried the weight of what nothing else ever has.

I know I would have seeked assistance and been honest with others sooner. An unknown number of people would have had a healthier me. I know I would not have been in the above mentioned situations that caused me trauma. Caused me criminal charges. Caused me a plethora of yet unseen personal issues. Dealing with my substance abuse was difficult enough on its own.

Why must so many barriers exist? 

Why am I told to do it alone?

Why have so many others not survived to write their own story like the one you’re reading now?

Larissa Ziesmann has lived in Portland Oregon, Toronto, Kelowna and most recently (before moving to K.W) Vancouver B.C. In each city, her work had a consistent addiction and mental health focus. With her lived experience and strong harm reduction advocacy, Larissa works to contribute to the Harm Reduction Community throughout the Region of Waterloo.

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