On Aug. 31, I had the honor of attending my first Minnesota Overdose Awareness Day Vigil at All God’s Children MCC (Metropolitan Community Church) in south Minneapolis. The vigil was part of an international day of events held to “raise awareness of overdose and reduce the stigma of a drug-related death.”
The church was filled with people stitched together by our collective grief and pain, but also by our hope and our support for policy change and reform. We all have felt the aftershock of the opioid epidemic.
According to preliminary data from the Minnesota Department of Health, 694 people died of overdoses in 2017, with a 74 percent increase in synthetic opioid-involved deaths. Nationwide, an astounding 72,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2017.
It wasn’t long ago that I could have been part of this tragic statistic. I have survived two heroin overdoses.
I felt survivor’s guilt creep in as I sat in a pew near a family with young kids wearing shirts silk-screened with the photo of a deceased loved one. My guilt was interrupted by a powerful drum circle of men from Natives Against Heroin (NAH). The pulsing, hypnotic drums and voices echoed our heartbeats, then crescendoed into a powerful incantation, a reclamation.
As sage was passed around, I was reminded that we were all in this together. We all pinned purple ribbons to our collars and wore purple and gray rubber wristbands that said “MINNESOTA OVERDOSE AWARENESS.”
James Cross from NAH delivered a powerful speech about how heroin has affected his family and community. “I’d shake your hand with my heart, but it’s too heavy … ” Cross spoke about the importance of memorializing but also taking action, distributing naloxone at the Little Earth camp with the help of Southside Harm Reduction.
“Harm reduction is the only thing stopping overdose deaths,” he said.
Harm reduction is a philosophy that aims to promote safety and reduce the risk associated with drug use and abuse. Harm reduction includes syringe exchange programs, Medication Assisted Treatment like methadone and Suboxone, and distribution of the opiate overdose reversal drug, naloxone/Narcan.
The power of harm reduction was affirmed throughout the night’s impressive list of speakers and grass-roots organizations distributing naloxone and clean needles, like Southside Harm Reduction, Valhalla Place and Steve Rummler Hope Network.
The speakers energized and mobilized us to do more to save lives. This message is especially important in Minnesota, where some old-fashioned addiction counselors and treatment centers have resisted harm reduction, calling it enabling.
I guess you could say that harm reduction enabled me, yes. It enabled me to live.
My life was saved not at a hospital or by first responders, but by my ex-boyfriend, who revived me with naloxone that we got from a syringe exchange program. That is why I realize how vital it is to distribute naloxone to drug users themselves rather than just service providers or first responders.
Eventually, I decided to get on Suboxone to help my addiction. Even though Suboxone helped me and millions of others in recovery, some continue judging us with outdated recovery rhetoric that we are “not really clean.”
Because of shame, I was secretive about Suboxone and didn’t tell my family until recently. I was incredibly moved when Stephanie Devitch from Valhalla Place Clinics said, “To you guys on MAT (Suboxone and methadone) I’m proud of you, you’re in recovery and you’re doing amazing.”
I began crying, pulling tissues from the bright geometric-patterned Kleenex packets in the pew. Through misty eyes, I observed activist Lee Hertel scattering 24 rose petals around the podium, representing a life lost since the beginning of the vigil. The church was darkened for the memorial tribute video, but in this moment we were illuminated by candlelight and the bright screen.
But most of all, we were illuminated by the desire to do better for those loved ones who should be sitting by us, not being projected on a screen.
I left vowing to pen this commentary and more to share how harm reduction and syringe exchange programs like Southside saved my life.
What will you do?
Tessa Torgeson is a writer in Mankato.