Smack and Snowflakes

Sometimes life smacks you in the face.

Yesterday I went to public toilets in Belfast and saw what I thought was a bundle of rags in a cubicle.

Until I realised I could see an elbow.

And the plastic plunger of a syringe.

I’m not going to go into all the details.  It is enough to say that the young woman lying in the cubicle was alive, conscious and eventually unlocked the door. 

All she wanted, she said, was a cup of tea to warm her up. 

I didn’t believe it when I first saw her face. 

You see, I had met her before.  About a year ago, hunkered on the pavement in the rain outside Patisserie Valerie in Belfast city centre.  I was with my friend, Lyra McKee, who was shot dead in April this year in Derry.

All who knew Lyra also knew she was a legend.

Lyra greeted her by name and hugged her.  She asked her if she was alright and how much she needed.  When the young woman told her, Lyra went to a nearby ATM, but hadn’t got her card with her.  I’m ashamed to say that when Lyra asked me if I could give her the amount, I hesitated before agreeing.

Lyra knew everyone living on the streets in Belfast.  She never passed one by without talking to them about how they were and helping them if she could.

That was the type of her.

Lyra shamed me with her compassion.  That day I vowed that I would never again pass anyone in the street without trying to show the same empathy as my beautiful friend.

A week after she died, I met a man who lived in a tent.  He moved around a bit, but on this day he was on Great Victoria Street.

I asked him if he had known Lyra, but he didn’t think he had ever come across her. 

I think it was the self-centred nature of those who have been recently bereaved that made that my first question. 

But I was grateful that he went on to tell me his story.

Since then I’ve tried to engage more on the streets.  I don’t always succeed, but I keep trying.

So do a lot of people I know. 

And they are as puzzled as I am by the lack of official response to the cries for help.

One told me that the reason so many public buildings have that very irritating blue lighting in their toilets is because it makes it difficult for addicts to get a clear view of their veins.

That is chilling in its callousness.

But talk and tutting isn’t enough. 

We need action by local authorities, health boards to work with the voluntary sector  right across the country to introduce drug consumption rooms here and now.

Last night I was contacted by Gillian Shorter, a Reader in Psychology at the University of Ulster who specialises in addiction science to empower change.

She told me that ‘We have heavy losses every year, and often opioid overdoses are found by the public.

‘A drug consumption room would save lives, allow police officers to move folks on somewhere and make a real difference.

‘People could live.  Feel human.   Feel empowered to make change and in a context where those who inject drugs are regularly threatened and intimidated in a way which is exclusive to Northern Ireland.’

Saying that she could go on for days, Gillian added that she had visited over drug consumption rooms around the world.  In over 90 of the DCRs, no-one has died yet.

‘Imagine how amazing it would be if we could help the most vulnerable here.’

In the 1996 Brad Pitt film Fight Club, one of the best lines has become synonymous with the idea that some feel especially entitled and privileged. 

‘You are not special.  You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.’

If you find this offensive, work on it.  You might be a snowflake too. 

Just imagine how wonderful it would be if we realised instead that we are all just one breath away from death. As Bob Marley said, ‘one love, one heart, let’s get together and feel all right.’

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