My motivation for being a drug-user organizer has always been to build a different world, after discovering that I didn’t fit into the environments I found myself in. From the time I was 13, I was inundated with program bullshit that put me in the category of people who could not recover. I then played out this self-fulfilling prophecy in my life. I drank and used like it was true, and I hurt myself. This went on for 30 years.
The alternatives to drug use that were offered to me were AA, or “jails, institutions and death.” It wasn’t until after stays in dozens of treatment centers that I learned of evidence-based treatments like methadone or dialectical behavior therapy. Back then, I was told that I just needed to do more service and pray harder, and that I shouldn’t be on prescribed medication to help manage my mental health.
In short, I have felt misunderstood my entire life. I needed a community and a home, somewhere I could talk about my use. I needed a place where I could talk about the fact that nobody believed me or took me seriously when they knew I was on drugs.
I wanted to reach all those folks that, like me, had nowhere. I wanted drug users to know that there could be community elsewhere. So I helped create Urban Survivors Union, the first successful national drug-user union in the United States. Through this, not only could I deal with other drug users, but I could deal with people who were not drug users as well. I wasn’t trying to hide who I was anymore. I was trying to promote public health and change the conversation.
Suddenly, other drug users were valuing what I was saying. They were listening to me and realizing that they had been duped. We are at the precipice of the basic necessity of meaningful inclusion of the people most affected by hundreds of thousands of deaths.
The book sensationalizes my story as a woman who uses drugs, as all too many such narratives do.
I agreed to be interviewed by Travis Lupick for what became Light Up The Night: America’s Overdose Crisis and Drug Users Fighting For Survival because I truly thought the book would make a difference. I thought the book would be about the larger world of drug-user organizing, rather than being focused reductively on me. I hoped its publication would have an impact in two ways: influencing people on the outside to better understand people who use drugs, and exposing other people who use drugs to the world of connection offered by drug-user organizing.
I thought Light Up The Night would promote that vision. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It is not how I would have chosen to tell my story, nor is it how I wanted to be included in the story of a larger movement. Instead, in its singular focus on me and one other individual, it often descends into lurid, melodramatic accounts of nuanced issues in my life such as domestic violence and raising biracial children in the South. These are stories which Lupick, as a young white, middle-class Canadian man, is not conceptually equipped to tell.
The book sensationalizes my story as a woman who uses drugs, as all too many such narratives do. It is riddled with inaccuracies about my life and my organizing. Where the text is not factually wrong, it veers into some of the worst, most harrowing parts of my life, which I related to Lupick never thinking the book was centered so solely around me that these stories would be central to the narrative. The text, I feel, cannot be distinguished from tragedy porn and it erases my strengths as an organizer.
Despite being hurt many times by those I came to trust too quickly, I am prone to giving people the benefit of the doubt. In fact, I had trusted journalists too quickly before, and lived to regret it. Yet I put aside my misgivings and engaged with Lupick, because I thought that the book would advance the mission of drug-user organizing. I found the interviews concerning sexual and physical assaults I’d endured, and the moment I’d learned my daughter had died, deeply unpleasant. But unfortunately, these sorts of experiences are common for people who use drugs when we engage with journalists.
There has been a lot going on over the past year, as there is any year in the high-stakes activism that we do. Despite coming back from death’s door early in 2021, I spent a lot of time speaking with Lupick after I first read excerpts of Light Up The Night that appalled me. I implored him to make vital changes to the book. With the publisher’s deadline approaching, he did make some changes based on my feedback, but not nearly enough. It got to the point where I was begging. Finally, I was reduced to doing what people do when they don’t know what to do: I shut down.
Now that the book has come out, I’ve gone from feeling terrified and discouraged to deeply ambivalent. I know how the book has affected me. However, I’m a white woman with a graduate degree, whose ongoing connection to core relationships, including my mother, has been key to my literal survival. I worry about the upheaval this book will unleash on me both professionally and personally, but ultimately, I believe I will survive this violation of my privacy.
My main concerns now are how the book will affect drug-user organizing and how it will affect the outside world. Our movement cannot recognize itself in a book which reduces the story of national drug-user organizing to two white women, leaving drug-user leaders of color as footnotes.
How will this book land beyond the choir? Will this be a story that is problematically told, but ultimately involves some positive change for a prevailing narrative shaped by books like Dreamland? Will this book help force public health to live up to the imperative it’s been outlining across two administrations to meaningfully include people who use drugs? Such impacts are possible despite the book’s flaws, and I hope they happen, even if that remains to be seen.
I want to be clear that my intention is not to “cancel” Lupick. I bear him no ill will. Some of his work has value. The problems with his book reflect wider problems with journalism, of which there have been many egregious examples. And when Lupick was approached about the writing of this article—which was written with the consultation and support of the whole USU leadership team—he said that he supported my right to tell my story, which I appreciate.
Telling our own story may be the only way we can ensure that our vital work is faithfully represented.
I just want to state that Light Up The Night is not the story of empowerment and victory over adversity that is my truth and the truth of the national union’s work.
However, this book has motivated us as drug-user organizers to tell our own story and record our own history, so that is one positive to emerge.
For this more complex and authentic truth, stay tuned for an upcoming episode of Narcotica, in which veteran Urban Survivors Union leaders such as Isaac Jackson, Shilo Jama and I will discuss the founding of the first three USU chapters and the eventual founding of the national union.
This will be the first part of an ongoing effort to document our history ourselves. Telling our own story may be the only way we can ensure that our vital work to keep our communities alive is faithfully represented.
Photograph via Pixabay