Russian transcription: Olga Zelinska
Translation and editing: Sophie Pinkham
I am manager of outreach in the Naberezhnye Chelny harm reduction project. Soon it will have been three years. At the beginning I worked as a volunteer, just as someone who wanted to help people like me to change their life situations. Then and now, I see people who face problems in their lives and oftentimes, they can’t solve those problems alone. I myself was in a situation like they were—I understand. I’m not indifferent to these problems, to these people. I want to contribute something, to change something.
In childhood, when my younger sister was born, I felt that I had been forgotten. I was intensely jealous. I was angry at my parents. I don’t think I got all the parental love, support, care I should have gotten because I was angry at them and separated myself. I felt alone from childhood. It was sad. And I looked like a boy. I climbed trees, I liked to play-fight, that was how I expressed myself. My mother always wanted to put ribbons on me, put me in a dress. And to be contrary, I did the opposite of what she wanted.
My first experience with drugs was when I was 13. We smoked weed in school, in the bathroom. Just because it was fashionable, prestigious, that was what the older girls did. Even though 13 isn’t very old, you still want to be at that level. And with the help of drugs I got into the group I wanted to be in. Those people were interesting to me. I always hung out with older people, much older than me. It wasn’t interesting with people my age—stupid conversations, the same classes, cliques…
People older than me were more interesting. Something drew me to them. I smoked with them for the first time. And I tried pills, alcohol…I loved that feeling. I would probably still use drugs if they weren’t so harmful. If I could control my use, I would use. With drugs I was able to be myself, on the inside, on the outside, to be free, to say what I wanted, do what I wanted—I was stronger. That feeling of freedom means a lot. Time flies by, I didn’t notice anything happening around me. I hid in a shell and it felt good.
But the feeling of loneliness that I had from childhood, that I held inside myself, caused me pain. And when I used drugs, the pain went away. So I used, used, used, so as not to feel that pain and sense of inadequacy.
And then I had to pay for it. Pay with my health, relationships with people, my family, and much more. That illusion, that if I use everything will be great, was destroyed one fine day when I reevaluated my life. I looked around and saw that there was nothing, either materially or morally. I had lost everything, everything was spoiled. The worst was that I had caused all that destruction with my own hands.
I tried to quit and I couldn’t. I tried lots of ways—I went to a new place, I moved, I changed my circle of friends, I locked myself up at home, didn’t leave for months…
At first I was living with my parents, then they kicked me out because I stole money and valuables. At first they took away my keys and wouldn’t let me be there when they weren’t home. If someone was there I could come and eat, bathe. And then they just told me that without me, everything would be much easier.
I lived with a man who was much older than I was, who also used. It was not a very pleasant time in my live because I felt that I was being sold. I lived with him for drugs…and the feeling of repulsion towards yourself, I was deafened by drugs and used more and more and more.
Then I lived wherever I could: with friends…then not with friends. Because I had no friends left. Then I just rented a room or an apartment night by night, from people I used with. Sometimes I slept in an entryway.
Then I went to the narcological dispensary. I stayed there and used at the same time, actually. I bought drugs through acquaintances. You could have a phone there. You could call and get a person to come and sell them—we lowered a rope and he attached a dose to it. People brought me things. There’s no problem with drugs there. Even though the narcological dispensary is closed [in principle].
Narcologists have a standard approach to treatment: injections in the morning and evening. In detox you’re on your own. Everyone just hangs out together. There’s no treatment, really. They just relieve drug withdrawal.
Now they don’t inject you anymore. It was Haliperidol, that just turns people into vegetables. I don’t remember the first five or six days. Then things got clearer, and then it was possible to go to rehabilitation, two flights up. I went up there for 28 days. At the moment when our group from detox went up to rehab, at that moment the psychologists were all at some training course. The whole time they just gave us some books and there was no one to work with.
I used there too. Then I got out, and I used for a while. After a month, I went to a Narcotics Anonymous group I had heard about. An acquaintance invited me. I stayed and am getting better through that program.
I don’t know why I stayed there and what exactly stuck with me, but it worked. I just said everything those people said, did everything they told me to do: I wrote, I went to groups, talked. I turned into an obedient student. I felt that I crossed a boundary. I understand that this is a question of life and death. I understood that if I used now…I had started overdosing a lot, and I understood that if I used again, it could be for the last time.
Two overdoses happened at the apartment of an acquaintance I got drugs from. And after those two times she wouldn’t let me into the apartment, told me to go do it in the entryway, then come back. She didn’t want to have problems with the police or with her neighbors.
I overdosed in other apartments, too. Someone just happened to be there. They hit me, put me in the shower. And the last time they called an ambulance because I wasn’t breathing, I was blue.
After I went to NA, I never relapsed. It was just a group of drug users in all stages of recovery. They supported you in being clean, in not using anymore. It worked on the 12-step model. The experiences I heard about took hold in my mind. People just talked about what had happened to them. About relapsing…from the people around me, I learned what to do and not to do, how to avoid tough situations.
My friend from the group invited me into harm reduction. I had lots of free time, I wasn’t working, everything was only starting. I was just learning how to talk to people…basic things that people learn in childhood. As an adult, I had to start again from zero: to speak honestly, to respect the values you learn in childhood. I’m still learning.
At work I feel great. I feel that I’m in the place I need to be. I especially like working with women [who use drugs] because in the first place, no one works with them as a separate group, and in the second place, even in our community they’re excluded, somehow. There’s the saying that men are forgiven a lot, and women are not forgiven at all. If you take a woman and a man who both use drugs, they’ll both dig more at a woman than at a man. They ask you, why are you smoking? You’re a girl!” A girl isn’t a person! She can’t smoke!
I don’t judge them for using drugs. I understand that these days it’s hard for people and they can’t stop using. I understand them. I like working with them more because we speak the same language, and it’s easier for a girl to understand another girl.
There are a lot of things you can’t talk about with a man. Though for me, when I used, it was easier with men. I didn’t know any girls …somehow, I didn’t trust girls. But there are lots of important, necessary things you can’t talk about with men. They just don’t understand. And sometimes you need understanding, to see it, to discuss important issues.
Recently a journalist asked me, in an interview about our work with women, to give her a social portrait of women drug users, how they are in our city. I couldn’t answer, because they’re all different. They aren’t just one part of society. They’re everywhere. They can be successful women who have good jobs, make lots of money, but use drugs. They could be housewives who are bored and use because of that. Or they could be top students and still use. They might hang out in clubs, not take life seriously and use because of that. So I don’t know about a social picture of women. There are lots of reasons to use drugs…