April 13th, 2024

Needle exchange program saved my life: former addict

By Gillian Slade on August 17, 2018.

In this AP file photo, used needles sit in a container. A woman who grew up in Medicine Hat credits a needle exchange centre with saving her life. (Patrick Semansky/The Associated Press)


After a decade-long heroin addiction, it was staff at a needle exchange centre that gave Carolyn Warne a glimmer of hope. Now she has been drug free for more than 20 years.

It only took five days to become addicted, but the battle to free herself took 10 years, says Warne, who grew up in Medicine Hat. The addiction took her from living on the west side of Vancouver, doing well in the music industry, to homelessness.

On the fifth day of using heroin, Warne felt as though she was getting the flu. This was quickly identified by her music friends who gave her some more heroin.

“I was well within seconds,” said Warne. “It’s very quick. Your body adapts to it very quickly. It becomes part of you.”

It lasted nearly 10 years, even though she started looking for help within the first year or two. At the time, during the 1980s, there were not many options and almost no beds for women in treatment programs.

“I think everybody thought it was just men that were addicted,” said Warne. “To get into a detox you would be on a waiting list for months.” With this kind of addiction you have a very small window of clarity, to perceive your need and accept help, she said. When the help is not there you carry on.

The financial cost was huge.

“It was probably about $1,100 to get out of bed each morning. It’s very cheap now, back then it was not,” said Warne. “I burned through any money I was making with the jobs I had or any savings I had and it was a very quick spiral from the west side of Vancouver down to Hastings Street, the poorest zip code or area code in Canada. It is basically where all addicts go.”

She was homeless and all her friends died.

“I lost 14 friends in one year. I was basically the only one left out of all my musician friends, all my artist friends, so I was on my own,” said Warne.

Her father drove to Vancouver to collect her. Between Vancouver and Medicine Hat they stopped in every town to see if there was a detox bed or a rehab facility. They found nothing.

Within a week of being in Medicine Hat, her supply of heroin was dwindling and it was hard to find more. Her parents drove her to Calgary to take a flight back to Vancouver.

“My mom said, ‘I don’t expect I’ll ever see you again,'” said Warne.

That was the beginning of a journey that would turn her life around. After about a year she started using a needle exchange program where nurses and counsellors helped.

“They got me into a detox and got me into a rehab,” said Warne.

In order to get into a rehab facility for women, Warne lied and said she had already detoxed, which was a prerequisite. It did not take long to discover she’d lied, but they allowed her to stay.

“They saved my life,” said Warne.

It took about 18 months of treatment starting in 1994 for her to successfully address the addiction.

Warne is saddened by Medicine Hat’s seemingly negative response to the supervised consumption site that will open this year.

“I grew up there. It is a conservative town … but people like me are not throw-away people,” said Warne. “A safe injection site is the beginning.”

She says addiction is a disease and a mental illness. Every heroin addict she’s met has experienced significant trauma in their lives.

“This (heroin) was something that made them not feel anything anymore,” said Warne.

She became a steel framer and opened a company.

“I did very well. As soon as I got out of rehab I got a job,” said Warne.

The staff at the needle exchange gave her a glimmer of hope.

“That’s what you lose. You have no hope. When you have somebody that actually looks at you instead of through you and offers you something different.”

The success rate is low.

“I’m in the one per cent of heroin addicts that got clean, but I’m hoping with these (supervised consumption) sites, that percentage will increase.”

Men still dying more than women

In general, the ratio of males to women dying as a result of drug use is higher today than it was when Warne sought treatment, according to an Alberta Health report for the first quarter of 2018.

Of the apparent accidental drug poisoning deaths related to fentanyl, 79 per cent were male and most were between the ages of 30 and 34. Among females, the highest number of deaths were those between the ages of 25 and 29 years. The youngest were between 15 and 19, and oldest, 69.

Data for accidental poisoning deaths from other opioids (not fentanyl) indicates 55 per cent were male, and the average age for both male and female was 50-54 years. There were two deaths in the 15-19-year bracket, and four in the 70-plus category.

The proportion of deaths where heroin is included as the cause has been on sharp increase in the past three years. In 2015, they accounted for 8 per cent, while it was 24 in 2016 and 23 in 2017.

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