LETHBRIDGE - The difference is remarkable in 23-year-old Sam Mackey’s appearance and demeanour.
There's a light in her eyes that didn't seem like it was there before; she appears to have more confidence, makes jokes and looks healthier. She's working regularly, she's helping others at the Supervised Consumption Site, and she has goals to work toward.
Sam Mackey has been sober for exactly four months.
I met Sam last November, after ARCHES Executive Director Stacey Bourque, and Managing Director Jill Manning helped put me in touch with her.
I wanted to write a story about one perspective from one drug addict in Lethbridge to try and get even a tiny sense of the enormity of the opioid crisis in the community.
Sam at the time was frail. She didn't have a stable place to live and was a frequent client of ARCHES at their 6 Ave. S. location.
In the eight months since the story about her was first published, I had seen her a few times in downtown Lethbridge; picking up needles as part of the Community Outreach Team, or just out and about with her girlfriend. She was always kind and polite.
But when I saw her at Lethbridge's Pride Parade, she looked healthy, happy and as the cliché goes, "full of life." I asked to write a follow-up story about her, to find out what her life is like now.
We met at Lethbridge's Supervised Consumption Site and discussed how the first story impacted her life.
"I had teachers from my high school, I had people I went to high school with messaging me saying 'what's going on?' People I didn't even really know, but who knew me through other people. To be honest, I didn't really like it. It felt like pity. Like I had a bunch of pity messages in my inbox, which kinda sucked."
At that time, she says she felt she was doing ok, even though she acknowledged she was frail, still using frequently, but also trying to work with ARCHES whenever she could. She didn’t realize the extent to which her addiction was affecting her.
"When you use drugs, they really devour your soul. I mean sure, I was alive, but my mind was being devoured by the drugs, my body was being devoured by the drugs. I wasn't eating, I wasn't sleeping, I wasn't thinking right, and not only that, I'm a very spiritual person so my spirit was definitely being devoured by the drugs."
She and her girlfriend would get high together, but they would also fight when they got high. Eventually, they parted ways. Some time later Sam went to her girlfriend's home to pick something up and was happily surprised to see that she was sober.
“And I was like, 'you're doing it. This isn't like you're just sobering up. You're actually doing it!' So, I was like, I gotta sober up if I want to be with her. So, I tried a couple of times and relapsed because it was for her, not for me."
Sobriety and living
Sam's addiction became worse for a time. She was getting high, overdosed several times and was using the Supervised Consumption Site.
One day, she made a decision for herself. She didn't want to use anymore. And that's how she has stayed sober so far. She made the decision for her own well being and because she wasn't judged at the SCS.
And that, in her opinion, is crucial for people to understand.
"They (ARCHES) wouldn't turn me away. They wouldn't tell me 'no, you can't come here, we can't help you.' Of course, they want me to be sober. They want all of their clients to be sober. But that's not the reality."
However, she also believes it's important that when someone does make the decision to become sober, they have access to the services they need to get there. Sometimes they don't.
For Sam, access to methadone is helping her stay away from methamphetamine, from fentanyl or heroin, and from crack cocaine. And the fact that she has meaningful activities whenever she wants or needs them.
She is now a harm reduction specialist and a peer support worker at ARCHES.
It's the first real job she has ever had.
"This job has always been there for me, so that was a big part of me getting clean as well. ARCHES' support and their understanding that you're at where you're at. I think that's part of the misconception. People get really upset at ARCHES handing out needles and supporting people and drug addiction. They just don't get it."
That said, the choice to remain sober every day is a struggle. And many of the things most people take for granted, she has to either learn to do, or re-learn. She's also getting support from McMan Youth, Family, and Community Services.
"My lifestyle - I never would sleep, I never would eat. Now that I'm sober, I gotta learn how to get sleep every night. I gotta learn how to eat every day so that I'm fueled for the day. And that's difficult. And I gotta learn how to pay my bills and get my rent. I'm used to being flat-ass broke."
She also struggles with depression at times. But there are other things that keep her going. Like her renewed relationship with her girlfriend.
"We went on the cutest picnic just the other weekend. You know, just like picture perfect, movie perfect. Watched the birds, hung out. Those are the times that I can feel, that I know this is worth being sober. We're planning a trip to see our favourite band in Vancouver in September. She's amazing. She's such an inspiration for me."
She's also proud of her growing relationships with her co-workers.
"For me, this is a big deal...I'm flabbergasted. Everybody knows I was a client not so long ago. So, it's very cool for them to offer their friendship to me. It's something I really cherish for sure."
Sam is now planning to go to school in January, to take addictions training and has won a scholarship to take part in the 12th annual U.S. National Harm Reduction conference in New Orleans from Oct. 18-21.
"My goal is to work full-time here. I would love to become a supervisor.
"I look up to Stacey, I look up to Jill. I haven't had positive role models in a long time, if ever."
Community and 'one size fits all' rehabilitation
Addicts are not alike, and what works for one person, might not work for others. But right now, that's how 'the system' works explains Sam.
"You go to AHS and no disrespect to them, but they're pretty much all the same. Just different buildings. Different staff. And they expect all of these addicts to go into treatment and the same mold - they don't all fit into it."
She remembers sitting in a treatment room with 30 other addicts at one point and being told that maybe one person would stay clean for good. And they were right. Not one person in that room stayed clean for longer than 18 months.
"We have to start looking at different things that are going to work," emphasizes Sam.
Those options include having somewhere for addicts to go that is willing to give the time, energy and compassion to build a personal plan to get off drugs, and place for them to engage in meaningful activities.
And for those who adamantly do not believe in harm reduction?
"Honestly, I don't blame them... I get it, you don't believe in this stuff. It's scary to you. It's a risk to you, your children, your community. It's a scary F***in thing. I know. Something you have no knowledge about is very scary. So those people I totally understand where their fears come from."
But the suggestions that putting people in jail or forcing them into rehab will work, is short-sighted, as is the threat of a stronger police presence. It just doesn't work, she explains. It doesn't scare them because they simply don't care.
"As human beings we want control. We want to feel in control. We want to feel safe. And addiction is something that is very much out of our control. Out of control of the addict, out of the control of society, out of the control of the addiction workers who are helping the addict. You have no control over it. And a lot of people find themselves wanting to wrap their hands around this problem and stop them and put them in these places, and you know, make them never use drugs again. Because that's how they feel they have the most control."
Getting sober for other family members or friends, or so they aren't judged by society might work for a very short period of time, but for many addicts, she says they'll simply relapse. It's something she faces every day and fights every day.
"What I'd like to say to those people is that you don't know. I respect that you're scared. I'm scared too. But I really hope that those people and society come to a place of understanding."
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