Tag Archives: HIV Aids

A better way to say goodbye

I was 12 when I first attended my first funeral.  We had a friend at a nursing home and Mr. Crawford lived next door.  We would go and visit our family friend and see him each time where he was quite nice to all of us, often giving me some money for candy and to get a coffee for my mom.

When he died, we went to the funeral chapel where his family went on at length about how horrible of human being he was and what a bad father he had been.  We just listened but I was shocked when the minister started his eulogy with, “He was a very bad man”.  

When I became a pastor, I did a lot of funerals.  Some of them were celebrations of life, others were horrible to perform and yes, I buried some really bad men over the years.  Each time I tried my best to respect the person and life that I was burying while keeping some sense of reality of the life they lived.

In the work I do now, our clients die very young.  The drugs, violence, lifestyle and alcohol takes it toll on your body.  Toss in HIV/Aids/Hep-C or cancer from the smoking and you have a really low life expectancy.  I have helped more than one mother clean out a locker in a shelter where the only thing she has left of her son was a pair of jeans, a jacket, and really nothing else.  I have always found myself hoping that there be something of value in there, a watch or a something of value for the parent to hold on to but there never is.  Many tears have been shed by family members during those times. 

In most situations I find myself boxing stuff up and realizing that for the most part, no one was going to come get it.  Months later my janitor asks me what I want him to do with the sealed box.  No one has come to get it.

Every couple of months I hear that a client that I had worked with has died.  In each and every case I fire up my computer and Google their name.  I search The StarPhoenix’s obituary website and I scour the internet to find out if it is true.  I rarely find anything.  Over the next couple of days I generally run into a member of the Saskatoon Health Region or the Saskatoon City Police and ask them. In every case I get the same reply that they have died.

They often die alone.  There is no media coverage, no obituary, no will, no assets, and to be honest, almost no one cared.  Many colleagues just block it out like it doesn’t exist.  The file is closed and they are done. Death has never bothered me, neither does the grieving process but in these cases I find myself not sure what to do.  The idea that someone has lived their entire life and there is no trace of it left seems wrong to me.

I guess as a blogger and a writer, I find myself in a situation where I write to process.  After a sleepless night last night thinking of a couple of people that I had known well that had died, I came in early to work to write something, anything about their lives as I saw them.  Of course I never know what do next.  I tweeted this morning that I was struggling with his and it resonated with people but I don’t know what to do next.  

Is the best way to mark one’s life to have a service provider eulogize them?  My first encounter with one gentleman was when he assaulted Wendy with a bottle of Listerine she wouldn’t sell him in about 1998.  Of course the other part of that story is that he would beat her at cribbage all of the time when she helped out at a drop-in centre.  Do you tell the stories of abuse, residential schools, the people that they hurt.

One of the people that recently deceased was a women that I wrote about two years ago in The StarPhoenix.  She had AIDS at the time, was pimped out by her boyfriend and was high for every single interaction that I had with her over seven years.  At the same time I appreciated every single strung out conversation we ever had and I was saddened and sickened when I would see her beaten and bruised.  It’s weird but I miss her.

They had a legacy with me and we have a bunch of stories that shaped me that are too bizarre to write here (somethings are only funny if you know the person)

The world doesn’t stop for death.  When you die, people come together, tell some stories, each some sandwiches, sing some hymns, and drink some coffee.  I am not asking the world to stop, I just think they should have some form of legacy.

In Toronto, they have a homeless memorial.  In Saskatoon we have a walk to remember those lost in the sex trade but at the end of the day they were individuals that lived and died in our city, it would be great if they are remembered as such.  The question for me to figure out, what is the best way to do that.

Looking at harm reduction from a Christian perspective

So Calgary has stopped giving out free crack pipes as part of it’s harm reduction strategy.

Free crack pipeSince 2008, Alberta Health Services had been giving out crack-pipe kits as part of the Safeworks program, an effort to reduce transmittable diseases. The kits contained a glass pipe, mouthpiece and cleaning tool and were handed out in an AHS van.

More than 14,500 crack pipes were given out as of June 2011.

However, AHS has discontinued the Safeworks crack-pipe program as of Tuesday, citing the “potential for a legal challenge with respect to distribution.”

Tim Richter, Calgary Homeless Foundation CEO, said the program was an effective first step in engaging hardcore, street-involved crack addicts.

“We’re disappointed the program has been cancelled in the fashion it was,” Richter said. “Harm reduction and giving these crack pipes out was good, smart public health.

“It seems like a knee-jerk reaction on fairly simplistic moralistic ground.”

Some groups, including the Calgary Police Association, recently expressed concerns with the Safeworks program prior to its cancellation. CPA president John Dooks said it set a dangerous precedent.

“It’s implying you can use elicit drugs or unlawful drugs in a safe manner,” Dooks said. “The message should be there is no safe way to use drugs,”

I grew up and still am an evangelical Christian.  My grandmother was president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Saskatchewan and I work for the Salvation Army which coined the phrase “demon rum”.  Being against harm reduction and all for abstinence is in my DNA.   I hate what the drugs do to people.  I see it every day but for that very reason, I am for harm reduction.  Here’s why.  By the virtue that people are coming for free crack pipes, they are doing two things.  Realizing that things are out of control and putting themselves in contact with the very people that can help them.  That’s why Insite works.  Insite isn’t for just any heroin addict.  It’s for the addicts that realize that they need help and can’t continue on the path that they are on.  Insite isn’t a destination, it’s the start of the journey.  The same is with grabbing a crack pipe from a street worker, they are admitting that something is wrong and taking a small step in the right direction.

In Saskatoon there is still some debate about needle distribution, a debate I can’t understand, even from a Christian perspective.  You have drug users using dirty needles, passing them around, getting high.  Statistics tell us that they are at a very high risk of contracting HIV or Hep C, both are costly diseases to fight and we know many users don’t fight it.  As a friend who runs another agency once told me, up to half of our mutual clients have untreated HIV/Aids on any given night.  The more I think about it, the more I agree with her.  As a Christian who wants the best for them, by taking the needles/crack pipes away, we are just complicating things.  I am increasing the risk of a disease that will hinder them rest of their lives or shorten it drastically.  A lack of harm reduction options increases healthcare costs in addition to lost potential due to a shortness of life or a diminished capacity for life.  

The main reason to do so doesn’t seem to be a legal reason or even a moralistic one, it seems to be driven out of societies dislike and discomfort with addicts and their lifestyles and a desire to punish them.  If I can nuance Tim Richter’s stance, this isn’t about a moral stand, it’s a puritan stand, one that says that people that do wrong must be punished.

In my years of working at the Salvation Army, I have known one guy that enjoyed being an addict.  The rest hate it and want out but can’t do it yet.  On my walks home I run into a client who for years was an ass to deal with.  Was always angry at me, always yelling, and threatening.  One night he walked in and was clean of the drugs and was quite a nice guy.  Entirely different.  Part of his path out his hell was harm reduction.  He’s been clean (and struggling) ever since then.  He rents a place not far from me and is scraping out a legit existence doing a variety of jobs.  He stops by to chat when he sees that Wendy and I are around and stops by Wendy’s work to say hello to her.  Every time I see him he is always telling me that he is amazed that his drugs didn’t destroy his relationship with the Salvation Army and myself and goes on to say over and over again, how they destroyed almost everything else in his life.  His story isn’t unique.  I could insert in a variety of names and contexts into that story and the pain is always the same. 

When we look at drugs users, the explanation is that it is either a personal choice or they have a low genetic tolerance towards it (in describing Aboriginal Drug Abuse).  Both of these answers have the same underlying principle, it’s not my fault or responsibility.  One thing we overlook is the societal aspect of drug and alcohol abuse.  Drug and alcohol abuse on reserves was not a problem until the Residential Schools opened (The damage was done to those taken and those left behind.  How would you handle it if the RCMP took your children a part of a government policy.  I know I would be seriously messed up if I lost Ollie and Mark).  Now I do meet some men and women that came from extremely stable households who for whatever reason decided to self destruct with drugs as a personal lifestyle choice but for the most part the drug use is a result of escaping horrible family situations, mental health issues and is a part of concurrent disorders.  In other words the kind of individuals that we as a society have an obligation to help the most.  For decades Canada has had a social safety net for those that need this kind of help.  It has generally come in the form of healthcare or Social Assistance but as the drugs have become more potent and addictive, the solutions are more complicated as well.  Harm reduction works.  It’s not about the pipe, it’s about the pathway out the personal hell they are living in.  Alberta Health was wrong to back down and all of Albertans will pay the costs.  It’s my Christian faith that calls out for harm reduction strategies, it’s fear and a lack of grace that fights against them.

Notes:

1. My grandmother would be totally opposed to EVERYTHING that I wrote in this post.

2. I believe the phrase demon rum should be used more often than it is.  I try to use it as much as I can at work but to be honest, no one drinks rum anymore and it seems awfully judgemental to say about anything else.

HIV and Homelessness

From the Star Phoenix about a guy I know.

When people find out he’s HIV positive, Dan says it’s almost like it’s not a surprise to them anymore.

The odd person might jump away when he tells them, but most don’t react at all, "because so many people have it," he said.

Over a cup of coffee with The StarPhoenix this week, Dan — who requested his real name not be used — shared a story that’s sadly not very different from many others in Saskatoon who have HIV, or who are at risk of contracting HIV.

As a toddler, he was sexually abused by his stepfather. At the age of four, he was adopted out from his First Nations family. He had his first drink when he was about 11, and started drinking heavily at the age of 13. After falling in love with a co-worker at his sales job in Saskatoon and being offered the choice of breaking up with her or finding a new job, he and his fiancee left for Edmonton, where they started using drugs. Out of money, they returned home to his parents in northern Saskatchewan. One night 12 years ago, they got drunk and went for a drive. When Dan woke from a coma after the crash, his brother told him his fiancee was dead.

A couple of years after that, Dan started using injection drugs.

He fell in love again. He and his common-law wife, a fellow injection-drug user, both contracted HIV about three years ago. They thought it was from a contaminated needle, but they didn’t know for sure.

His wife died three months ago. "I just completely gave up after that," Dan said. He is currently homeless.

Dan, 33, still uses injection drugs, whatever he can get his hands on — coke and morphine are the easiest to find. He doesn’t like to look at himself in the mirror.

"I don’t like the lifestyle. I don’t like any of it. I don’t like going out to find money and then wasting it," he said.

He dismisses many of the hardships he’s faced as excuses, saying he "chose the lifestyle." But then, ultimately, the drugs take over: "You do stupid things to get them, hurt people you would never hurt — friends, family. The way I was raised is the exact opposite way of the way I’m living."

His adoptive parents tried to keep him away from drugs and alcohol, he said; later in life, his dealer warned him repeatedly to stay away from injection drugs, telling him once he went down that road there would be no turning back. "I didn’t listen," he said.

Dan shares his HIV-positive status with people who ask, especially people he does drugs with.

"People share rigs, people share needles all the time, you don’t really realize how many people do. If there isn’t one there that’s clean, or a new one, you’ll do anything to get what you need."

The biggest emotion he feels is fear — fear that this is the way it will be for him for the rest of his life, fear that his stepdaughters will end up drawn into a life like his.

Staying with family isn’t an option for Dan anymore, he said; he’s hurt them too much.

His birth mother and one of his birth sisters have managed to go clean, which he attributes to strong willpower on their part. His sister used to help others "jug," by injecting drugs directly into the jugular vein in the neck. One man who she regularly injected normally wouldn’t show any affection for his partner, but every time before he got injected, he would kiss his wife. One day, Dan’s sister asked the man why. "Because it might be the last time," the man said.

Dan’s sister laid down the needle and decided to go clean then and there, Dan said.

But he doesn’t have much hope he could do the same thing.

Isiah vs. Magic

Magic Johnson and Isiah ThomasDespite growing up a Piston’s fan, I stopped being an Isiah Thomas fan around the time he failed in a power play to take over the Toronto Raptors.  By the time he ruined the CBA, I wondered if he was all there.  I lost whatever respect I had for him during his time with the New York Knicks and the allegations of sexual harassment started to come in.

I do feel some remorse for him after being blindsided by Magic Johnson the new book about Magic and Larry Bird.  I felt sorry for Thomas while reading this in the Sporting News about their relationship after Magic was diagnosed with HIV.

8bacacb3-5f22-4351-a515-f7410ff1679fIsiah and Magic were great friends during their playing days and have remained on good terms, so it’s not surprising to see him cut Johnson a little slack. But things get really hairy really fast when it comes to Thomas’s supposed gossiping about Magic’s sexuality.

As Zeke says, "What most people don’t know is, before Magic had HIV, my brother had HIV. My brother died of HIV, AIDS, drug abuse. So I knew way more about the disease, because I was living with it in my house.” That’s also where you get the sense that, for real, it’s on.

As much of a laughingstock as Thomas has become, you have to feel for him here. Not only does he feel betrayed, but he’s getting accused of spreading rumors on a subject that, based on personal experience, he’d never be so ignorant about. What remains to be seen is if he’s got enough credibility left to launch the meme that "There’s this public person and then there’s this b.s. person. There’s Earvin and then there’s Magic."

As Isiah said to Sports Illustrated

"It’s so hypocritical,” said Thomas, who was replaced by current Knicks president Donnie Walsh in 2008. "There’s this public person and then there’s this b.s. person. There’s Earvin and then there’s Magic. OK, I understand you’ve got to sell a book. But if this is how you sell it, then who’s kicking who in the stomach? And it’s just like the line he perpetuated that he got me the Knicks’ job. Oh, yeah? Ask [Knicks owner] Jim Dolan. Call Barry Watkins [the Knicks’ senior VP]. That’s a lie.

"You’re talking about being two-faced? Magic says he put me up for the job, that he was showing up in hard times and telling me everything was OK. And I come to find out he’s been the one stabbing me in the back. … I’m really hurt and disappointed, particularly with the Olympic team, if he was doing that stuff.”

Thomas said Magic has never confronted him about the HIV rumors or his true feelings about their relationship. As recently as August, Thomas attended a charity event in Beverly Hills, Calif., honoring Magic, where he said they greeted each other warmly.

"If he was feeling this way, why was he shaking my hand and kissing me and acting like he and I were such buddies?” Thomas said. "Why do you do that?

"People who know me and my family and what I stand for will laugh at Magic and his beliefs. I’m tired of getting punched and people using me because they think I’m not going to say anything. Those days are over. Game on.”

Okay, if I am Magic Johnson, I fly out to Florida, take my old friend out for supper and have a long talk with him before the book is finished.  I give him a heads up, I let him see the first draft of the book, I get his comments, I apologize, I even visit a few recruits for my old friend and sit on the South Florida sidelines.  Actually if I was Magic Johnson, I wouldn’t say those things about someone I called a friend.