Cracked lives

- August 25, 2010

One of the images in In Our Own Words by Martha Little.

“I get caught and go to jail so I don’t hurt myself ... to stop beatin’ the hell outta myself. I hurt.”

“I call myself a sick person trying to get off my journey.”

“The guilt kills you ... what you’ve done to your family. I’d walk to the middle of the bridge.”

When Martha Little was thinking of what she could do as a project for one of her nursing classes, the fourth-year Community Health Nursing, the voices of the people she met during her practicum at the Mainline Needle Exchange on Cornwallis Street ran through her head. Addicted, impoverished and yet striving for understanding, “they were barely treated as human anymore. I wanted to empower these people, who are traditionally voiceless. I wanted to de-stigmatize them.”

SEE PHOTOS: In Our Own Words, a Glimpse Beyond the Stigma of Crack Addiction

“I realize,” she continues, “it’s kinda like turning around the Queen Mary in a tight spot, but you’ve got to try – right?”

Back at university some 30 years after her first degree, Ms. Little, 55, turned to what she knew best: art making.

“When I went back to school I was definitely the old girl in class,” she says with a laugh. Since June she’s been working with patients with mental health issues at the Abbie J. Lane Hospital. “But I’m happy to say I graduated with distinction, woo hoo!”

Her exhibition, In Our Own Words, a Glimpse Behind the Stigma of Crack Addiction, ran for several weeks earlier this summer. Consisting of collages collected in ziplock baggies, the art pieces hung in the window of Propeller Brewery and were visible inside the brewery and on Gottingen street.

She interviewed six crack-addicted clients of Mainline – using their faces and words as the basis for the work. The results are poignant, disturbing, unforgettable. One addict who didn’t want his face used is represented as a coyote, “because they fend for themselves,” he told her.

He also described what crack means to him – “puking, shitting, the sweats, your eyes water, you shake. You don’t want to move. It’s miserable ... one hundred times worse than the flu. You get depressed. It scares you cause you get that sick. Your body won’t let you stop. But your mind wants to.”

Ms. Little is particularly interested in other health-care workers seeing the exhibition so that she can bring some understanding to the underlying, deep-seated problems faced by addicted people. For example, the six people she interviewed are dealing with much more than drug abuse; they’ve been abandoned as children, sexually abused, mutilated themselves and been in trouble with the law.

“People experiencing drug addictions are treated badly, that’s what they tell me. They’re judged as drug seeking, no matter what ails them.”

Diane Bailey, program director at Mainline Needle Exchange, calls the exhibition "amazing." A recovering addict herself, she says it's hard for people to look past the addiction to see the person underneath. The Mainline Needle Exchange program is a health promotion project dedicated to supporting current and former drug users through harm reduction programs.

“All of a sudden they’ll look at you differently and you’re judged. You’re an addict,” she says. “I think that’s what’s amazing about Martha’s work – the clients are presented as being more than an addiction.”

“It’s so complex and people tend to simplify it down to 'you’ve got a choice: stop or continue,'” explains Megan Aston, associate professor with the School of Nursing. “If only it was so easy. But, as Martha’s exhibition shows, addiction is a complex story.”

READ: The essay by Megan Aston that accompanied Martha Little's exhibition. (doc)


All comments require a name and email address. You may also choose to log-in using your preferred social network or register with Disqus, the software we use for our commenting system. Join the conversation, but keep it clean, stay on the topic and be brief. Read comments policy.

comments powered by Disqus