Spenser Smith:

Challenging Stigma Through Storytelling
“People who choose to take this stuff can die. The answer is to choose not to take them. It’s a choice.” —R. D. This is a comment on a CBC story written late last year on the overdose crisis in BC. Of the 554 comments the piece received, the one calling for the death of […]
A hand thrusting up through the surface of dark water cluching a story printed on paper.

“People who choose to take this stuff can die. The answer is to choose not to take them. It’s a choice.”

—R. D.

This is a comment on a CBC story written late last year on the overdose crisis in BC. Of the 554 comments the piece received, the one calling for the death of drug users is the third most liked. In fact, the two with more likes offer similar pitiless remarks—the dominant view being that drug users control their own fate when it comes to overdosing.

There are dozens of comments like this one. With nearly every major news story, the top comments were, for the most part, along these same lines. It’s difficult not to see the pattern.

Spenser Smith noticed the same problem. Reading these opinions again and again led him, in part, to write a book of poetry that matches hateful comments online with his own life experiences with drug addiction. He is over seven years in recovery.

Smith is a 2019 VIU creative writing graduate and former associate editor and contributor at The Navigator. He’s currently finishing up his master’s degree at the University of British Columbia, for which his book of poetry is his thesis. He hopes his work can help combat the negative stigmas about drug users that are so prevalent in the public—especially online.

I asked Smith if the amount of hate he sees ever leaves him stunned.

“It does and it doesn’t,” he said. “Some forms of hate are socially unacceptable. I think the hate against drug users is pretty accept[ed]. People are posting comments with their names attached to them that essentially say a huge portion of the population should die and they deserve to die. If I step back for a second and really think about that, it is quite shocking.”

At the same time, he’s not surprised. He said hateful messages are all he’s ever known as a former drug user, and associations with users and worthlessness were common to him even before he began using.

Smith started using drugs intravenously in 2012, according to a personal essay on harm reduction he published on the Island Crisis Care Society’s website in 2018. Suddenly, harmful beliefs about people who use needles—beliefs even he had held—were now directed at him. Stigmas experienced by drug users can range from the supposed immorality of drug use, drain on government resources, laziness—even to blatant wishes that users did not exist and that they should not have the right to exist.

A common belief, especially online, is that drug users deserve what’s coming to them, and that they choose to take drugs that may be laced with fentanyl—a deadly substance that’s a main cause of BC’s overdose crisis. Even BC Premier John Horgan was caught falling into the same prejudices when he suggested in a press conference last year that addiction starts as a choice. But Smith said the notion that drug users are making a choice they have complete control over is simply wrong.

“Drug use isn’t this individual thing, it’s really a product of the society we live in,” he said. “People often use substances to numb out painful realities and those painful realities can be pretty wide-ranging—not being able to get adequate housing, suffering trauma, and not having the resources to rebound from that.”

Smith also acknowledged that being white gave him certain advantages that people of colour who use drugs don’t have, and the racism they experience can lead to drug use in the first place.

“We all need to take responsibility and onus that this is the society we live in and these are the conditions we’ve created, instead of, ‘This person is using drugs because they’re lazy, and they don’t care about life, and it’s an easier way to live,’” Smith said. “Because that is almost always not the case.”

Mental health issues can be a huge factor in drug use. Smith’s own experience involved anxiety and depression, which kept him in isolation at his private high school in Regina across town from family and friends. From there, the effect of isolation compounded, leading Smith to stop reaching out to friends and teachers, quitting basketball—a passion of his—and ultimately, to use drugs as a way to cope.

Smith has found writing his thesis and reflecting on his own story of drug use cathartic.

“I still actively wrote during my addiction and I found that a helpful outlet for me,” he said. “And now, not using drugs or alcohol for almost seven and a half years, I found that writing about my own experiences has been beneficial for my own growth and understanding of myself, and ownership of my story. I think stigma, in a sense, is a kind of storytelling other people do about you.”

Smith has been a writer for as long as he can remember. He uses the mediums of poetry and creative non-fiction to reflect on his past, but said non-writers use the same concepts to make sense of their history.

“All human beings are storytellers. We all tell ourselves stories, we all tell others’ stories. I’ve gone through treatments and recovery programs with friends and I’ve seen them do that similar sense-making. Reclaiming your story, or at least getting to tell it, whether that’s on the page or just telling a friend—I think that’s really important work.”

Changing the narrative has been liberating for Smith. By pairing up stigmatizing comments online with moments from his past, he’s able to humanize something that many people try to remove the human element from. The act of taking a dehumanizing comment and thrusting it out in the open alongside a deeply personal human experience takes power away from the hateful message.

Writing his thesis has made Smith think about the contrasts between his past and present. A part of that is having basic comforts like sleeping in a clean bed with clean sheets and living in an orderly house. He’s not constantly worried about money.

He’s also had to confront the anxiety and depression he’s lived with, while knowing everything doesn’t magically get better even though he’s in recovery.

“I’m still a human being,” he said. “I still live with anxiety and I still have things to work through, so I think that’s an important thing to remember. It’s really easy to think about people in recovery as these kind of success stories and I think, to a large part, there have been a lot of successes in my story. But, it hasn’t been just black and white like, ‘I’ve stopped using drugs so everything’s perfect now,’” he said.

“Ultimately, [writing] forces me to confront the complexity of everything.”

Literature like Smith’s can foster connection for people who desperately need it. He says he was one of those people during his isolation and addiction.

“The opposite of addiction is connection. Connection was a huge part of my recovery,” he said. “Finding other human beings to connect with, finding some kind of meaning in that way—stigma makes that connection really difficult. If people think you’re worthless, and lazy, and have to ‘hit rock-bottom’ before you’re deserving of connection, it really perpetuates the cycle of ‘I’ll never find connection, so I’m just going to keep using,’ which is a really normal human response to that.”

I asked Smith if the idea of connection being the opposite of addiction applies to him forging connection with others through his literature.

“Yeah, I really think so,” he said. “I mean, I hope so. I’ve read some of those poems out loud at magazine launches and open mics and people have said they’ve connected to my writing—people who are drug users or not drug users. I feel like literature generally opens the conversation to topics we might not often talk about. It often opens the door for empathy that might not have been open before.”

“So long as addiction is seen as weakness versus illness, governments will continue to ignore this issue.”

—H. H.

Comments like the one above show there are people alert to the harm against drug users. Smith views his role in writing about drug use from a journalistic perspective, as well as personal. In this way, he’s able to amplify the voices of other drug users who are dealing with serious problems.

The deadliest of these is the overdose crisis in BC, which saw 1,548 people die of overdoses from January to November of last year, according to the BC government’s statistical report. That’s nearly five overdose deaths a day for 11 months, and over three times the number of deaths from COVID-19 throughout the province during the same time span. Fentanyl has been detected in about 87 percent of drug related deaths in the last three years.

The drug’s prevalence in BC increased after Smith began his recovery in 2013, but he knows all too well its devastating effects.

“I’ve had friends die from using fentanyl. I’ve [also] known quite a few people who aren’t my friends who’ve died. So, I can speak to that experience to a degree, but I often like to also speak to it from a journalistic extent. Just raising the facts of how many people have died from fentanyl,” he said.

Smith has been a strong advocate for harm reduction in helping drug users during the overdose crisis. Harm reduction is, generally, the implementation of programs and practices that seek to minimize risk to drug users—essentially, valuing the life and health of people who can’t stop using drugs.

More harm reduction sites have opened in recent years and government support has increased to try and combat the crisis, but it’s too little, too late, according to Smith. Unlearning stigmas is a long-term objective that will hopefully result in consistent government support, but what’s needed now is action.

“People’s lives are still on the line. The idea of chipping away at stigma seems like such a conceptual thing. It seems important, but we need more severe action, right away,” he said.

The question of how best to decrease the harm experienced by drug users in BC today is a difficult one. Challenging ingrained stigmas about drug users and the desperate need for more government funding is brought up again and again, and the two seem to go hand-in-hand.

Groups like the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users fight to raise awareness of the violence against drug users, while also calling for immediate, effective policy change.

“Policy doesn’t usually happen unless there’s political will and that political will, to some degree, has to come through the people,” Smith said. “Drug users are saying, ‘These are the things that would save our lives—do this policy change now.’”

If we would only listen, Smith said, people who are dying could be saved. That means challenging toxic messages polluting news stories and social media, but also pushing the government to act. Works like Smith’s poetry book are powerful forces in the struggle for change.

“One wonders how many deaths per day must happen before something is done about this.”

—S. C.

Sean is a sixth-year(??) English and Creative Writing student and is by all accounts a great guy. He spends his time watching painfully slow movies via illegal streaming, plinking away on his keyboard, or watching American football (also illegally streamed). In his second year as Managing Editor, he's seeing the growth of his staff, himself, and of The Nav's potential.

" "I think stigma, in a sense, is a kind of storytelling other people do about you.”"
"“The opposite of addiction is connection. Connection was a huge part of my recovery.”"

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