Something about seeing people at their lowest and most desperate, half-clothed from turning tricks for drugs while hating themselves for it, opens into a profound level of intimacy. I am blessed to enter the darkest place of people whose sins are far more public than those of the rest of us. Constant humiliation makes the people I work with especially vulnerable, and vulnerable in almost every way: to violence, to exploitation, to false hope and finally to despair. When allowed into these dark places, it is my privilege, and that of all InSite staff, to communicate worth and love instead of judgment and scorn.
The day nurse asks me to keep an eye out for a specific participant—a regular who comes in several times a day. She hadn’t been seen yet. Later that night, the woman finally comes in, and she’s beaming. "I went to see my daughter today! And I didn’t use all day! F—, soon I’m gonna get off this s—!" We break out in applause and cheers, celebrating her triumphs with her—as she mixes her drugs to take in a few minutes in our facility. Other participants in the room are excited as well; two of them come over to hug her.
Another regular later chats with me in the treatment room as I dress his abscess, trying not to cringe away from the overwhelming odour he emanates. "It would have been my anniversary with my wife today, if she hadn’t gone missing. We’ve both been down and out, but she took care of me out here. Now, I got nobody to talk to. This is the first human touch I’ve had today." I look up, startled. I am wearing gloves, holding my breath, cleaning his sores with a 10-inch sterile Q-tip. Even this, my deficient attempt to heal, is taken as love by a man desperate for human connection. I am ashamed.
I finish dressing the wound, clean up, remove my gloves and give him a hug. I hop up on the treatment bench next to him and we sit together and talk for another 15 minutes: about life, love and faith. He says goodbye, and then asks for a referral to an exit program. I give it to him. He knows the referral is merely one point along our journey together, and that I will listen to his story whether he goes to the program or not. As a Christian, I know that his life is part of God’s real story of redemption. InSite is one of the few places where I get to hear it openly spoken, with trust, without judgment.
Having witnessed three generations of the same family shoot up in the same room, I have come to understand that injection drug use is far from being the result of one bad decision. It is the outcome of a complex of systemic, familial and individual influences that must not be oversimplified to "It’s their fault. They should just quit and get a job."