by Maggie McPhee
VANCOUVER – In 2017, 80 per cent of Vancouver street drugs tested positive for fentanyl, resulting in a record 1,420 deaths by overdose in the city. The Canadian government responded by investing in front-line harm-reduction initiatives, such as distributing naloxone, but has done little to address the systemic issues that cause addiction and leave women especially vulnerable.
Chrysalis Society, BC’s only gender-specific, long-term residential addiction and mental health care facility for women, tries to meet this complex crisis with a proportionately holistic and integrated solution.
This September, they celebrate 30 years of serving over 3,000 women. BeatRoute spoke with Executive Director Shannon Skilton about the broader socio-political problems – systemic oppression, sexism, gendered violence, an irresponsible medical system – and Chrysalis’s role in combating these problems to assist the 80 or so women who secure a spot in one of their three homes every year. Though soft-spoken, she had some hard things to say.
“There are real barriers within our system of healthcare for persons with addiction issues,” Skilton explains. “The majority of women who access [our] services have had challenges with prescription drug use because doctors readily prescribe women benzodiazepines.” At walk-in clinics, patients can only address a single issue, and doctors prioritize quick fixes over the big picture, prescribing medication to symptoms that are actually side effects from other medication. “We’ve had women come in on 16 different medications. Our house doctor works to stabilize the woman, so she no longer feels like she’s in a chemical straitjacket.”
Sexism prevails at every point in a woman’s route to recovery, whether it’s the smaller number of recovery beds allotted to her, or the gendered violence she is statistically more likely to have experienced in her lifetime. This year, 96 per cent of the women who entered Chrysalis reported histories of violence.
“There are very few resources for women that are feminist based, meaning the lens is anti-oppressive,” Skilton says. “We see things intersectionally – it’s not one thing that has created any one situation for a woman. Addiction doesn’t happen in a vacuum and neither does recovery. That holistic, broad lens is really important.”
Chrysalis works with each woman to build up an individualized recovery plan, respecting her autonomy in her healing. The women are supported to “identify what is and is not healthy and then determine whether they want to continue to live with some of that,” Skilton says. “We do not tell them one way or the other.” But the house is a safe space for the women to rediscover their independence.
Beyond that, they connect the women – from group meals and outings, to partnering newcomers with a Big Sister – to a community. “We’re trying to support them to learn how to experience the world drug-free,” Skilton says. “Part of addiction is isolation and being disconnected from community and family, so connection is a huge piece in terms of recovery.”
Living together in a home for over a year offers the women a chance to occupy an environment that builds dignity and self-respect. “By providing non-institutional homes we reduce the added impacts of the multifaceted stigmas they live with and internalize.” Skilton points to the women “breaking bread” with each other. For most, it represents their first time sharing meals, or even sitting at a table.
Chrysalis’s programs provide women opportunity to create and sustain community with each other, while they are in residence and afterwards. Half the staff are alumni of the programs, and anyone who has ever resided in Chrysalis’s homes for any length of time is respected as an alumnus, regardless of her process or outcomes. Rather than vilify, Chrysalis normalizes and supports relapse, for harm reduction purposes.
“We do not penalize women for choosing to leave when they choose to leave,” Skilton says. “We are just seed planters.”
If Chrysalis are seed planters, they are planting in infertile soil, and each flower that blooms is a miracle.
The Chrysalis Society celebrates its 30th anniversary on September 16 at Heritage Hall.