“StoryLab is full of brave souls with big hearts, uplifting and giving back to their community. That’s why I joined.”

Shawnee’s story and why they’re telling it


I am privileged enough to be an educated person, who is articulate, compassionate and empathic. However, throughout my life, I have had my identity and existence invalidated by the engulfing weight of stigma and discrimination. I have been completely reduced as a human being by people’s prejudices.

I have my own lived experience of drug dependence, and with that, I’ve been treated disrespectfully and without compassion by all walks of society, from complete strangers to medical professionals.

Story Lab changes the narrative of drug use through the sharing of real people’s stories. It’s about putting the human being at the forefront. That’s powerful. StoryLab is full of brave souls with big hearts, uplifting and giving back to their community. That’s why I joined.

Hearing the honesty from everyone who has shared pieces of themselves through StoryLab is something I hold close to my heart.

The tools and skills we’ve received in narrative training, media training and legal support have been sensational. Now, we get to use these skills for the greater good. Hopefully hearing these stories will change people’s perspective of those who use drugs and help them to see that the war on drugs is a victory-less battle. 

I’ve been silenced and left in the lurch by people that I thought never would. People who you’d think are there to look out for you. Often this has been at the hands of medical professionals when I’ve noticed a stark difference in how they treat me after I’ve opened up about drug use.

On one occasion, I was locked in a lightless storage cupboard, with nothing but a cup of water, for hours when I attended a hospital to seek help for a drug-induced psychosis. I wasn’t a threat to anyone or a harm to myself; I was just terrified about what I was experiencing. I wish I had a voice to be able to speak up then… if anyone would have listened.

If those who fear drug use can listen to those people who use drugs, they would realise we all have a lot more in common than you may think. We are often incredibly thoughtful individuals with brilliant ideas. By having dialogue around drug use, we can start to debunk the common misconceptions people have around those who use drugs and put an end to discriminating stereotypes.

People who use drugs are often all painted with the same brush. If we use drugs, we must be addicts – and once an addict, always an addict. We must all be uneducated, belong to a low socio-economic bracket, or be from broken homes. That in some way we are ‘dirty’ and undignified. That’s so wrong and it’s these disparaging remarks that need to change. Some of the most thoughtful, considerate, passionate and knowledgeable people I know are people who use drugs.

The caffeine in your morning coffee, the alcohol you drink during times of celebration, the nicotine in the cigarettes you smoke to destress, or medications you may take for anxiety – they’re all drugs. Consuming these doesn’t mean you are any less of a person and nor does it condemn you to any of the aforementioned stereotypes. Not all drug use ends up being problematic – and where it does, compassion and understanding need to be at the forefront.

While working in the AOD industry, I’ve averted police who were trying to arrest a homeless person for not obeying their move on order when this person was experiencing withdrawals and having multiple seizures. He literally couldn’t get up or form sentences, he was so unwell. If they had arrested him, rather than allowing me to call an ambulance for him – which rushed him to the ICU – he would have been another death in custody. Tell me this is not a health-related issue.

In the last 10 years, we’ve come a long way in dismantling negative views around mental health and seeking help. It’s no longer common to hear someone being referred to as a “psycho” or a “nut-job” for seeing a doctor or psychologist. And when it is, people are up in arms about it.

People don’t feel as ashamed to speak their truth about what’s going on for them anymore. I think this could be the reality for drug use if we opened the lines of communication.

We don’t have to be scared of speaking up or talking about these issues. If we can start to do the same with drug use as we have with mental health, we can overthrow the burden of being discriminated against due to old ways of thinking. This can then bring about positive change.

Shawnee, 29, is an advocate, activist, public innovator and a member of Unharm. They are sharing their story as part of Unharm’s StoryLab program. 

If you have your own lived experience to share and are passionate about this issue – we’d love to hear from you, as we know that people with lived experience are the best advocates for a more compassionate approach to drug use.  Click here to learn more about sharing your story.