This is the first installment in a series of articles on harm reduction in drug overdoses.
Omi, as her family calls her, is a 47-year-old cocaine and heroin addict. She shares her story so you and I can understand and, hopefully, help her and others like her.
Her candor can be brutal: She stole, she robbed, she sold her body. “People whisper,” she said, and she wanted to tell her story her way.
An anything-but-routine gynecology visit
Weeks ago, at the clinic, my midwife colleague saw a new patient scheduled for a routine gynecology exam.
Alarmed, she called me in.
I walked in and found Omi – sinking in a chair, bent-over, soaked in sweat – in a bad heroin withdrawal. Next to her stood her sister-in-law, teary-eyed. The day before, she found Omi in Chicago where she’d been homeless for years and brought her here. “She’s family. She deserves another chance.”
Omi was born in Puerto Rico. Her mother had nine children; she kept two and gave away the rest. Omi was 3 months old when her foster family took her. There were abuses. For punishment, she knelt on rice and wire mesh. Men were easy with their fingers and hands.
She tried cocaine at 14 when a cousin told her it would make her feel better. It didn’t.
She tried weed, vomited, felt terrible.
At 15, Omi reached out to her biological mother and was turned away because her mother then had a new husband and children.
She couldn’t stop crying.
A cousin took pity on her. Omi moved in with her and babysat her two kids when she worked. For reward, she was given small amount of heroin to snort. She was immediately hooked. Heroin made her forget everything – the abuse, the sadness. She had energy. She cooked and cleaned and took care of the children – all was well until her cousin was busted for prostitution.
At 16, she was admitted to the hospital for her first heroin withdrawal. At 17, she had her first of three children. Today, her brother has custody of her youngest. She made sure I knew that she was sober when she was pregnant.
She stole and robbed houses to support her habit. At 23, she spent five years in a prison for robbery. The occupant of the house she robbed beat her with a broom, and she cut his finger badly. She ran out, but he accused her of stealing $800, which she didn’t do.
“Nobody believed me,” she said.
In prison, she finished 10th grade. She really enjoyed school. Since then, she has received four GEDs.
She followed a boyfriend to New Jersey and was sober for 13 years. At age 36, she relapsed. The Puerto Rican authorities referred her to a drug rehabilitation program in Chicago.
“They did nothing.” She slept on the floor and attended AA. In no time, she was on the street using.
Friends or foes
In the Windy City, away from her family, Omi lived for years under bridges in a huddle with 12 other Puerto Rican men, who gave her space and respect.
“But they can sell you for $10,” she said. For example, if you didn’t pay for your drugs, the dealer could easily find somebody to kill you for as little as $10 in drugs.
“Not even enough to get high,” she said, “why do it?” Overnight, friends could turn into foes. She constantly feared for her life.
But then she met the “lady,” who showed up every Thursday by the bridge with her truck of supplies and who was instrumental in keeping her and others safe – and alive all these years.
Omi's story will be continued in the next issue. Next time: Meet the "truck lady," harm reduction in action.