July, 2016: Kyle Johnston is returning to his treatment facility to attend one of three recovery meetings he will take part in this week. He had just spent the last couple of days at the hospital for the birth of his daughter. This meeting felt different for him. Everything felt different.

“I told people that I would never go back into that life, that my daughter was my motivation,” Johnston said.

His ambition was swiftly shot down.

“I’m being told that my daughter wasn’t good enough,” Johnston said. “That no, nothing outside of me would ever be good enough to stop me from using drugs.”  

He felt like his heart had been ripped out. The light he saw at the end of the tunnel was suddenly much further away. 

Johnston, a native Clevelander, is a father, a son, a brother and a husband. He is a Black man who has faced the obstacles of addiction and overcome them, and since 2020, Johnston has been fighting against the stigma and stereotypes that target people who use drugs.

In November last year, Johnston was one of about 100 attendees at the Ohio Harm Reduction Summit in Granville, harm reduction specialists from across the region gathered to discuss the decriminalization of drugs for mothers and those who give birth, the growing psychedelic movement to improve mental health and the future of harm reduction in Ohio. 

Advocating for Empathy

Johnston stared blankly at a computer screen, reading a Facebook post about a man who passed away from an overdose sent to him by a friend. He clicked on the comment section and was repulsed by what he saw.

The stigma against individuals who use drugs, Johnston said, can be isolating and harmful even after death. The man who lost his life had recently broken up with his partner, and on Facebook, most commenters blamed her for his death. 

“You have blood on your hands,” one person told her. 

Johnston felt compelled to respond.

“How horrible do you think she feels?” he asked. “How horrible do you have to be to blame the partner for their death when the only person that was loving him unconditionally was her because everyone else was too busy ignoring his phone calls because of stigma?” 

Johnston’s goal is to create more inclusive spaces for people in recovery from substance use disorder, something not always afforded to him during his own recovery.

Finding Acceptance

In April 2009, Johnston enlisted in the U.S. Marines. While in the Marines, he had his wisdom teeth removed and afterward was prescribed Percocet, a prescription opiate. Johnston received refills until he departed from the Marines in 2011, when he was honorably discharged after experiencing a mental health crisis.

When he returned home in 2011, he quickly began feeling symptoms of withdrawal. After approaching a friend at the time about this, he was told to find other ways of accessing opiates. So that’s what he did. 

“So when I got to the point of active addiction, it was after years of struggling, years of trying to survive,” Johnston said.

By March 2017, Johnston found his way into a 12-step program in Cleveland  — his third time. Though this would be his longest and most successful stint, Johnston bristled at the regime of the 12-step program, and said some members belittled him.

He decided he wanted his sponsor to be someone he could connect with through his identity, and his sponsor was an older Black man with dreadlocks like Johnston’s. 

“I knew why I picked him,” Johnston said. “It was because of the feeling of wanting to be accepted by part of the Black community or someone who represents that community. Something I wasn’t really given growing up.”  

Johnston said he did not find the support and acceptance he sought from his sponsor, and at his thrice-per-week meetings, he felt singled out and, at times, verbally abused by other attendees. 

At that point, Johnston told his sponsor, “It has been a year since my last drink … I don’t live that way anymore. I don’t conduct myself that way anymore.” 

Dropping the Label

In 2022, Black Ohioans made up 20% of the total opioid overdose deaths. By July 2023, that percentage rose to 21.9%, according to Harm Reduction Ohio — an alarming increase that continues to get worse. Those statistics only motivate Johnston to sink his teeth deeper into harm reduction advocacy. 

Harm reduction calls for advocates to prioritize safety of people who use drugs, and Johnston said it’s all about being prepared.

“It’s like this: you wake up, and you notice that it’s a little chilly outside,” Johnston said. “It’s a little cloudy, but for right now, you don’t feel like wearing a jacket. Okay, so we’re just going to bring your jacket, and because it’s cloudy, you bring your umbrella. It’s that simple.”

The movement was pioneered by members of Black and LGBTQ+ communities who defied federal obstacles throughout the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s who inspired Johnston to continue their work in his own way. 

At Thrive Peer Support, a recovery organization, Johnston learned about harm reduction from his co-worker Ashley Rosser. To this day, Johnston still credits Rosser for starting him on the path of harm reduction advocacy.

Johnston learned more about how stigma targets people of color, how access to care is more challenging for minority communities.

Across Ohio, Johnston said there’s little support for facilities offering recovery options for people of color. 

“Those places are understaffed,” he explained. “They have little to no money. They’re on the worst side of town, and it’s so stigmatized just to get there and stay there. You have to put up with any inhumane treatment. Why is it that the BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] community in need of help has to deal with abuse to get it?” 

Johnston went on to create his own advocacy website, DropTheLabel, where he shares information about trauma-informed recovery and debunks misinformation and stigma. In tandem with his website, Johnston is also very active on social media, advocating for people who use drugs.

Harm reduction “saved my identity and humanity because every program before that kept telling me that I needed to give up my free will,” Johnston said. “It kept telling me that I wasn’t special, that I wasn’t unique. They told me to sit down and take the cotton out of my ears and stick it in my mouth.”

She is Enough

Johnston has been sober for more than six years and continues to advocate for people who use drugs, fighting the stereotypes that work against them. More importantly, he said, he is present in his daughter’s life every day.

Existing stigmas predicted something different for Johnston. 

His daughter was born dependent on opiates in 2016, and he was told by those around him that she would not be “enough” to sustain his recovery. 

Today, she is seven years old, and is as much a kid as a kid could ever be.

“My daughter is extremely intelligent,” Johnston said. “She is a singer, a dancer, a painter, an avid YouTube person, but she also likes going outside. But stigma would have told me differently.” 

She is enough, he said.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org. To learn how to get support for mental health, drug or alcohol issues, visit FindSupport.gov. If you are ready to locate a treatment facility or provider, you can go directly to FindTreatment.gov or call 800-662-HELP (4357).

Naloxone is available through Harm Reduction Ohio, Newark Homeless Outreach, and Licking County Health Department.