THOMAS'S STORY: HOW I'VE AVOIDED HEP C
When I was asked to write about why I’d never contracted hep C, my first thought was I’d just been careful. But then I realised I’d had my fair share of dicey experiences and dirty shots. No matter how careful you “always” are, all it takes is one bad day.
I’m occasionally told I’m “clever”, but that’s not how I’ve stayed hep C free either. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that there are many things contributing to my hep C free status.
I began using pharmaceutical opioids at 14. By 16, I was injecting OxyContin and MSContin — a challenge to say the least. I was an IV user for 2 years before ever using with anyone else. I had to do my own research. I read User’s News, downloaded Harm Reduction Coalition’s “Getting Off Right”, and joined online forums about safer injecting practices.
It took a while to find the “elusive” heroin. Just after I turned 17, I finally used heroin at Redfern Station’s public toilets. This was not only my first shot of actual heroin, it was the first time I’d injected with anyone else present.
When I questioned the older user — “Shouldn’t you be using a filter?” — I was told to hush and handed a 0.3mL of golden liquid in a 27g insulin needle. Another first because until then my IV experience had involved a rigmarole of large barrels, wheel filters, 23 and 25g needles, charred metal spoons, microwaves, a lot of trial and error and a terrorised family.
I may have been new to heroin, but I’d been injecting opioids for long enough for this to scare me. I knew enough to not accept a fit prepared by someone else — especially someone who didn’t even use a filter. Who knew what other rules they broke? When I inject into MY veins, it’s MY way or the highway.
This can be very hard to maintain depending on circumstances and has caused me many headaches. It’s not easy to stand up to older, more “experienced” users, even when you know you’re in the right.
Having parents with 45 years combined work in the medical field helped me think about my safety, as did working in a high-care facility (hospital) during the first 3 years of my drug use. I learnt a lot about infection control and standard practices around biological waste/hazards.
That day in the toilet at Redfern Station, I realised the more I learn, the more I need to learn. This foray into "real world" IV drug use motivated me to learn more. I consider myself very lucky to have ready access to the internet, wheel filters and a user base with more nifty tips and tricks than the world’s Swiss Army Knives combined.
It’s not just about keeping myself safe, but those around me safe, so they can keep the circles around them safe.
I have realised that the main reason I am hep C free is because of those who have gone before me. My 5 years is a fairly short using career compared to many UN readers. I owe all those older readers who pounded a hard road of trial and error for high stakes. When I think of how I have been stigmatised and labelled, I find it humbling to think about what it was to use intravenously 10, 20 or more years ago!
I thank those who did the hard yards yesterday so that I can use a little safer today. Because of those leaders, our community is now a safer community in which to use, where more people are better educated about safer injection practices. This keeps it safer for all of us.
Sometimes I notice myself getting careless and lazy, often because of the people I use with. It isn’t until I use with someone fairly new to IV use that I am forced to examine my practices and tighten my regime to set an example. I want to offer them the best peer education they can get.
Showing new users an injection practice that could be held to the highest standard of the best hospitals in Australia is a good feeling. It sets them up for a future of safe use. This helps to build a safer community.
I always carry twice the amount of fits I think I’ll need, plus an extra one! I try to carry a completely new kit to offer with pride to anyone in need. I encourage my friends to learn about wheel filters, carry spares, practice safer injection and attend workshops, like Naloxone training.
So while I’ve caused myself a few “headaches” by taking safe using seriously, its helped me steer clear of some nasty “migraines” like blood borne viruses.
I encourage everyone to be the best version of you that you can, regardless of past experiences. If we all lead by example and encourage others to do their bit, we will be an even safer community.
And if I am ever asked in the future how or why I am still hep C free, I will not forget the importance that writing this article has played in that journey.