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Never Use Alone: When Every Phone Call Could Be the Last

Never Use Alone

Never Use Alone: When Every Phone Call Could Be the Last

Never Use Alone was conceived by a “bunch a drug users sick of their friends dying.” That was four years ago. And while at least one of those drug users is no longer with us, many more have joined the safe-use hotline. Many, many more have been saved as a result.

Such is the story reporters Aymann Ismail and Mary Harris got from Never Use Alone Education Director Jessica Blanchard. Blanchard, who’s also one of the hotline‘s operators, is the subject of a rather inspired collaboration between Slate and This American Life. It’s not the easiest of stories – then again, few tales dealing with death and drugs are – but it’s told with great grace.

It also might break your heart.

In other words, the story walks that fine line exclusively occupied by harm reduction outfits like Never Use Alone. As we’ve said before, even the idea of harm reduction requires finding a balance between hope and heartbreak. It also requires a new kind of common sense. Consequently, many a stakeholder continues to hold harm reduction at stiff-arm’s length. Some even hold it responsible for enlarging the problem.

Blanchard would undoubtedly claim all that to be nonsense of course. And Blanchard should know. After all, she comes as close as you can get to the drug abuse issue without falling off the edge.

Never Use Alone: It’s Personal

For Blanchard (aka Jessie B.), every call is personal. Her daughter, Kaylen, has been using since she was 18. The culprit? A boy who told the teen he “had something that would make her feel better than any hug she ever got from her mama.”

The rest is (mostly) misery.

“Kaylen’s 23 now,” Blanchard said. “She’s the most magnificent creature I’ve ever met in my life. She’s also the raggediest bitch I’ve ever met in my life.

Kaylen has now overdosed 11 times.

Blanchard was an old school nurse when the grapevine brought news of her daughter’s first overdose. Mom wasn’t completely surprised – the drug issues were hardly a secret. She was, however, galvanized. Unfortunately, Blanchard was galvanized to do all the wrong things.

Then again, like most folks who came up yesterday, that was simply how she was schooled.

“We’re taught drugs are bad,” says Blanchard, “‘Just Say No,’ deputy dog, D.A.R.E. That’s the kind of stuff we were taught.”

“That’s not realistic,” she adds.

A Softer, Easier Way?

Blanchard eventually learned a more productive way to address the issue, but she had to fight for it. Literally.

Of course, daughter Kaylen fought back.

“I ran up on her and I was excited,” Blanchard explains, describing the end of a particularly fraughtful search. “I meant to touch her shoulder, but I grabbed it instead. And when I did, she turned around and hit me. Being from West Tennessee, I hit her back.”

Mother and daughter ended up having a fistfight in the Krispy Kreme parking lot.

“For a few seconds, she forgot I was her mama, and I forgot I was her mama. And when we got through fighting, we were both bleeding,” Blanchard said.

“She threw her hands out to the side and said, ‘Mama, what the F do you want from me?’ And I threw my hands out and said, ‘If you would just not die, that would be great.’ ”

Those words marked a turning point – in both of their lives.

“That’s when it hit me: ‘Just don’t die.’ That was literally the moment my brain shifted. Because even standing there, bleeding, I was looking at my baby, and she was OK. And that was all that mattered.”

Harm Reduction

From then on out it was all about harm reduction – extreme harm reduction. In fact, Blanchard actually opened up her home to the cause. That extra effort not only saved Kaylen’s life, but it brought mother and daughter closer than they’d been in forever.

“I would rather my daughter sit at my dining room table and do what she’s got to do than hide behind a dumpster or a Burger King and die.”

While Blanchard still considers what she does to be enabling; she now has a whole new spin on the word enabling.

“It enables health,” she said. “Folks gonna do what folks gonna do. If you’ve never watched someone sharpen a used hypodermic needle on a brick to inject a substance, well, watch that happen. Watch it be your child. You’ll change your mind real quick.”

Dull needles aside, this new form of enabling didn’t come easy.

“First box of syringes I bought my daughter, I drove around the corner and puked down the side of my Jeep,” she said.

Never Use Alone: Every Call Counts

Once Blanchard settled into save-the-day mode, the saving ramped-up exponentially.

“Every fucking thing I did was about Kaylen not dying,” she says. “Then it was about her and her homie not dying. Now it’s about the entire town.”

Blanchard’s being modest. Her boots-on-the-street efforts might be physically focused on Albany and the surrounding Southwest Georgia environs, but Never Use Alone stretches from coast to coast. Everyone gets the same caring treatment though, no matter where they’re calling from.

Blanchard picked up her own treatment protocol after being thrown into the deep end. But thanks to a regular NUA caller named Steve, she got the gist quick. Now Blanchard’s answering multiple calls a day.

In fact, calls come in so frequently the only time Blanchard doesn’t answer is when she’s already on the line with another caller.

Whoever the caller though, Blanchard treats each as if she is speaking with her daughter. Since Kaylen also uses the line though, Mom gets a head’s-up before she calls. After all, even the most open-minded mom has to draw the line somewhere.

Blanchard acknowledges that Never Use Alone is far from the most perfect solution. It is an entirely volunteer operation, with only about 20 people answering between 250 and 300 calls a week. Nevertheless, for those it’s so far kept alive, it’s a veritable godsend.

This piece is culled from “The Woman on the Line”/”The Call” by Aymann Ismail and Mary Harris, a joint effort from Slate and This American Life. It was lightly edited for clarity.

Never Use Alone Image courtesy Filter Magazine. Thank you.

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