Before Louise Vincent became the woman to see for clean syringes or the opioid overdose antidote naloxone in Greensboro, North Carolina, she had struggled with drug use her whole life. She describes how as a youth she could not find an effective treatment for her bipolar disorder, and turned to drugs to self-medicate. She says she used drugs not to avoid her feelings, but to cope with them.
Louise sold drugs to support her drug use. Although many people think that drug users and drug sellers fall into two separate categories, in reality this line is very blurry. Many people who use drugs also sell drugs to support their own drug use.
“It’s very expensive to use drugs,” Louise explains. “You have to hustle, and everybody that uses drugs – who doesn’t have loads of money – hustles.” She sold a considerable amount, she said, but still had enough money only to barely get by day to day. “I knew [prison] was a possibility,” she says, “but when you’re surviving, those aren’t the things on your mind. You’re doing what you have to do.”
In 2003, Louise was charged with possession with intent to sell cocaine. She pled guilty, and – unlike many others in the same position – was able to go to a residential treatment program in lieu of prison time. With support from her family, especially her mother, she was able to piece things back together and earned a Master’s degree in Public Health.
Then, in 2013, Louise was hit by a car in a hit and run accident. She was in a great deal of physical pain, which her doctors were unable to manage effectively, and returned to drugs to cope once again. Around this time she became involved with the Urban Survivors’ Union, a group of people who use drugs who advocate for drug policy reform. She became very involved in the group and helped found the local chapter in Greensboro, North Carolina, which provides support to former and active drug-users. With the helo of this new community and medication assisted treatment, she was able to stabilize her life again. . Now, she also works with the North Carolina Survivors Union, which provides syringe exchange and other harm reduction interventions.
In the course of her work, Louise sees the potential effectiveness of engaging people who sell drugs in reducing the harms of drug use. She encourages people who sell drugs to get fentanyl test strips and to carry naloxone. She also teachers sellers to educate their clients about overdose risk and harm reduction. She knows that communities of people who use and sell drugs are often close knit and overlapping – in fact, she believes that someone she bought drugs from for many years saved her life when her daughter died in 2016. Louise, stunned and grieving, called her former seller for support.
“I called after my daughter died with no desire to go on,” she explained. “He came and sat with me. Talked to me about how his mother died. He did not sell me drugs this day. His compassion in my time of needs sticks out to me, especially when you hear people talk about how exploitive dealers are. He could have easily taken advantage of my state of mind, however this is not who he was.”
Despite her devastating loss, Louise keeps going, educating drug users and sellers and running the local syringe exchange. She says she can’t imagine doing anything else.
Interview conducted September 20, 2018.