My name is Skylar Fisher, and I’m 18 years old. I just graduated from a public high school in Raleigh, and all things considered, I had a pretty normal experience. I was the lead in the school musical, I went to concerts at Cat’s Cradle, and I also packaged overdose kits every month to be passed out to opiate users.
I started volunteering for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition my sophomore year of high school, but opiates were not new to me. Pills were always easy to come by at school if you looked for them. Some of my friends used drugs, and while they were primarily concerned with getting caught by their parents, my volunteer work has shown me that addiction to opiates is complicated, and some families are hit hard.
In North Carolina, more than 11,000 people died in 2015 from opioid related deaths, according to numbers released by the Governor’s office. I went to high school in Wake County, which had one of the highest death rates in the state.
In February, the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition released another number: 6,000. That’s the number of overdose reversals they’ve tracked since 2013. That’s 6,000 times someone was brought back from the brink of death and given the opportunity to make a different choice. People like Louise Vincent, who lost her daughter to a drug overdose while in a treatment center. She credited the coalition with keeping her together.
“I can't figure one other reason that I would be sitting upright right, now not just completely a mess, chaotically using, other than being involved with this,” Vincent said. “It's given me something that keeps me so busy that I don't know when I'd have time to do that.”
Vincent is the head of the Urban Survivors Union in Greensboro, North Carolina. She works to help people survive their addictions through a practice some advocates call harm reduction. The process involves distributing an opiate-overdose reversal drug, like Naloxone, or creating syringe exchange programs to minimize the spread of Hepatitis C and HIV. It could even mean encouraging people to smoke their drugs instead of injecting them.
On a recent day, Vincent unpacked a sample meth kit that the Urban Survivors Union distributes to active users.
“People use light bulbs and all sorts of stuff that’s really dangerous,” she said. “Just to have a nice, glass pipe that you’re not going to cut or burn yourself with, those all put you at risk for disease. When you’re talking about groups of people where almost everyone has Hepatitis C, then it doesn't take much to transmit it.”
I know what this sounds like. Giving out meth pipes isn’t everyone’s idea of philanthropy. A lot of people think this work condones drug use, but that’s not how members of the coalition, like Loftin Wilson, see it.
“We’ve had, for a long time, the mainstream approach to drug education for young people, sort of these scare tactics like D.A.R.E. and other programs,” Wilson said. “They're sort of the equivalent of abstinence-based sex education for drug use. If we put it all in the same kind of bucket of ‘devil business,’ we lose out on the chance to have actual conversations with people who are making actual choices.”
In high school, a lot of my friends and classmates were into drugs, including hard stuff like Codeine, Oxycodone, Tramadol, Heroin, and Fentanyl. Vincent has been an on again off again user since the age of 13, and knows first-hand that breaking the habit is a long journey, especially for people who start young. She’s working to make sure people survive the ride.
“When I started this, it was more about me. I wanted a group, and I wanted somewhere to go where I could get some support to help myself,” said Vincent at a recent overdose training for new volunteers. “I know that it changed my life, feeling like the one thing that was to my detriment, which was my addiction, now it's something that I'm an expert at and I can share and help people.”