WITNESS FOR JUSTICE #1139 Harm Reduction Healing

Erica Poellot

It has been 7,349 days since I last used illicit opioids. Truthfully, at this point in my journey, I rarely count days anymore. A ritual that once held immense importance for me has given way to different ways of measuring the trajectory of healing in my life. However, this January 3rd, the annual marker of freedom from the hold of my problematic relationship with drugs felt quite different.

I am certain that the difference I felt has little to do with the twenty years that have passed since the day I reached out for help, but more so with the freedom I am growing into to share this part of my story publicly and to tell the truth about what my path to recovery has looked like.

My pathway to healing has evolved over time and has looked different from season to season. It has included abstinence in twelve-step fellowships, moderated use, medication for substance use disorder, and spiritual and trauma care. In every season, it has included and prioritized connection in community and harm reduction.

When I think about the barriers to accessing care and healing that I experienced, the stigmatization and criminalization of people who use drugs were ever present forces. Stigma manifested for me as deep shame, fear of punishment and coercion, separation from community support, and ultimately in a planned, yet thankfully prevented, suicide.

Drug-related stigma also manifests systemically and is powerfully expressed by policies that limit access to evidence-based treatment and healthcare including harm reduction, punish individuals and their families through separation, deportation, and incarceration, and draw on dehumanizing moral narratives about people who use drugs, taking the heaviest toll on people who are marginalized.

As a result of stigma and criminalization, rates of overdose fatalities have skyrocketed, surpassing 110,000 deaths in a single year while disproportionately impacting Black and Indigenous communities. Overdose deaths increased 65% among adolescents during a similar time period and are now a leading cause of death among pregnant and postpartum people. All the while, only 1 in 10 people with substance use disorder are able to access treatment, with even greater barriers to access experienced by people of color, rural communities, and LGBTQ+ persons.

My healing from substance use disorder has been integrally connected to my personal and professional work to dismantle the stigma of drug use, which foregrounds the leadership of people with lived experience and elevates awareness about the many valid pathways to healing, including harm reduction. My success has been found in the embrace and wisdom of others with lived experience of SUD and overdose, within a church that was and is unafraid to make space for truth telling and bold community ministry. My successful healing is rooted in connection and community in the harm reduction movement.

We can be faith communities of compassionate embrace, justice seeking spaces where people who use drugs are seen, valued, and invited to lead. We can mobilize love to end overdose and the stigmatization of people who use drugs. Join me in inviting others out of the shadows and celebrating healing in all of its forms!

Join us in putting love into action with people who use drugs at Harm Reduction and Overdose Prevention Ministries!

God of Compassion, draw ever close to us now!

We call upon your divine justice and your fierce love to hold us.

We gather in solidarity with the community of the beloved, those of us whose lives are touched by substance use disorder and overdose.

That your love, your healing, your power free us from the webs of stigma and shame.

That the weapons of bias and criminalization against the most vulnerable among us be put away.

We claim the fullness of our humanity and dignity which are our birthrights.

Strengthen us, Loving God, as we continue to dismantle the many barriers to compassionate care, grant us the courage to claim our own paths to recovery, and sustain us when hope is hard to come by.

Unleash your Holy Spirit among us, that we can continue to mobilize justice and love in your name and create communities of wellness where all are called by name, Beloved.


Rev. Erica M. Poellot is the Minister of Harm Reduction and Overdose Prevention Ministries for the United Church of Christ, Executive Director of Faith In Harm Reduction, and Senior Ministry Innovator at Judson Memorial Church in 

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