This year, National Addictions Awareness Week (NAAW) is from November 22 to 28. The theme is Change Begins with Me, which puts the focus on the efforts and actions of individuals. It’s about making a choice to play a part in reducing the stigma surrounding substance use and people who use substances.

With your help, we want to increase understanding of the devastating stigma associated with substance use and addiction, and its impact on the well-being of people touched by it. Here is one man’s story.

Guy Felicella grew up near Vancouver, BC. The first 12 years of his life were filled with abuse. It was at the young age of 12 that Guy was first introduced to drugs. In the years that followed, he experienced a life of addiction, depression and homelessness. It was trauma that led this young child to self-medicate and it was the disease of addiction that kept him there for over 20 years – hooked on heroin and trapped in the vicious cycle of addiction.

Guy’s story

“I started [using] at the age of 12. I was impacted by a lot of verbal — and often physical — abuse that crippled me as a human being. It led to anxiety, struggling with depression and self-hatred. Eventually, the culture which existed in the community of Richmond where I was living drove me to venture to the Downtown East Side from a very early age. It wasn’t long before I was in and out of juvenile detention centres and I found myself homeless on the streets of Vancouver.

As a youth, I did manage to have some successful years, but the abuse factor kept dragging me into heavier substances and eventually I found myself continually homeless in the Downtown East Side for over 20 years. During that time, I was present for multiple public health emergencies — the duel HIV/AIDS and overdose crisis in 1997 as well as the fentanyl crisis in 2016 – where I was brought back to life six times. I’ve had five different bone infections — one so severe in my back that I had to learn how to walk again.

By the end of it — as the doctor said — I really was a medical miracle to have survived addiction with repeated use and all those experiences.

I knew that if I didn’t leave the East Side, I would never get out. I was so entrenched for so long. To actually get better I went to an opioid recovery treatment program. During the first couple of months they focused on having me deal with stuff that I was coping with from the past.

[Opioids are everywhere. The prevalence] goes back to the stigma and culture that exists in pushing people to an area of isolation. You don’t have to be in the ‘Downtown East Side’ to be isolated — you can be in your penthouse or your bathtub. That’s addiction. It’s everywhere. The culture of judgement and stigma is really driving people to not reach out and change it. We just created the stigma. Look at alcohol — it kills more people than anything else and it’s legal. To decriminalize doesn’t mean it’s legal either. It doesn’t mean you can sell drugs; it just means you can address it differently.

A user may not seek out treatment because, well, back to the stigma. I’ve called many people who are seeking treatment, but they’re afraid to do so because of their families, friends, and jobs. I always tell those with these concerns, “If you continue to use alone you’re going to end up losing your life.” Their response usually revolves around the idea of relief from dealing with the emotional pain in their lives. There’s a lot of shame attached to substance use in itself. That’s where I go back to speaking up for decriminalization, so professionals won’t be judged for being substance users. Addiction isolates people and society isolates people more by pointing fingers.

Yes, I made the original choice to begin using substances at the age of 12, but I didn’t have a choice in those first 12 years where I suffered verbal and some physical abuse. Addiction is a lifelong disease that requires treatment to sustain life.”

Today, Guy is an inspirational speaker and a qualified expert who devotes his career to public speaking, advocating to reduce the stigma of harm reduction and educating students on addiction. He is married and has three beautiful children. Today – Guy is a different man and he will be the first to tell you that he owes his life to harm reduction.

About Harm Reduction

In Niagara, 11 people die every month from a drug overdose (Niagara Region, 2020), leaving family, friends and entire communities heartbroken. Addiction is a deadly disease and the devastating impact is rampant.

Harm reduction is defined as ‘to reduce harm’. In the story above, Guy mentions stigma as one of the reasons an individual may not seek out treatment for a drug addiction. StreetWorks is a harm reduction outreach program discreetly providing safer injection and inhalation supplies to individuals in the Niagara region. Harm reduction is an important aspect of the treatment continuum and aims to empower and respect a person’s right to self-determination. The outreach program provides new sterile supplies, naloxone, and most importantly it develops and maintains positive, trusting relationships with clients while they are still using substances. This opens doors for service participants to access more services in their homes and community. Simply put, harm reduction saves lives and many times, acts as a gateway to other services and ultimately recovery.

At age 33, after more than 20 years grappling with addiction, Guy was introduced to harm reduction. It gave him the chance to enjoy the life he lives today.

In his words “I wouldn’t exist without harm reduction, nor would my three beautiful children or this family I am grateful for every day. I’ve survived six overdoses, five bone infections and decades of being entrenched in addiction and homelessness and I beat all those odds. I wouldn’t be alive today without harm reduction and I wouldn’t have the life I have without my recovery. #WeDoRecover” – Guy Felicella

*Thank you to Guy Felicella for sharing your story with us.

This year, during National Addictions Awareness Week, let’s all try to have a little more compassion and stop the stigma, change begins with me.