Published 15 November 2021 in Artist Stories
As a paramedic, I have worked on the Vancouver Downtown Eastside (DTES) for 4 years. I'm early in my career and before I started to work in the city, I always thought I would not be able to work on the DTES as I feared I would not be able to navigate the staggering difference in my life to my clients' lives. But when I started, I quickly learned that my compassion and trauma-informed practice would be key to creating connection. Having come from a traumatic childhood myself, it became immediately clear that if it had not been for a few very important people in my life, I would have joined my clients rather than working with them. That became the basis for my work on the DTES.
The DTES is both inspiring in its display of the human experience with raw and real expressions of vulnerability and frailty, with immense stories of strength, resilience and community, and deeply heartbreaking. There are days when all I attend to are overdoses and medical emergencies intertwined with opioid and other drug and alcohol use. In some cases I see the same clients several times a day or over a short period of time. Sometimes, my clients and I connect and share a moment in time that I find deeply nourishing and I hope they do, too. On other days, I face the raw expression of trauma aimed not at me, but my uniform and my privilege, which can look like verbal abuse, physical abuse and even sexual assault. I am clear that such behaviour is a reflection of trauma, rather than the human standing in front of me and regardless, I too am human and impacted.
It is hard to describe the affect and effect of the opioid crisis on first responders like myself. Of course, increased call volume impacts our own resilience - it means we rarely return to our station to have some down time to process the calls we have done and thus face layers of traumatic experiences within ourselves. But more staggering is being present for so many close to death experiences, so many needless deaths and so many experiences weaved into overdoses and addiction. It is impossible not to be affected by observing and working with our clients and witnessing the pain and suffering experienced by so many. And at the end of the day, we return home - privileged to have housing, a reliable income, a world without the constant fear of loss, a world without a constant fear for our own safety, a world padded. Some days the dichotomy sits heavy in my heart.
And so, to find connection to myself, to stop the noise in my head, to process the suffering and the stories, I do art. It gives me the opportunity to release the mind and feel into myself in a way that is not threatening. I practice letting go and allowing the process to unfold, discovering the paintings as they come to life.
I don't start with a plan - I just paint and splash and play and at some point the paintings reveal themselves. Some days, frustration and judgement and low self-worth come screaming out - a reflection of my day, my week, my month, maybe the vicarious trauma. I focus on points of light and how even in the darkest landscapes, light comes through the cracks and presents us with the opportunity to be surprised by the effect of light. Perspective - that's what these pieces represent to me. Shifting perspectives. Allowing the light to infuse our perspective.
By doing art, I am able to show up more whole and connected to myself, which in turn provides opportunities for connection and thus presents more compassion with my clients. It allows me to rejuvenate and connect to something not within me, but greater than I, so that I can do the same with my clients - I practice during art so that it comes more naturally when I am with people.
I feel deeply humbled, inspired, grateful and privileged to have been given the opportunity to share my art in this show. In some ways, it feels uncomfortable to be among a group like this as I am a first responder, touched yes, but in comparison it is hard imagine that anything I am going through is in any way worthy of reflection when addiction takes so much from so many. The impact of the opioid crisis is felt so deeply across our society, like a wave pattern from a drop in water – never ending ripples expanding.
I hope that, in part, this show can bring to light those ripples.