I grew up in a suburban family. My father was a police officer and my mom was a special needs teacher. My mother started to struggle with mental illness. She would regularly try and commit suicide. I was exposed to a lot of trauma. To escape, I would go out with friends and do whatever drugs or alcohol we could get our hands on. I ended up dropping out of high school in Grade 11. I began to work in restaurants, but most of my free time was spent getting drunk or high. I went on like that for years.
The years of partying and living in poverty took their toll on my teeth. I got dental abscesses that were so painful I couldn’t work anymore and was struggling to do anything with my children. I had a dental plan at work, but they capped it at $500 a year, which didn’t help when I needed $3,000. So my doctor prescribed Percocets—eight a day. He gave me a fucking vat. Like, 400 pills. At first I took two a day. But within a few months I was taking 12 a day. I was running out of the drugs and went out on the street to fill the gap. That's when I realized I had drug a problem.
Nobody was giving me money to fix my teeth, but they would give me money to go to school. I decided to quit my job and go back to college. At first, my main reason for going to college wasn’t for an education, but to get some OSAP money I could use to fix my teeth. Every day in college and university I was high off my ass. No doubt about it. There seems to be a stereotype that if you do drugs, you’re going to screw everything up. I am the opposite. Give me opioids every day and I will accomplish amazing things.
When I was in first-year university, my wife became pregnant. I began to think that when she was in hospital to have the baby I would have to choose between leaving the hospital to get drugs so I didn’t get sick, or be beside her puking my guts out. I didn’t like those options. So I quit cold turkey.
I went to Narcotics Anonymous, which I am now completely against. I kind of treated it like participant observation in anthropology. At the beginning, I didn’t say much. I just watched and listened to what everyone else said. None of it matched up with what I had learned about addiction. In fact, it seemed to be the polar opposite. I got the impression it was more like they blame addicts. They tell you that you are broken and have to be fixed. They very much moralize it and even make it religious. Like your connection with God is broken and you have to restore that. I am not broken!
There are words that I don’t like to see used in regards to addiction, like “disease recovery.” I am not suffering from a disease. I enjoy feeling good. That’s not a disease, that’s existence. “Relapse” is another word that is a swear word for me. It has such a negative connotation. They told me I was powerless. I am not powerless! You should be empowering addicts, telling them they are not broken, telling them that their worth is not tied to the substances they choose to use.
I didn’t have enough money to have all my teeth fixed, so the pain came back. It came to a head when I was holding my baby daughter. I went to grab my face because of the pain and almost dropped her. Maybe that was the rationalization I needed, but I headed out to get painkillers from friends. And I was right back on the horse!
I did two years with the methadone program. I am definitely pro-methadone. It gave me stability. But you are constantly jumping through hoops and the methadone takes away the reward. You aren’t getting that good feeling in your head. It’s basically doing the minimum. Preventing you from being sick, but your whole life now revolves around it.
It is hard to have a job because you have to go to the pharmacy every day, and every week you’ve got to have your urine tested. I ended up coming off methadone because I got my days wrong and they hadn’t seen me for a few days. Then to restart, I would have to drop my dose from 55 mg down to 20, which would put me in withdrawal. I quit methadone cold turkey.
I think that addiction should almost be normalized so that we stop thinking people are broken or bad, because that’s complete nonsense. I am 100 percent pro-harm reduction. If you follow that to its implications, it almost makes me pro-drug. I believe I suffered from mental illness as a child and had trauma on top of that, and now find myself in a position where I take opioids. I am able to function and be the best dad I can be. I am able to juggle all of the balls and pay the bills and do the school work. [Benjamin studied social sciences at Mohawk College, graduating with honours in 2013. He then went on to study anthropology and sociology at McMaster University.] But you take that away and I become a shit dad and a bad student. Everything falls apart.
Once you know what opioids feel like and you aren’t taking them, nothing brings you joy. Do I want to live miserable or do I want to live with opioids? When I shut the door and say, “I am done with opioids. I am never touching them again,” I go into a downward spiral of depression. For me, the better choice is to live with opioids. So the key becomes, don’t be so deep in the opioids where you are going to be in withdrawal if you don’t take them. It’s walking the line so you are not going too far in either direction.
It’s my choice what I put in my body. A pillar of social work is autonomy—the right for an individual to guide his own medical choices. For me, drug prohibition infringes all over personal autonomy. It forces addicts to use in harmful ways. Opioids cause harm because we make them illegal. There’s a good case to be made that the harm of substances for the most part comes from prohibition, not from the substance itself. Harm reduction respects personal autonomy. The person gets to decide what is right for them. We have to meet the individual where they are, not tell them where they need to be.
People who use opioids every day don’t overdose, but when they run out of money for a few days, their tolerance drops and their next dose kills them. When places like Switzerland gave addicts free heroin every day, the first thing they saw was the crime rates dropped. The next thing they saw was overdose rates dropped. People weren’t overdosing anymore because they were getting it every day. They saw that use rates went down because under prohibition heroin becomes a pyramid selling scheme.