Abstract: Agency and Re-Humanization in Digital Stories About Drug Use: A Community-Based Pilot Project

◆ Rachel Young, University of Iowa
◆ Corinne Peek-Asa, University of Iowa
◆ Sarah Ziegenhorn, Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition
◆ Brandi Janssen, University of Iowa
◆ Abigail Souder, University of Iowa

Harm reduction is a philosophy and a set of public health interventions and practical tools that minimize risk from drug use. Harm reduction services include sterile syringe access and overdose prevention via naloxone distribution to people who use drugs. However, stigma toward people who use drugs prevents the widespread adoption of harm reduction in the U.S.. This pilot project empowered people involved with a local harm reduction organization to tell meaningful personal stories about drug use. In the long term, helping those with experience of drug use share their stories could reduce stigma and promote support for humane drug policy.

Over several months, an interdisciplinary team ran two 2-day digital storytelling workshops. The 15 storytellers were organization staff or volunteers, in recovery from drug use, or currently using drugs. The process was observed by an ethnographic notetaker, and group conversations were transcribed and analyzed.

In preliminary analysis, we identified two main themes: claiming agency over complicated stories and stories as agents of de-humanization and re-humanization. Storytellers relayed how the only spaces for story sharing about drug use were in settings that constrained how stories would be told. One storyteller who’d been through drug court said the story he told about the absurdity of the process would never have been allowed there. Sanctioned stories instead centered judges or other officials as heroes and saviors. Several storytellers agreed that life stories in 12-step spaces required adherence to a strict recovery arc in which people were labeled as clean or dirty with no room for ambiguity. One storyteller pushed back when the two participants before her shared similar narratives of stability after recovery. By questioning the process, she insisted on space for her own story, as someone whose life had not resolved with a happy ending.

Storytellers shared how they felt people who use drugs were dehumanized in the media, in medicine, and among policymakers. Some stories created for the workshop documented de-humanization directly. One story about unsuccessful attempts to reverse an overdose ended with police officers celebrating the arrest of the woman who’d called 911. Other stories contributed to re-humanization. Storytellers talked about fundamental and shared human concerns, like loving your family or helping others, that serve as points of connection in the life stories of people who use drugs and people who don’t. Several storytellers said their stories should be shared more broadly so that, as one storyteller said, people who use drugs might be seen as human.

In sum, this pilot project allowed participants to reclaim power over narratives by telling stories that they wanted to tell and in the way they wanted to tell them. By complicating the stereotypes of people who use drugs, these stories have the potential to build support for harm reduction practices aimed at meeting people where they are and keeping them alive. Future work will explore how digital storytelling might be used to produce stories that address harm reduction policy priorities, and how digital stories might influence stigmatizing beliefs about people who use drugs.