photos: Storytellers from our Opioid Storytelling Project, starting October 11. Photo by Jackie Wong.

Storytelling event allows drug users to share their experiences

Megaphone News: In the midst of a health crisis, a new storytelling series lifts drug users up and provides naloxone training

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It’s been an extraordinary year of loss.

Fentanyl’s presence on the illicit drug market has resulted in a sharp increase in illicit drug overdose deaths since 2012, but according to preliminary data from the BC Coroners Service, this year is looking to be B.C.’s worst for overdose-related fatalities. As of its last update in early September, 876 people across the province have died of illicit drug overdoses this year.

By the end of 2017, it’s likely that we will surpass the numbers from 2016, already a record-breaking year, when 978 British Columbians died of illicit drug overdoses.

The news is so grim that it’s easy to feel paralyzed. What to do when things seem so bleak?

In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the community has mobilized in both grief and action. Last month, community members unveiled two monuments to remembrance and healing in the form of a mural for loved ones lost to overdoses on the side of a building at 20 West Hastings, and the installation of 2,224 crosses in Oppenheimer Park to represent those in B.C. who have died of overdoses over the last three years. Through it all, Downtown Eastside residents have been working on the front lines in community-run overdose prevention sites, where notably no one has died of an overdose.

Now, as we enter the final few months of 2017, Megaphone and the Overdose Prevention Society are partnering to produce a new series of Vancouver events that will share stories from the heart of a public health emergency and teach people how to save lives using naloxone, an antidote that reverses the effects of opioid overdoses.

The series is called How to Save a Life: Front Line Stories and is supported by a grant from the City of Vancouver and media sponsorship from CBC Vancouver. It consists of a multi-venue, multi-neighbourhood series of storytelling events where drug users will share their experiences with moving through the overdose crisis, and members of the Overdose Prevention Society will provide naloxone training. The events run weekly from mid-October to mid-November at neighbourhood houses and community centres across Vancouver, from Kitsilano to Kensington-Cedar Cottage.

The storytelling nights have been preceded by a five-week skill-building workshop at the Hives for Humanity Bee Space. There, 13 storytellers have spent Friday afternoons sharing their experiences, supporting each other, and crafting their stories.

“My hope for the workshop is to work together to share our experiences and to broaden public awareness,” wrote one participant on the first day. “I hope that it helps people understand life in the Downtown Eastside,” another wrote.

The storytellers reflect the many facets of life in the Downtown Eastside. They include people part of North America’s first and only prescription heroin program; urban farmers and beekepers; people helming frontline, community-driven harm reduction efforts; people who have been homeless; people who have worked the streets; couples in love; musicians; poets; artists; animal lovers; parents; and more.

The drug user community is capable of more than what most people believe, says storyteller and Hope in Shadows vendor Spike. “I’m hoping that we’ll become a voice that’s heard and respected and taken seriously in this effort,” he says, of his wishes for the storytelling series. “We’re capable of so much,” he adds, “and we’re not getting the respect that we deserve.”

Stigma continues to harm drug users, and it prevents the general public from understanding the complexities of their lived experiences, says storyteller Nicolas Leech-Crier. He’s a writer and performer who works for the bicycling harm reduction group Spikes on Bikes.

“If you give people just a little bit of harm reduction and a little bit of proactive respect,” he says, it goes a long way—particularly in how such approaches will empower people with lived experiences of drug use to mobilize in overdose response and harm reduction work, and, importantly, in supporting each other as a community.

Jim McLeod, an urban gardener with Hives for Humanity, who, with Leech-Crier, recently performed in the community theatre workshop Illicit, hopes the storytelling series will help open eyes and dispel myths and stigma about the Downtown Eastside community. He hopes audiences will gain a better understanding of the root causes of addiction and the complexities that drug users face every day.

“Drug addiction is not a disease. It’s a symptom. It’s a symptom of something far worse than the drugs,” he says.

“The drug’s not the problem. If the problem that actually led to the drug addiction could be dealt with, then the addiction would take care of itself.”

Through sharing of themselves with audiences outside the Downtown Eastside, the storytellers hope to broaden people’s perspectives, open their minds, and come together in a spirit of empowerment, mutual support, and hope.

As hard as the year has been—particularly because of the isolation that has predicated many of B.C.’s overdose deaths, where more than half of all deaths this year have occurred in private residences—there is a special bit of magic in gathering together and making room for each other. Through my time facilitating the storytelling workshops, I’ve seen that in spades.

I hope you’ll join us at one of the storytelling nights. So much is possible when we take a moment to listen and see each other with new clarity.

How to Save a Life: Front Line Stories is a series of free events that run between 7:00 - 8:30 p.m. on October 10 (Kitsilano), October 11 (Mount Pleasant), October 16 (West End), October 24 (South Vancouver), October 30 (East Van), November 6 (Cedar Cottage), and November 13 (Kitsilano). All are welcome. Learn more about the series, storytellers, venues, and event partners at megaphonemagazine.com/events.

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