Pearsall explained that with Narcan, the man could possibly save the life of an opioid overdose victim. But he remained uninterested. “If people know the drugs they are using can kill them and they still use the drugs, that’s on them,” he said.
Pearsall knows the stigma of drug addiction runs deep, as does contempt for addicts. To get the money to feed their habits, some users commit robberies, burglaries and auto thefts and are participants in a shoplifting scourge so severe in D.C. that it is driving stores out of business.
The perception has only worsened with the increased use of fentanyl combined with xylazine, also known as “tranq,” a drug used by veterinarians to sedate large animals such as horses and deer. Under the influence of such a potent mix, the user sometimes becomes paralyzed, appearing like a mime or a mannequin, frozen in mid-stride on a sidewalk or in the middle of a street.
“You can see how the expression on people’s faces changes when they have to walk past a drug addict on tranq or step over one who has passed out on the street,” Pearsall said. “It’s more a look of disgust than of concern.”
The man at the health fair put that look of disgust into words while walking away: “Why even try to save them if all they are going to do is go back to using drugs again?”
Pearsall has heard the question before. She’s been working as a substance abuse and mental health specialist in the Washington area for more than 20 years and is currently a program director for Prestige Healthcare Resources. The locally owned company, which helps vulnerable residents recover from a variety of mental and physical ailments, has offices in Prince George’s County and Baltimore and at the corner of Good Hope Road and Minnesota Avenue SE, in the heart of one of the District’s most active street drug markets.
“One of the things we want people to know is that when you see someone who appears to be under the influence of opioids, don’t assume that they are drug users,” she said. “You don’t know how they came in contact with it.”
Fentanyl can be used to spike just about anything, she added — a drink, candy, a cigarette, a pill, even a bouquet of flowers.
“In Baltimore city over the summer, some girls were given roses sprayed with fentanyl, which is odorless,” Pearsall said. “You could tell they were under the influence of opioids, but they hadn’t used anything. Turned out the fentanyl had been sprayed on the roses as a date rape drug.”
No one died, fortunately. But the case should serve as a wake-up call, as if another were needed, to the dangers that even innocent children face because of fentanyl and the criminals who use it.
“Parents need to talk to their children or, better yet, listen to them and find out what is going on in their lives,” Pearsall said. “And also become familiar with Narcan, just in case.”
Of course, no one would compare a child who unknowingly ingested a drug to a hardcore dope fiend. But Pearsall maintains that most addicts started out just as innocently. Some may have become addicts after youthful experimentation with a joint that turned out to be laced with fentanyl, others after receiving legitimate prescriptions for pain pills that became too expensive, leading them to seek relief on the unregulated black market.
“There may be sympathy for a young addict, but there is a preconceived notion that people who have been addicted for a long time ought to know better and just stop,” Pearsall said. “The fact is that many of them do stop, again and again. They just can’t stay stopped. Opioid addiction is not something you can beat with willpower alone.”
However, recovery from addiction is possible — with willingness and the right treatment, no matter how the substance abuse started or how long it has persisted.
Throughout September, which is National Recovery Month, many church and community service organizations have sponsored events spotlighting drug abuse treatment and prevention. Many feature speakers who were once drunks and drug addicts, living on the streets “homeless, helpless and hopeless,” before “hitting bottom” and beginning the long climb to a life of grateful sobriety.
At the health fair, which was held Saturday and sponsored by Good Success Christian Baptist Church, Pastor Bill Bennett II walked around passing out copies of prayers based on Bible verses that emphasize service to others over selfishness. Prayer groups are certainly one way to help break the addict mind-set. Twelve-step programs, pharmaceuticals that reduce cravings, a stint at a mental hospital or even time in prison — all of that can be helpful, too.
But one need not go to jail to get clean. You do need to stay alive.
Narcan may increase the odds of that. For addicts, though, especially the grizzled and desperate older ones whose very presence so many find offensive, something more than a drug antidote will be required.
Such as a communal belief that their lives are worth saving.
“Why shouldn’t we value the lives of drug addicts when we know that recovery is possible and that in recovery, they can become productive citizens?” Pearsall asked. “Those who do recover can then carry a credible message of hope to other addicts who suffer on the streets and help them recover, too.”
At the health fair, Pearsall demonstrated how to administer Narcan to her colleague, LaTosha Holmes. The duo had given the same instructions a week earlier at a community event in Southeast Washington, sponsored by Phil Pannell and the Anacostia Coordinating Council. The next day, Pannell, the longtime chief of the council, received a telephone call from Asiyah Timimia, who had attended the event. “She had applied some of what she learned to revive a homeless man who had overdosed outside of a McDonald’s,” Pannell said.
Employees at a McDonald’s near New York Avenue and First Street NE confirmed the incident.
I asked Timimia about her response. Had she considered — like the uninterested man at the health fair — whether an overdosed addict once revived might just go back to using drugs? Did she blame the man for using drugs that were potentially lethal?
She said no: “I just saw a man who appeared to be very high collapse and stop breathing, and I did what I could to help him.”
Stigma notwithstanding, Pearsall believes that there are enough caring people, like Timimia, to win the fight against substance abuse and the social ills that underpin it.
“If I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t be doing this work,” she said.