Bob Leahy: Thanks for talking to PositiveLite.com first of all. I really appreciate it. Now tell me why you wanted to talk to me, Eric.
Eric Cashmore: This is something I had to consider very carefully Bob. Just a couple of weeks ago I had a talk with my employer where I was being very public within my office, and I realized I had started to cause distress amongst people around me talking so openly about my addiction issues and how I’m handling them and people became very worried with me. So I said I think I’m just going to confine talking about my struggle just to my doctor and my counselor. But then when I talked to my employer about doing this article his only concern was that he didn’t want me to feel that this was something I didn’t want to do or might later regret
So why do you want to do this article?
I’m mindful of the fact that a lot of folks who come into this line of work do so because of their lived experience - and the lived experience for many of us working in positions on the front line includes mental health issues, addiction struggles, possibly housing issues and living on the street and having that kind of background. If employers are to recognize that these lived experiences are helpful to us in doing the work it’s important for them to realize that these issues never really go away, they are still there. And the fact that we are trying to help other people while really trying to keep our heads above water, it’s very possible for us to be secretly dealing with addiction problems on the side, it’s really possible to be doing it in a way that’s really harmful to us, because of what people might say or feel. I’m in a position where that’s not the case for me. I’m in a really great office with a really great staff who understand me and actually care more about me as a person than I may be missing some work or . . they just want to see me be better.
Let’s backtrack. You have been working how long in your AIDS Service Organization.
I’ve been working in the ASO world only about two years, in the current position for just over a year working in gay men’s sexual health and outreach. Prior to that I was a youth worker in an ASO outside of Metropolitan Toronto.
So you have told me that you have an addiction and how that’s been accommodated in the content of your working for an ASO or ASOs. Tell me a little about your life before that.
I’m 32 now. I was homeless, living on the streets of Toronto when I first got hired. My first ASO gave me a shot at AIDS service work.
At that time were you dealing with addictions?
Yes. I had been helping people with addiction and homelessness and HIV while living on the street. So to get a job where I was valued and recognized made me more motivated to try and change the thinking of people in this field than to continue using drugs. I got hyper-focused on doing well so that I could change my reputation. And I did. I worked my ass off at that agency. I managed to remain sober for two years, I used my job to distract myself from the fact that I’m an addict.
So you weren’t using in that first job.
Yes, because of two things. One, I knew people were watching me. They took a huge risk in hiring me. I was not admirable, more seen as a liability to a lot of people. So I didn’t want to make my ED look like a fool for hiring me. I wanted to prove to people and to myself that I’m not a fuck up, I can actually do this.
So you weren’t using during this time but I want to be clear about your history before that.
OK, I started using meth amphetamines in 2008, which is after I was diagnosed with HIV. At the time I wasn’t able to engage in sex with other people, I was super awkward and my anxiety around sex was so high I just couldn’t do it. So I used it for the first time at a bathhouse and I started using it and it helped me do webcam work in the adult entertainment industry. It allowed me to do that work and rake in about $1,000-1,500 a week. I lived in a place where there were webcams everywhere. The only requirement was that I had to be in the house at certain times, I had to jerk off on cam at certain times in shows where I was in front of the camera and people could chat directly to me.
So crystal meth helped you perform for long periods of time.
It did. It worked for me and it worked against me. I did it for six months. Eventually I stopped being reliable. I wasn’t in the condo because I was out on the street using meth amphetamine.
So is this a theme we know about, Eric? The drug spills over from personal use and makes it harder to hold down a job?
Well, let me explain. I ended up on the street on my own will but I realized that survival on the street is much different than when you actually have a place to go home to. I started using crystal meth in order to do sex work, having sex with guys from online for the exchange of cash or goods. Sometimes that might be for a place to stay, or for drugs. When you are living on the street, it all depends on what you need at the time. I would smoke crystal meth and use GHB and stay awake for days because I didn’t have the money to buy food or have a place to go and sleep. The drugs stop becoming recreational, they become a method of survival. Am I reliable when I’m using? No. I’m a completely different person when I’m high. Was I happy? Not at all. No part of me was happy. I’ve done things to survive that horrify me at times. But drugs become more than survival. they can be therapeutic. Sometimes picking up a pipe helps you forget . . .
Eric breaks down
Sorry, Eric take your time. What happened next?
For a year in the ASO field I didn’t use drugs, mostly because I was working as a mentor to youth. The kids that worked with me in the program were amazing and had motivated young minds and I didn’t want to break that down by coming in to work high one day and then losing all the respect they had for me, and it worked out really well. I felt really good about myself. Then what happened is that I got a job in an ASO in northern Ontario in October 2015. I felt I had just got lucky.
Was your background with drugs discussed when you got that job?
Transparency is who I am. It’s really served me very well Bob. I don’t hide shit from people. So in both positions I’ve had I was very open about the fact that I was a crystal meth user, very open that I’ve had some time on the streets. Nothing was ever hidden from either agency. Because at the end of the day I didn’t see it as a negative thing.
You felt it made you more qualified for the job. I get that. Let’s jump forward a bit then. You weren’t using initially. Tell me what happened.
For the first six months I was able to remain sober. But I put myself in a position where I was constantly surrounded by drugs and alcohol. I was drinking a lot. People say that weed is a gateway drug but for me, alcohol was my gateway drug.
There were triggers that came with the people you were living with that made it look easy to get back into substance use?
Absolutely. I moved to my own apartment in April 2016. I’m drinking and I get a text message from someone I used to party with in Toronto who now lives here. So he shows up as a hook-up and he had everything you could ever dream of to get really messed up, like a mobile doctor’s office. Lots of crystal meth, lots of GHB, lots of Viagra, lots of marihuana – everything we needed to have a really great time was sitting right there – and I’d never had that happen before in sobriety.
So you dug in.
I gave in to it. And you know I didn’t miss any work, I only used Friday and Saturday and I stopped on Sunday but it was clear to people who were in the office that I was different, thought I looked under the weather.
OK how easy is it to fake it when you are high and working? You must be scared of people working with you noticing, but you are also carrying this big secret and you are in danger of being exposed by people who you might have used with.
I know. I’ve explained to several people in management in the sector outside of my ASO that I’m a recreational drug user and this is something I’m struggling with and I’m trying to stay sober but I still have a job. You can tell this is something that is new to them, and they are supportive, but you can tell they’re thinking “if this is something that I had to deal with I wonder how I would do that.”
Well we as a community have never really talked about this issue openly so I like the fact that this interview is addressing those workplace issues squarely. The issue is the worth and integrity of people with addiction issues and their value and how they fit in and how we accommodate them. Anyway, back to your story, what happened next?
Well you have to realize that I’ve been dealing with addictions for ten years now. I went to my manager and I went to my ED. I told them “this is what’s happening.” I openly rolled the dice. I wouldn’t have done that if I didn’t feel the odds were in my favour though, because of the way I had been treated up until then. My employer has always supported me and I felt that I owed him honesty. I’ve talked to other front line workers and I’m totally not the first front line worker doing so. Some of us are afraid to talk about it. Some of us feel like we would be fired if we told people we were using drugs. And mental health issues fall into the same boat as addiction, except that addictions have an element of crime associated with them – you are often committing a crime when you use and that could seem to be a liability for your agency. Anyway, I went in to my boss’s office and I wasn’t past my probationary period, maybe two weeks away from getting my benefits – and he started my benefits for me. He said “here is the number for the Employee Assistance Program. Call them up.”
We may need to explain this. With a benefits package comes access to a help line, an Employee Assistance Program. Tell us what that looks like in practice? It’s a number you can call?
Yes, in this line of work it’s widely recognized that we as front line workers could run into issues; it’s very taxing on us to help other folks and can cause stress and have a negative impact on the employee. The Employee Assistance Program gives us an opportunity to talk to someone in confidence – it doesn’t get reported back to the agency what we talk about. But after connecting with a counselor I had a relapse that was so bad that I wanted to kill myself.
Why? What were you on?
Mostly amphetamines but also GHB. I actually tried to overdose on GHB. I remember taking the drug and looking at the clock and it was 2 pm. I woke up at 4am with my underwear covered in my own vomit. I had blacked out. I was fortunate that I didn’t kill myself. This was July 28 of this year. So the next thing I did was I walked into the office and went straight to my caseworker and said “dude I need help, I can’t do this.” So we started doing applications for rehab centres on the spot. I eventually went to a place in Timmins.
How long was that rehab program?
28 days and I wanted to leave seven times.
Did it eventually work for you?
No I lasted four days after leaving the program. The program itself triggered me. They used language such as “harm reduction enables people” and “only abstinence will save you.” They kept talking about “my addict brain.” I felt like a mindless zombie convinced that I was a terrible person. But I completed the program anyway and I’ll tell you why: I promised my boss I would. I feel like both of my bosses have done me an incredible service and the last thing I want to do is let them down. But I just wanted to get out of there.
So tell me what happened when you got out of rehab.
I went back to work. But prior to that, particularly the last four days I was in rehab all I wanted to do was use. And sometimes I’m motivated to do things to show people that they are wrong. So I used again. I went straight for the hard drugs. I called up my dealer and said “just bring it over.” I was powerless against my addiction. For me dealing with stress and trauma has always been about “just drown it out.” I can’t turn that trauma off, the trauma is always there. I had spent 28 days in rehab thinking about my past and the trauma that had happened to me. That was incredibly triggering. Anyway, my boss offered me extra time there (in rehab) but I just couldn’t be in there anymore! I felt worse after rehab than when I went in. And all those feelings of suicide and self-harm came back, even stronger than they were before. But I felt that if I go back to work and if I’m absent for a few days, people at work will check up on me, because they love me. I’m in a great situation but I’m just struggling. I’m an addict because of my background of trauma. Every time I try. I just bleed out.
I think I’m understanding you well. Want to tell me what happened next? You had gone back to work after rehab and almost right away started using.
I started calling in sick. My program is getting done but it's impacting my work as I’m missing more time so I have to work double time to catch up. I’m starting smoking marihuana again - and I have a prescription for it - and that’s been helping. I have the support of two doctors in Sudbury for marihuana because it keeps me sober; seeing me stoned is nothing as they have seen me completely messed up. People are seeing the benefits that marihuana has for me as an addict.
You are using marihuana to manage your addictions, but is marihuana use impacting on your work?
Because I’m prescribed marihuana my employer has given me special accommodation. We realized very quickly that we have to have some restrictions on that. Most of the time I need a clear head.
So that’s a verbal arrangement you have worked out between yourself and your executive director.
It’s been very helpful for me. But I want to tell you something. As of today I’m only two and a half weeks sober.
How do you define sober?
I’m not drinking alcohol and I’m not using chemical substances. I’m smoking marihuana. I’m quite proud of myself for staying sober.
Good. I guess we are nearing the end of this story then so I want to ask a bit how about this all fits into the broader environment, whether this experience you have had is common, and what needs to be done in AIDS Service Organizations (ASOs) to better accommodate people with addictions and other serious issues. Are we doing enough?
I think the biggest struggle in this line of work is that each one of us is constantly under a microscope and when we do fail we tend to come down hard on each other. If for example I’m running a program and my program is really struggling because I’m an addict there are people who are going to come down hard on me for that. But you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t tell people that their lived experience is valuable to the work we do but then come down on people for having that background. We have to realize that in this case addiction isn’t something that can just be turned off. So if you are going to hire someone - and you should hire someone for their lived experience because they are going to do amazing work – you have to be ready for the fact that they are going to need some accommodation. We shouldn’t be in the closet about this either. I want my peers to be open about it and get the same accommodations I got. I want the kind of thing we have in the GIPA principles – that people with HIV have the right to be part of their care and make decisions about how their care is going to be – that same kind of principle should apply to addicts. We have a right to be free from stigma and discrimination as well. We have a right to harm reduction too.
Good thoughts, Eric. Can we close by asking you what you have learned from your journey so far?
This is what I have learned. This issue is spread across the board. It’s something that people at all levels of our work are experiencing first-hand. I’m not struggling alone. I’m very lucky that I have a supportive workplace, because the truth is I might not be here talking to you today if I didn’t.
Eric, that’s’ a nice place to end. Thank you for doing this. It will be interesting to see the reaction to this. You can certainly count on our support. I for one appreciate your bravery and willingness to share your story, but also to be inclusive of the predicaments of others going through similar circumstances and your insights as to solutions. You are very impressive and I’ve learned a lot from you, so a big thank you from all of us at PositiveLite.com