After back to back months of record illicit drug overdose deaths in B.C., a former user who escaped Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside alive after battling homelessness and addiction for decades is working to educate and inspire others with his recovery.
Today, Guy Felicella has a home, a wife, and three young children – including a new baby boy – but life has been a wild ride.
“Every time I got knocked down, I continued to keep getting back up,” he told Global News.
Felicella started using cannabis at age 12 before moving on to harder drugs. He spent nearly 20 years living in a two-block radius of the notorious neighbourhood, hooked on heroin and trapped in the vicious cycle of addiction.
“I was either going to die in my addiction or I was going to die trying to get out.”
After fentanyl hit the streets, he overdosed six times but said staff at Insite saved him each time. When North America’s first legal supervised injection site arrived in 2003, Felicella signed up to use in a safe environment.
“I’ve been brought back to life six times,” he said.
“Addiction really threw everything at me. If it wasn’t for that safety net of harm reduction then there would be no recovery.”
With just the clothes on his back and a pair of sandals, Felicella left the Dowtown Eastside for Surrey in 2013, where he found a safe rooming house to live in and started rebuilding his life. He tried suboxone, an opioid replacement treatment, for nine months.
“Every time I continued to relapse, people welcomed me back and said ‘Hey, you’ll do it next time and keep trying,'” recalled Felicella.
That continued compassion pushed him to succeed, and he eventually got clean.
“Don’t let the shame of your mistakes hold you back from your potential.”
Now 50, he has a career as a peer clinical advisor with the B.C. Centre on Substance Use and as a public speaker – advocating for a safe supply of drugs not tainted with fentanyl.
“We’re paying a lot more not doing it,” the former user told Global News.
Felicella said clean drugs would not only prevent fatal overdoses but also allow users to relapse without dying while they struggle to beat addiction.
“The drug war is forcing people to continue to use alone and die because of it and these deaths are preventable,” said Felicella.
One-hundred-and-seventy-five British Columbians, or almost six a day, died of illicit drug overdoses in June in the deadliest month on record since the opioid crisis was declared a public health emergency in 2016. The previous high was 171 deaths in May.
Last month provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry renewed her call for access to “clean” drugs for people with addictions.
Henry has said a rise in drug toxicity across B.C. combined with the isolating elements of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to people using deadly drugs alone.
Felicella fears July’s fatal overdose numbers will be just as grim as the previous two months.
“It’s tragic and you know, it hurts me a lot to see people struggle.”
The former user turned drug educator is urging others to reach out and never use alone. Felicella said he’s living proof that kindness can change the direction of someone’s life.
“A little compassion really goes a long way,” he said.
“You know what, it turned out really good in my life.”