photos: Antonette, one of the How to Save a Life storytellers. Photo by Kayla Isomura.

Front line stories

Cover Story: A Downtown Eastside storytelling series hits the road

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By Samona Marsh, Nicolas Crier, Sekani Dakelth, Dalan Glancy, and Jackie Wong

Driving down Jackson Avenue on a crisp October evening, I was nervous. For one thing, I was driving a minivan through crowded rush hour streets. Most importantly, it was opening night of a storytelling series we’d been working on for weeks; the night felt like a kind of reckoning.

The series, called How to Save a Life: Front Line Stories, is a new Megaphone project supported by a grant from the City of Vancouver and a media sponsorship from CBC Vancouver. It’s a collaboration with the Overdose Prevention Society and various community spaces throughout the city.

The aim is to share stories from drug users and grassroots overdose responders with public audiences across Vancouver, in neighbourhoods where drug user advocacy and community overdose responses may be less visible than in the Downtown Eastside. There, a strong history of drug user activism puts the neighbourhood on the map as a leader in harm reduction, community overdose response, and solutions to an overdose crisis that has killed record-breaking numbers of British Columbians over the last three years.

People in the neighbourhood have lost many loved ones to overdose deaths—they know, intimately, what it means to move through loss and how to respond meaningfully to a health crisis. They are eager to share their knowledge with audiences outside the neighbourhood, and this series aims to do that.

Once I parked the van near the Hives for Humanity Bee Space on Powell Street—our storytelling workshop space and where we’d agreed to meet on event nights—my worries fell away.

Seeing familiar faces from our group reminded me that I wasn’t alone in these events, and that we would do this together. This is how we move through all hard things, including loss and a devastating public health emergency: gathering together in power, in empathy, and in a spirit of mutual support.

We’ve been lucky to do this every week in October, and our closing night was on Nov. 13 at the Kitsilano Neighbourhood House. It’s been a powerful journey of sharing and building pride in a community.

What follows are photos and stories from our series.

Thank you for reading and supporting us in this work.

—Jackie Wong, facilitator

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Dal’s story
Hello, my name is Dalan Glancy. I live in the Downtown Eastside community, and have for seven years now. I grew up in Chilliwack, not far from here, however so differently far from here.

What brought me here was the party environment, drugs, booze and not a care in the world when I was in the Downtown Eastside. I have survived addiction, homelessness, muggings, and persecution in my early times in the Downtown Eastside.

However, today I have a one-bedroom place that I call home—a far cry from where I started seven years ago.

With the current overdose crisis, I have worked in one of the many SRO hotels in the neighbourhood and have seen firsthand how this crisis has affected many people, including myself.

I have had the experience of someone overdosing, of seeing their skin change from flesh-tone to blue and purple because they were not breathing. Having First Aid as well as naloxone training, I was able to help revive the person. However, that memory will never leave me; the thoughts of where this person is from, what their family is like.

This crisis can happen to anyone. I have also lost many friends to the overdose crisis. Fentanyl is not anyone's friend. Hearing from a mutual friend that so and so is dead due to an overdose makes you wonder why.

Earlier, I mentioned I have naloxone training. If you do not know what naloxone is or how to use it, I would very much encourage you to seek information and training in administrating naloxone, as you as many others can prevent deaths from the overdose crisis.

My wish is that you can take a little bit from the storytellers’ experiences and get educated about the overdose crisis and be able to save a life.

This crisis can happen to anyone. I thank you for your time. Have a good evening.

—Dalan Glancy, storyteller

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Sekani’s story

Hi everyone. I’m originally from a small town—well, more like a village. We moved around a lot, I left home at an early age, and settled here in the Lower Mainland.

Never in my life have I found such profound acceptance, acceptance that feels like a warm, safe blanket, acceptance of me as a person. Where, you wonder? Where else but the Downtown Eastside: a place I consider home now. When folks ask me, “Where are you from?” I smile and say, “Downtown Eastside.”

I knew I was home when I told an Eastsider I smoke crack, and then they offered me harm reduction supplies and told me where to get more. They cared. That acceptance, after years of living like a drifter who either didn’t fit in or had to hide myself like a chameleon, that acceptance was vital to me to my whole existence. Before settling in the Downtown Eastside I had survived racism, ostracization, loneliness, abuse, suicide. The list goes on.

With many stigmas working against me, I finally broke, and I started self-medicating.

After years of addiction and my newfound family, I found my voice, I started taking back my power, and speaking against the intolerance. Then, with an awesome support network, I found an organization that believed in me and—get this—hired me because of my lived experiences with addiction and stigmatization. I never knew it could be true. I was always told those were the things that are hushed and kept quiet.

I find it ironic that with all the stigmas I faced daily, and still do, I found myself and acceptance through addiction.

Now, I’m on a road to wellness.

Sometimes I regress into the “If onlys.” If only people knew how much love and community is in the Downtown Eastside, if only they treated us like people deserving of it.

If only people did more then merely tolerate me.

Thank you.

—Sekani Dakelth, storyteller

Samona’s story
Hello, my name is Samona Marsh, I am a first responder at VANDU (Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users), and I am the treasurer as well. I have lived and partied here in the Downtown Eastside for 25 years.

In my 25 years, I have witnessed lots of sad shit along the way, but I think this takes the cake: the horrific numbers of friends and family that we all have lost due to overdosing because of the fentanyl murders that happen every day here in the Downtown Eastside.

You know, it really sucks when in just three short years there are so many fentanylities, it’s hard to remember everyone's name. We all now it’s a proven fact that our life span is cut in half just by living in the Downtown Eastside.

But we stay because where ever we would go before we would be judged? They’d call you homeless, a junkie, a whore, or a dumpster diver, or a person with mental issues.

However, in the Downtown Eastside we are looked at and treated like we are human beings with emotions and feelings.

I have lost lots and lots of friends.

Mary Purdy. Janet Paul. My father, John Orvis. Tracey Morrison. And just on the 20th of September, I lost a friend I have known for over 15 years, Mikie D. The people he was partying with thought he was fine. But when the paramedics got there, they worked on him for 45 minutes but they could not save him. Another Fentanylity in the Downtown Eastside.

If I had one wish or a magic wand, I would bring back everyone’s friends and families that passed away and make fentanyl non-existent.

Overdose issues were happening in the Downtown Eastside for three years before they considered it a crisis. Well, that was before the “Weekend Warriors” started dying. Overdoses were not thought to be an issue here, even though it is killing us off at an alarming rate, losing eight people a day. St. Paul's Hospital has a whole ward for people who overdosed and lived but are not able to function anymore.

We have to put our heads together and find a solution to us losing our families and friends to horrific fentanylities.

This epidemic is in our back alleys and SROs. It has to stop. We are the ones who have to do something. It seems no one else cares for us drug users.

I personally am willing to do whatever is needed so we quit losing our people.

Thanks for listening. Remember if you are not trained to save a life from an overdose, I suggest you get Narcan training right away.

Thanks for listening.

—Samona Marsh, storyteller

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Nick’s story
My name is Nick. I’m not from Vancouver, but I always kinda wanted to be. This town is so hip, I thought. Bright lights, big city feel … and I heard you just walk into a store and buy your weed over the counter there! Crazy, I remember thinking, as a 13-year-old runaway from Calgary. The danger was the lure.

Of course, if you had told me then that one day, in the not-too-distant future, I would be a long-term intravenous drug user, living in the Downtown Eastside, a freekin’ newly-wed, and working as a first responder and Narcan trainer on a bike on the frontlines of an overdose epidemic … well, obviously I would have laughed in your face.

Then it came true. And the reason it came true is that, unbeknownst to me, the universe had decided that now would be the time for change. I mean change for everything.

Change for truth, for reconciliation, for the hope of our children's children's children.

But especially, I hope, change for people who may never have had a choice, or who have lost the way to choice and now only follow what they know, blindly, and often with fatally unfair consequences.

I’m speaking of drug users. Anyone, living or dead, who was ever told it was bad to use drugs, because those are the people most likely to be stigmatized and marginalized into mistrust and shame and who then end up using alone, and then dying alone.

We are people, who, for whatever reason (most of them misunderstood) use drugs every day. Pretty much an entire neighborhood of us—the first neighbourhood in this city, actually—is not far from here and we are in an officially declared state of emergency, because of the total erosion of that long ago idea I had as a kid of this place being so “hip,” back when the real hard stuff was around ... but people were “cool” with it.

Nowadays, I struggle sometimes to show up at a job where every day, every clean needle I hand out in the name of harm reduction might actually cause a fatal overdose, while at the same time, trying to remain ever grateful of the opportunity to save a life, which I have. Fifteen times.

A few times, it was friends. One of them doesn’t even realize it was me. I won’t tell him either. That’s the real blessing, see? But no word of a lie, I hear people laugh and call me names all day long, as I ride around promoting safety and being “neighbourly” because I am now a “known” user. I suppose it really only reflects the lack of maturity of the ignorant few.

It still won't bring back the ones I couldn't save. Like Mary Purdy, a good friend and a mother of five. She was using at home, alone in her room, so her family wouldn't know and judge her. Her kids found her body. If our society had accepted her for who she was, perhaps she would have gone to a safe site, openly. She might still be alive.

Anyway, through my work at Spikes on Bikes, I’ve been in Maclean’s magazine and on W5, I even published my own 1,300- word article on how important it is to give breaths. But what I really want people to understand is that stigma is preventable.

By law, hate is a crime, but stigma is much trickier. It’s spoken in hushed tones, behind people’s backs. It is rumours and slurs about people who for all we know, were born predisposed to opiate addiction because doctors used to give middle-class pregnant women a painkiller called Talwin.

And now that person heads for the alley and scores their usual dose of illicit heroin to cope with physical or emotional pain and trauma (since the forced switch to prescription Methadose doesn’t work), and this particular flap just happens to have one granule of carfentinil in it and well ... well, then you better hope someone one wanders by with a Narcan kit and heart.

—Nicolas Crier, storyteller

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