The complicated reality of drug addiction. Guest column by Meera Bai
I stood in the big grey room with a sinking feeling in my stomach. I had made a huge mistake in accepting this job. It was my first day at work at a supervised consumption site in Vancouver where all sorts of people came to inject themselves with illicit drugs while I watched, shocked. I had never even smoked a cigarette. As an active Christian I wanted to make sure I followed God in all my life. And what better place to do this than in the notorious Downtown Eastside of Vancouver?
But this new job worried me. Could I really hand someone a sterile needle to use drugs? Did God really want me to help people inject themselves with mind-altering toxins, sometimes several times a day? I needed the money, ironically, to put myself through theological studies at Regent College. I was seeking to learn more about God, but I wasn’t sure this was the right way to go about it.
38 supervised consumption sites are currently operating across Canada
A guy came in agitated and swearing. He headed to a booth to mix and inject his drugs. He looked at his arms, dotted with injection marks and collapsed veins, and said, "Screw it." He brought the syringe to his neck, hand shaking, desperate to end his withdrawal symptoms. I watched in shock as he just started stabbing wildly, missing his carotid artery by millimeters.
Finally, I found my voice. "Stop!" I yelled. "Let me find you a vein in your arm!"
He ignored me and kept stabbing. Eventually, he found his jugular vein, the one he was aiming for. I breathed a sigh of relief. I wasn’t going to watch him bleed out in front of me. Not that day, at least.
What I do know is that he lived, and because of that there is hope for him.
And then I realized – I had stepped outside my boundaries without even noticing. In that panicked moment I knew what I needed to do was try to save that man’s life.
The more I thought about it, however, the more I second-guessed that gut reaction. Being present as he injected himself forced me into action to save his life. But my confidence in the rightness of that action was fading.
As I continued in this job though, I came to realize finding veins, or dispensing needles, was only the logistical dimension of what supervised consumption sites do. The real gift the sites provide is an unconditional presence of care.
This realization helped me understand the power of what I was learning at Regent – stories in Scripture of God’s unconditional presence among us. I couldn’t quit the job.
One slow night I was staffing the injection room. I looked around and fear hit me as I saw someone slumped over at the table in his booth. I yelled for help while dragging him off the chair onto the ground, terrified by how completely limp he was. He was a shade of blue-grey I’d never seen human flesh turn. Other patients stopped shooting up and circled me, suddenly sobered by the impending death in front of them, knowing it could have been any of them. It was up to me to save this man’s life. But I froze in fear.
Immediately, however, I felt a warm, clear presence wash over me – something other than me, someone more assured. I believe the Holy Spirit revealed His presence to me in that moment.
Suddenly calm, as though it wasn’t even me acting, I drew up some naloxone, a life-saving medication we kept nearby to reverse overdoses. My hands were shaking so badly, I broke the glass vial. But then I simply opened another. God was using me despite my ineptitude. By the time paramedics arrived, the man was breathing on his own again.
That man returned a couple of weeks later to thank us. I wish I could say he decided to quit forever, but I don’t know. What I do know is that he lived, and because of that there is hope for him.
Staying with people regardless of their actions, believing there could be more to their story one day, and bringing them back from the brink of death – this is what it means to work at a supervised consumption site. As a Christian I couldn’t ask for a better job.
Meera Bai is an addiction medicine physician in Calgary and a former addiction nurse who worked in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Find more of these columns at www.FaithToday.ca/ChristAndCulture.