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Public shaming, hate perpetuates further substance use: UVic researcher

Longtime addict Nathan Watts offers a user’s perspective on substance use
Nathan Watts, a member of the Tseshaht First Nation near Port Alberni, shares his story of substance use, a perspective he said isn’t seen enough. (Photo courtesy of Nathan Watts)

As B.C. continues to confront the worsening overdose crisis, one user questions why politicians continue to treat them like nothing more than statistics.

Nathan Watts, a member of the Tseshaht First Nation near Port Alberni, said he’s never seen government officials joined by actual users when they talk about addiction and overdose, so he wanted to share his story.

Watts, 42, is trying to reconcile with his past self. As a early teen, he started hanging with the wrong crowd and eventually found himself in a gang. It was in those adolescent years that his using began and he became addicted to substances at 15. Thinking he was being given cocaine, Watts said he was really doing heroin, fentanyl and more.

He’s tried to leave that life behind and better himself, but has never been able to fully shake the grip that drugs have on him and still relapses by drinking and using crystal meth.

READ: 14-year-old Island teen lost to suspected overdose

“It’s hard to reach out to people. Us addicts are constantly being shamed on social media,” Watts said. “It’s the shame that makes us want to use alone and get away from society.”

When he lost his younger sister to an overdose last year, it was an eye opener and a push to get help.

“I had to see my sister dead to actually change, it’s really hard,” he said, adding that through his recovery efforts, he’s hoping to prevent the trauma his family endured then.

“I never want to put them through that pain. I’ve been through a lot of battles because of my addiction, I also hurt a lot of people, I regret that.”

After getting treatment last summer, he relapsed as soon as he got home.

Karen Urbanoski, a researcher with the University of Victoria-based Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, shed further light on the subject.

“Stigma and trauma tend to make the experiences worse and keep people from getting the supports that they need,” she said. “There’s a lot of hate for people who use drugs.”

Watts acknowledged that scenario.

“I know I’m an addict and I admit I’m an addict. We have to stop judging each other.” He quoted a phrase often used in recovery fields: “Hurt people, hurt people.”

Urbanoski expanded on that thought, noting that substance users commonly judge themselves harshly, even more than others do.

“They’re experiencing that internally and hating themselves, at the same time that everything seems to be going wrong, and that kind of situation just perpetuates the drug use,” she said. “There isn’t one (type of treatment) that’s going to work for everyone, and unfortunately if people try something and it doesn’t work, they blame themselves. The reality is it’s likely more accurate to say that wasn’t the correct path for them.”

These days, Watts finds solace in his art, carvings, caring for his late sister’s house and trying to reconnect with family.

“I recently found my smile again,” he said.

Watts only asked that people hear a user’s perspective before they judge others.

READ: Suspected overdose death of Saanich girl, 12, speaks to lack of supports, says mom

Jake Romphf

About the Author: Jake Romphf

In early 2021, I made the move from the Great Lakes to Greater Victoria with the aim of experiencing more of the country I report on.
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