[This article contains graphic descriptions of drug use and overdose.]
Overdosing and being treated for it during the pandemic was a fucked-up experience. Altogether, it was perhaps the scariest and most emotional week of my life.
I almost became a statistic on July 11, as a binge ended with an accidental, near-fatal overdose that early Saturday morning. It has been a few weeks since that shock, and I am finally back to feeling myself.
Although I don’t use drugs anything like as much as I used to, and am prescribed methadone, among other medications, I still like to get high once in a while. Occasionally, I binge. If I could just use recreationally and turn the binge switch off, I would. But there’s the rub for a lot of us.
How do you know if you are going to binge or just do a couple lines? In my life, at least, history has a way of repeating itself, and the main contributor always seems to be benzodiazepines. I started this binge on July 7 off of buying 100 street Xanax. It was a good deal at a time where everything else has has risen in price thanks to pandemic disruptions—by almost 100 percent where I live in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Looking back at it now, that decision was a big factor in my overdose.
I bought a couple bundles of coke too. It’s going at anywhere from $140-$160 per gram here during the pandemic—unless you buy 10 grams. That’s why I said bundles; I can never resist a good deal. I find that using too many benzos always pushes me to desire a stimulant.
At the beginning I was using for pleasure, and I enjoyed it. But after a few days of using cocaine, I often experience paranoia, a complete loss of apetite, and long spells of staying awake. It becomes hideous, and I find that only a few things will take it away: more cocaine, sleep if I can get it, or, you guessed it, opioids.
For me, in lots of cases, that means fentanyl. As an opioid-dependent person, it makes me feel normal again. And so fentanyl later came into the picture during my binge.
I should state the obvious here: Combining different types of drugs, particularly opioids and benzos, places you at greatly increased risk. But people use for many reasons, and so do I. You don’t need to understand the reasons I use or don’t use, and you don’t need to tell me your reasons, either. But practicing harm reduction is life or death.
This overdose was unlike any of the others I have gone through. The combination of drugs hit me like never before.
A lot of people were worried about me during this spree. I started the week off by working, and tried to continue after I started using, but it was obvious. Then I started to hide, to ignore phone calls from my closest friends. I ended up back in the places that I left a long time ago. I think people in my life could sense something bad was going to happen. Sometimes you forget about those who love you the most.
The pandemic affected me a lot more than I thought it did. I have been using drugs throughout, utilizing new services and concepts such as as Overdose Prevention Hotlines. But I think the distress of seeing how people around me were being impacted led to my drug use getting out of control on this occasion. Looking back at my online accounts at this time, it’s clear to me that I was in trouble emotionally.
This overdose was unlike any of the others I have gone through in my lifetime. I experienced my first when I was 16, on a combination of Valium and ecstasy. I was experiencing extreme hallucinations and woke up to paramedics, the police and my whole extended family. It was like an episode of Intervention. I later experienced various opioid-involved overdoses that took one vial of naloxone to bring me back. But this time, the combination of drugs hit me like never before.
I was at a friend’s basement flat with several others that night. I remember knowing that I needed to get home, feeling that something bad was going to happen. I had that sketchy feeling that comes with nights of good cocaine and insomnia, and I knew that I wanted to use the fentanyl I had with me to offset that.
I was waiting for the right moment to use it. I had already planned, with an eye to harm reduction, that I was going to snort it, rather than inject. The first two lines seemed to have barely any effect, but after the third, I knew I just got a big dose all at once. I could taste it. It reminded me of the feeling from “shady 80s,” pressed “oxy” pills with that number stamped on them, that were widely available in my area a few years back and were basically fentanyl.
“If something happens, just put the naloxone in me and I’ll be okay,” I told them.
After snorting the last line, I got up and went to the bedroom to pack my bags. I remember telling the people I was with about the naloxone in my bag. “If something happens, just put the naloxone in me and I’ll be okay,” I told them.
After that I went to the bathroom to wash my face, and the last thing I remember is washing my face.
Luckily, I was using around other people. After years of absorbing harm reduction messaging, I didn’t use alone, even though I was intoxicated and could easily have made that decision. Thankfully, I didn’t save the fentanyl for when I got home and went to sleep. That’s what I normally would do.
The people with me were the right people. They checked on me, administered naloxone, called paramedics and performed basic life support until they arrived—including CPR and mouth-to-mouth rescue breathing, in the middle of an airborne virus. I’ll be forever grateful to them.
Next thing I remember is suddenly coming to, very confused but quickly realizing what had happened. Paramedics and police were cramped into the small bathroom, hovering around me. My friends who had kept me alive were beyond relieved that the IV naloxone administered by the paramedics worked. The vials my friends had used had not been enough; I can just imagine how scared they were when the second one didn’t snap me out of it.
I was back. It’s pretty fuzzy after that, though. I remember going into the back of the ambulance, being transported to the hospital and then starting to recover from the overdose. All I wanted to do was sleep; I was hoping I could stay in the hospital bed for the whole weekend. My chest hurt, reminding me of how my friends had kept me alive. That’s a pretty traumatizing image.
But a lot of people did not have the privilege of being around caring people or having paramedics respond; again, I am one of the lucky few.
That morning, I sure wished I was in a buyers club. But I hadn’t been ashamed to tell the people around me what I was using; I didn’t hide it
In past times when I was using, I wouldn’t have cared if I didn’t wake up. That was one of the reasons why I was getting high—to numb the pain in my life. But something changed in me when I found the field of harm reduction and drug policy. I knew then that I was worth something and that I could do something meaningful with my life, leaving a positive footprint behind.
For a while I wasn’t using drugs at all, but I burnt myself out by throwing myself obsessively into this new work. I was also spending too much time in a culture of harm reduction organizations that were strictly abstinence-based when it came to their own staff.
To work in these organizations, you could not use drugs. And I don’t mean just while you’re working; I mean you need to have anywhere from one-to-three years’ abstinence to work in some local, so-called harm reduction organizations.
I was consistently told to go to 12-step meetings by the person who was controlling all of my work projects at the time. I never felt comfortable in the meetings, but when your boss is telling you to go, you tend to go. I also met some marvelous people in these settings, who are still in my life today. But that way of recovery isn’t for me.
I am so grateful that I can say all this out loud, because I now work for an organization, the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs, where I have no fear of being stigmatized, judged or penalized for my drug use. My social circles, today, love me for who I am, not someone they want me to be.
COVID-19 has created havoc for people who use drugs—and that obviously includes me. Toxic unregulated fentanyl and the pandemic do not mix. Scattered physicians in Canada have started to prescribe off-label safe supply medications such as hydromorphone, but many of us have been unable to access it. That’s why safe supply needs to be in the hand of the community, through buyers and compassion clubs.
That morning, I sure wished I was in a buyers club. But I hadn’t been ashamed to tell the people around me what I was using; I didn’t hide it. I have my issues to work on to keep me safer, but being okay with who I am and the drugs I consume is the reason I’m alive today. Not using alone is the reason I survived an overdose in the middle of COVID-19.
Photograph of the author cooking a fentanyl patch courtesy of Matthew Bonn.