Healing the “Sickness of Our Secrets” – Cheri Speelman (POY 33)

Cheri Speelman leads The AIDS Outreach Project near Seattle, helping those at risk for drug-related afflictions. Here she shares her compassionate outlook.

Cheri Speelman leads The AIDS Outreach Project near Seattle, helping those at risk for drug-related afflictions. Here she shares her compassionate outlook.

About Cheri and The AIDS Outreach Project

Although she works in drug outreach, a field with an average employee turnover rate of two years, Cheri Speelman loves her job. She’s the Program Director at The AIDS Outreach Project, a small, mostly volunteer based organization in Snohomish County, Washington, not far from Seattle. She spends her days offering services like syringe exchanges, health education, and informal counseling for users of injection drugs throughout the county.

“I really think that, in the world we live in, there are not enough emotionally safe places for people to be,” Cheri said in Episode 33 of The Plural of You. “I wanted to be one of those people who could set sacred space for other people, at least while they are with me.”

As someone who experienced addiction herself in the past, Cheri empathizes with her clients and their needs. Many are homeless, dealing with unresolved traumatic experiences, or face other hardships that amplify the allure of drugs like heroin and methamphetamines.

“Mostly people need somebody to stand there, see what’s going on, and encourage them to do their best,” Cheri said. “[Many] were abused in some way, and they’ve conformed to being abused in order to survive.”

Why Cheri’s work matters

The Edmonds News, a local news publication, declared in 2015 that heroin deaths in Snohomish County were among the highest in Washington state. Whereas ten percent of Washington’s residents live in the county, they said, about twenty percent of the state’s heroin-related deaths occur there, often among young adults.

Cheri and The AIDS Outreach Project work in partnership with other organizations to reduce the risks associated with injection drug use. A one-for-one syringe exchange is their most frequent offering, in which users can swap dirty, used syringes for clean ones anonymously. She also gives training on proper use and provides items like alcohol wipes or tourniquets upon request.

The purpose of services like these is to prevent the spread of diseases like AIDS, remove used needles from public places, and lower the rate of drug overdoses in the area.

“People do lots of harm to their bodies just with the needle, without the drug,” Cheri said. “They will usually have one or two and use them until the numbers are worn off.”

The group is based in Everett but also travels to communities across Snohomish County, going where they see the greatest need.

Cheri Speelman posing in 2010 with syringes collected from public grounds.
Cheri Speelman posing in 2010 with syringes collected from public grounds. (Source)

Harm reduction

Cheri promotes an approach to drug use called harm reduction, which aims to help drug users establish safer behaviors while using. Opponents of this approach claim that services like syringe exchanges enable users to avoid the negative consequences of their habits.

“We come from the thinking that people are going to do what they are going to do until they are done doing it,” Cheri said. “Just because somebody doesn’t have a clean syringe or whatever they need to get their drug into their body, it’s not going to stop them from using.” She added, “In the meantime, we can prevent them from overdosing and dying. We can prevent them from getting diseases and passing them on.”

Cheri noted that, as a result of their syringe exchange program and other efforts to remove used needles from public places, communities around the county have been made safer for non-users. According to the Facebook page for the project, over half a million dirty syringes were removed in 2011 from Snohomish County alone.

Cheri expressed pride in the secondary benefits her organization provides, including encouragement for those who otherwise had no other source for it.

“We’re enabling people to take care of themselves,” Cheri said. “Every little bit you can talk to people, they can take care of themselves better, and they feel like somebody cares that they’re taking care of themselves better, then they start to feel a little better. They start to consider, ‘Maybe I should cut back.” She added, “It’s baby steps.”

Spreading compassion

As for what the public can do to help people like those she serves, Cheri argued that those experiencing addiction or who are engaging in unsafe behaviors deserve our attention and compassion. “Using is what they do, not who they are,” she said. “They are people, too. They were someone’s baby at one time.”

Cheri added, “If I could change anything, I would change that people could look at addiction and people who are experiencing addictions as human beings, period, without all the judgment of, ‘Oh, they could stop,’ ‘Why don’t they just quit?’ ‘They’re losers,’ or fill in the blank.”

Cheri and The AIDS Outreach Project have established trust among those experiencing addiction in Snohomish County. As a result, injection drug users may be more likely to use their services going forward, whether it be to drop off a used needle, for a medical referral, or for a free hug from Cheri.

“I’ve got plenty of [love] to give. My cup runneth over,” Cheri said with a laugh.

Homework for you

Cheri’s call to pay attention to those who are struggling is a good one, but also consider supporting organizations and policies that would make their lives easier. You can read more about harm reduction at the links below. Talk to people you know about it and spread the word that our drug policies can help users, not just punish them.

Keep in mind: people need help where they are, not where we want them to be.

Further Reading

For book recommendations, check out Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Father Gregory Boyle, which was referenced on this podcast. Also check out Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari, one of the most unflinching yet insightful accounts of how drug users became vilified in our culture.