TRACEY WING: Forget junkies, weekly deaths are typically caused by painkillers
A middle-aged man from rural Tasmania who has been injured in a farming accident a few years back and has been struggling to manage the pain is at risk of dying some time in the next seven days.
The clock is ticking. It’s a completely preventable death but everyone thinks the people who die from an accidental overdose are either skinny, homeless kids or depressed rock stars.
No one notices the rural Tasmanian guy who forgot he had already had his meds earlier because the pain was bad, got distracted by the car getting a flat tyre, and took a second dose when he sat down in front of the TV. He downed a couple of beers, which would have been fine to do if he’d just had the one dose.
He’s got two young adult kids, one of them has their first child on the way and sometimes he can’t hide how proud he feels about it.
His wife has come home from working in town but she is tired and has gone to bed early. She is the one who finds him just before dawn, when she wakes and wonders where he is. There it is, a snapshot of what a common accidental overdose looks like in Tasmania right now.
Our Tassie country man represents the resilience, the DIY know-how, the independence and pride in living on the land which we write poems and novels about.
He also represents the Tasmanian most at risk of dying from an accidental drug overdose, and a person very much like him is dying on average every week. It’s not just people like him of course.
Today is International Drug Overdose Day. An overdose can happen to anyone, in any community, any culture, but it is happening the most to the demographic we continue to think of as ‘the norm’.
Is it because we still don’t know how to have a normal conversation about a common health issue like drug use?
As I write this I find myself wondering if we’ll ever let go of these unrealistic stereotypes about people who take drugs.
That we’ll continue to hold to the myth of what ‘those druggie junkies’ look like, and believing they don’t look like one of us. We’ve all taken risks and made mistakes and we continue to do so.
We drive too fast and look at our phone, we put on weight and don’t exercise, we have unprotected sex, we drink too much, still haven’t stopped smoking, put too much money in the pokies, take on the waves at Shipstern, jump in a river at night, take the pill at the festival, don’t bother booking the mammogram or sending the bowel cancer test kit back — we listen to Paul Kelly singing about it and we do “all the dumb things”.
Why do we pretend our risky decisions are fine, that we are allowed to make mistakes again and again, but not someone whose risky decision relates to drugs?
How many more families will mourn the loss of a loved one, because we were too busy occupying the moral high ground instead of learning how to have normal conversations about drugs so our loved ones can feel comfortable telling us if they feel out of their depth when it comes to their drug use? So we can recognise overdose risk sooner, and know what to do if it happens?
We express concern, and at worst outrage, about evidence-based, proven harm reduction initiatives that save lives, like pill testing and needle and syringe vending machines.
I fear that for some, it won’t be until a family member can’t be woken up that they realise it’s too late to take back the judgmental words spoken about drug use in front of them. These words, whether intentional or unintentional, cause people to feel ashamed of their drug use, including prescription medications, and we are left to wonder why they didn’t ask for support while they still had the chance.
While the clock ticks for the next middle-aged man in regional Tasmania, some of us think of images of a “psycho druggie” head-butting a doctor in a hospital, imagining that’s where the danger is, and what it looks like. But we are wrong.
I’ve lost too many people to overdose already, and so have more Tasmanians than you realise, but they may not tell you about their loss, and you may be silencing them with the language you use.
It’s time for change and the only way to do this is to start talking, start having conversations, and recognise we all need to change the way we talk about people who use drugs, so they feel they can speak up and join the conversation as well.
Tracey Wing has been working in the alcohol and other drugs sector for more than 25 years and presently works with the Alcohol, Tobacco and other Drugs Council of Tasmania.