Dying to be Heard

This all brings me back to one of the best guys we could have on our side as a community (or not even!) of people who use drugs. Theo Van Dam, once a strident, unflinching, innovative, brilliant user activist in Amsterdam (a real honest to God fore-runner of the whole user movement) -who now, at late 50’s/early 60’s or so, has put aside his fighting talk, his incredible persuasive manner who could sell an ice to an Inuit (as they say!) has re-invented himself and naturally as a humans evolution, he now speaks at funerals and remembrance days.

Not Theo's quote but an interesting comment on how funerals are changing;click on pick to hear about a womans take of different funeral styles

Not Theo’s quote but an interesting comment on how funerals are changing; click on pick to hear about a womans take of different funeral styles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He stands with the family and friends and says all the powerful, and beautiful words of remembrance that no one else dares to say. He acknowledges their place in the community, even if the community was ‘one of the guys on that park bench, you know, the one with his ol’ dog close at his side and his little woven bag that doubled as a pillow yet held everything in the world that was necessary and loved. Theo would talk about the whole person -the time this or that happened, talk warmly about the generous, kind, stubborn yet loyal person that would always have time for a chat for anyone who passed by the park bench. It didn’t even matter whether Theo knew the person lying prostrate in front of everyone -or not. Whether he admired and adored them, or wasn’t on very cool terms with them at the time they died. It was OK. Theo was there to ensure the person themselves -their life -with all its ups and downs -were captured and celebrated, not brushed under the carpet and hidden so everyone felt to uncomfortable to even mention what the person had been doing the last 30 years. Even more so – allowing the parents to hear that their child was a real person -who loved, lost, laughed and fought -like all of us -and that their drug/alcohol use should/must be accepted as part of their life, their journey, their experience. It contributed to who they are. It cannot be denied – or you deny your child/sibling/friend – and those who cared for him that lived in the same world.

We all need a Theo at our funerals, a celebrant to shine a touching light on our friends, ensuring they are laid to rest with everyone knowing the person -not the myth, not the stereotype, not the’failure or tragic child led astray. We are the summary of our experiences – all of our experiences – the good, the bad, the ugly.

Some days, Theo didn’t need to know who lay there in the coffin. The idea had been to simply turn up (he is now always invited!) and if he felt that heavy, asphyxiating silence fall, like heavy clouds of snowflakes on the shoulders of the family and friends, and the gentle but nervous shuffling of the priest’s ceremonial slippers as he looked around for someone to stand tall and proud and say a heartfelt speech about their loved one, talk briefly about their huge, momentous loss, and wait for the niece or uncle to read out a piece from the deceased favourite novel or poem…well, it sounds comforting doesnt it? But the person in the coffin has been living on the street for almost a decade. Their toes needed operating on to stop them rotting and re-infecting the next one. There parents hadnt seen them for 15 years…they wanted to cover over their fears…

dont let your loved one be constrained by legal and societal judgments even in death

dont let your loved one be constrained by legal and societal judgments even in death

The reality was that no-one at that funeral knew who the person in the coffin was anymore. Close buddies hadn’t been invited, Christ -they were all alcoholics and junkies! The parents expected it would be a disaster. No, they must be buried quickly, happy memories of the childhood rehashed, and everyone would just smudge out the last 20 years. It was a wasted time anyway, those years, they ruined their life, wasted chances, threw offers of help back in the families faces. God, they hadn’t even tried to pay back any of that money nice auntie Kay gave to them to get a deposit on bedsit. No, his homeless friends were not invited -some of them were with him when he died. ‘Imagine that’ the relatives think. ‘They are so wasted and hopeless, they can’t even tell one of their ‘friends’ are dying -they said he was just snoring…No, the funerals of  many thousands and thousands of us have been like this. It needs to change now.

So many families hadnt really known their loved one for  years. They hadn’t invited them to a family function for over 15 years -no birthdays, no christmas, no easter, no new year….it could have been embarrassing after all. Even if someone had been bold enough to invite them,  would they have gone? Would the feel comfortable, welcome, relaxed???What would they wear? What would they say they had been doing ‘lately’? How does one cope with the stares, the feelings of fear, of children’s wide eyed staring from behind mums skirt;

No, most funerals of people who died from drugs are strained…But strained for different reasons. Not from holding back waves of pain and loss! Or rather, pain and loss that is secret. Dark and lonely. shameful. Words that lie stuck deep down in the throat, words of love and caring locked inside a black box of shame and confusion. Of crippling pain, pain that will never fully ease for the parents and loved ones because they know  they judged their loved one in life when they didn’t really understand anymore. It weighs heavily forever. The funeral Theo encourages, provides a chance for everyone to relax and share and celebrate a human beings life – all those they loved, things they shared, families they were a part of, tragedies they fought through, those special and raare qualities they had.

We alll need a Theo.

Remember that on International Remembrance Day July 21st, or any day a drug using friend dies. Dont let their lives be erased in ignorance. Celebrate the whole life, and bring everyone peace.

If you want to reach Theo in Amsterdam to talk to him further about his ideas etc, add comment and we will forward them to him immediately.

Travis Jenkins Award 2008; Thanking Theo

As the lights dimmed in the auditorium and, for the last time this year the spotlight zeroed in on the podium speaker, a tall lanky Dutchman in a sharp black suit made his way up the stage steps to collect a few dues.After 2 decades of innovative and inspirational work within the drug using community, Theo Van Dam smiled broadly as he accepted the 2008 Travis Jenkin’s award from IHRA on the final day of their popular international conference. An award presented to current or former drug users who have made an outstanding contribution to reducing drug related harm, this year Theo was publicly acknowledged by a distinguished international cohort of colleagues, peers and admirers.He wasn’t the only one smiling. As this greatly admired and respected Dutchman sprung up the steps of the IHRA stage to collect his award, I felt myself grinning from ear to ear. It was a great moment – a chance to acknowledge a lifetime of workfrom one of the most well known and respected drug user activists of our times.

Theo has been at the forefront of the fight for the health, welfare and rights of drug users, from within his home in the Netherlandsand internationally. His creative and freethinking approach, his willingness and commitment, his humour – all coupled with his highly principled nature has made him one of the most inspirational and active Drug User Activists in the world.

Throughout the 90’s Theo fought hard to put harm reduction not just on the political agenda, but inside the minds of the using community. His direct approach was unique and he was as up front about how he delivered harm reduction to Dutch users and dealers, as he was to government officials and drug workers.

To try and write succinctly on Theo’s unique contribution to harm reduction leaves me hampered. I’m not sure of the finer details or of the dates of his projects and work.

I do know however, that as a young activist at the IHRA conference in Geneva (in 98/9?) hearing of the work Theo was doing amongst the using community left me feeling anything was possible. His idea behind starting International Drug User Day on November 1st was inspired and the 1st ever international gathering in Amsterdam in 2002? is still talked about today. The IDUD in now an international event, where drug users all over the world unite to protest, lobby, debate and discuss ways to reduce drug related harm, throw off the shackles of stereotyping and discrimination, push forward for effective peer and societal education about drugs, drug use and drug users and save lives.

Theo Van Dam came with the first wave of true international user activism, his experience is valuable, his commitment and belief in his work, is total. This year, the harm reduction world acknowledged and, most importantly thanked Theo Van Dam for his efforts, and I, still an activist he still inspires, thank him wholeheartedly too.

Thanks Theo. xx

 

When Memories Hurt

Watching tv the other night, feet up on the sofa, eyes closed, ears listening out for Murdoch updates on the news, enjoying a little opiated nod…Then i heard the newsflash…Amy Winehouse is found dead in her flat. I leapt up and let out a strange noise, a shock that went right through me, like this awful pain. i dont know where it really came from, it caught me so by surprise. I didnt even own one of her records (though i wanted one) and so i just sat there with my mouth just open, speechless, in fact i couldnt speak at all for ages…i looked at my mum who was shocked at my reaction and wanted to know what was wrong, did i know her? I didnt. But so many times i meant to write to her, to try and give her some strength and comradeship from our using/activist community – some belief in herself that might protect her from the complete crap that the tabloids used to dump on her.. all those awful jokes they said about her, all those terrible articles and photos, calling her the ugliest woman in the world (incredible!! Who are these fuckhead journos? GQ mag i think -And not forgetting Murdochs collection of disgusting exposes- good ridence to him aye!), dissing her at any opportunity, calling her names, and all those horrible jokes, the sniggering about her drug use, catching the photos when she skips up the pavement,.proof that she’s a staggering drunk, peering with long lenses into her own HOME to.catch.her smoking crack, splash it across the front pages…destroy another life……and now she is dead.

It just seems to awful, it seems so sad, there was something about her music that plunged into the depths of emotion, humour, love and life -the same kind of places we visit and dive into when we choose drugs; its so easy for us to use our.drugs to both pull you out of despair but also to throw you in the colourful genius of life and its brilliant adventures. We can be so vulnerable when we are young, drugs can be dangerous there is no doubt about it, its so easy to start mixing too many drugs together. I fear it may be the alcohol that pushed her over the edge, it so often is when mixed with CNS depressants…but apparently she had only got out of the Priory (rehab) the week before and saw her doctor the day before she died. Are we going to hear about a prescriptionor cocktail of drugs, taken perhaps with too much alcohol? Whatever the case may be, i along with thousands of others, am feeling a huge pain and loss of a special talent.

I cant help but wondering tho, Is it simply a case of opening old wounds, a reminder of friends and loved ones who we have lost in the same painful way? I dont know. probably. but im depressed, every death gets harder to bear it seems, it gets closer and closer each time to touching the rawest nerve..Or Is it a fear of the thinnest of tightropes we find ourselves walking on, jolted awake with a short sharp shock? a knife in the guts. A scare. A reminder of our fragility? It makes me afraid, a ghostly feeling that leaves me less whole, for a while at least, but the older i get the more i feel these things chip away at my belief in living life until a ripe old age. it cuts off more corners, and tries to leave u vulnerable all over again. RIP Amy and everyone else who is remembered on our very recent international remembrance day, 21st July 2011…

Clostridium

Remember the news that seems to pop up each year concerning contaminated heroin? Dozens of injecting drug users have died over the years from contaminated heroin containing the bactrium Clostridium. And while it is still reasonably rare – it DOES HAPPEN with reasonable regularity and we see no reason why such a bacteria would stop any time soon. There are things you can do to keep aware of it though. Be sure to check out info on Anthrax as well (being another emerging poison affecting injecting drug users – and it seems heroin smokers as well.)

If you are an intravenous or intramuscular injector – this concerns you.

The bacteria (Clostridium) has been present in a few batches of contaminated heroin over the last few years, which appeared to particularly affect people who either injected into the muscle, skin-popped, or who missed a vein when injecting. Tragically, around 35 drug users have died as a result so far.

Over the last 10 years, various outbreaks have occurred affecting drug users in Dublin, Glasgow and London as they began turning up in surgeries and hospitals, exhibiting very similar symptoms to each other. It was initially thought that the same batch of heroin had been ‘retrieved’, mixed with different gear to disguise the ‘look’ and put back out on the street for re-sale.

This was a Black Poppy leaflet, to read the rest, click here.

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