Jamra primary scholl for children affected by HIV/AIDS, drugs or poverty, Senegal (c) Nell Freeman/Alliance Participants in the Photovioce project, Ecuador © Marcela Nievas for the Alliance
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Dedication to Ivan Shekker, Ukraine


Ivan at work in Kyiv (c) Gideon Mendel for the Alliance

These words are dedicated to Ivan Shekker, or ‘Vanya’, manager of one of the largest injecting drug use (IDU) harm reduction projects in Ukraine, implemented by the Eney Club in Kyiv. On August 17, 2010, Ivan died from cancer.

Vanya was 51. He had used drugs for 20 years of his life. The last 10 years he lived in sobriety. From 2002 he worked as a senior social worker, then as manager of an IDU harm reduction project in Kyiv, reaching around 10,000 injecting drug users each year. Ivan managed about 20 social workers going out to syringe exchange sites in Kyiv every day.

Ivan’s nature was an organic combination of humane and ordinary from one side, and endlessly deep and fundamental from the other. As I recall, once after training, we discussed amusing stories of drug users. Ivan told me that when he was in the army, he brought drugs in a toothpaste tube to the quarters and nobody noticed that. In our cheerful talk I asked Vanya how he had managed to start living without drugs. His answer was simple and clear: “By the grace of God, Tanechka”. I felt tingles down my spine…  

I will remember Ivan holding weekly planning meetings at the Eney Club. He sits at the round table in the puffs of cigarette smoke, the low hanging lamp lights up faces of the meeting participants. In the packed room he is surrounded by around 30 people – young, older, different people with different life stories, listening to him enchantedly. Vanya is in the center, speaking clearly, sitting straightly, giving directions.

Below, you will find Ivan’s thoughts that may help you understand what he was like, and will not let you stay indifferent, and will make you consider many things.   

By Tetyana Deshko, International HIV/AIDS Alliance in Ukraine. Ivan’s friend and colleague.

By Ivan Shekker

Extracted from Living Proof

My life of addiction began in deep Soviet times. I was a student, and it was a time to be carefree and look for pleasure in life. It was hard to feel satisfied with life in the Soviet Union, so I allowed myself to experiment with alcohol and I liked it from the very beginning. It gave me ideas. Within about two years it had become an illness. I also began using opiates, which were very thrilling. I am the kind of person who likes to test boundaries, to take a look beyond.

Soon I was also addicted to opiates. I needed them to feel normal, not just to feel high. I found the recipe to make shirka (opiates) from poppy straw. It was easy and it was cheap, and there were ways to support my addiction. I tried every single drug that was available in the Soviet Union, and this was all accompanied by reading these books of the 1970s – those anthropologists, those monsters, those people who wrote about their research with LSD and other psychotropic substances that were so popular underground. It was a cultural thing.

Later, when I came out of the army, my friends were using stimulants (called Jeff, mulka or white). They give such a different high to opiates. They seem to be existentially revealing. You feel: ’Just a little bit more and I will find out how it all works, how the world was created.’ We were speaking about God and grace.

When you have this drug for the first time you talk, talk, talk, and you feel marvellous, gorgeous. Soon we stopped talking about God and began talking about (and practising) sex, which was somehow related. There was a circle, a mystical order of users, and I spent a lot of time with them. There are people who already know what is going to happen to you and they don’t say anything, they just look at you. They don’t care. So I played with all the ingredients of this diabolical cocktail – alcohol, drugs, sex in different combinations.

Normal life was nothing compared to this. It’s all about passions, your strong and primitive emotions. The only way you can stop is if you get scared. I got scared. My central nervous system was destroyed and I knew it. I tried to stop. I turned to church. I was confessed, baptised, given communion, everything. It was difficult, if you think about it, for a drug user – standing for hours in church. I really wanted to stop, but I couldn’t.

Counting the days

I also started going to the 12-step programme (of Alcoholics Anonymous) and it kept me busy. The only way you can get clean is by accumulating clean days: days of waiting. You count the days. You collect them for years. When a mother wants to wean an infant, she makes her breasts bitter. That’s what God did for me by the end of my drug-use career. I couldn’t get any pleasure from the drugs any more. In some mysterious way, day by day, my need went away. Now I am fond of the calm life and am able to feel this peace of being clean before God, and for myself. I am very grateful for every day of my clean life and I don’t feel that I am missing anything.

I come here [to the self-help group] to be able to stay clean. Every day I renew this motivation. We all have to understand that it is not a disease that comes easily, in one day, and can be easily cured. No. You accumulate the disease in time and you have to accumulate your recovery. So I couldn’t say, no one could say, that I will stay clean forever. What we saw in the priton today was quite a trial for me. Who knows if I am able to stay clean tomorrow?

I have good relationships with those who are still actively using, who are not clean. Because if I have pride, and feel myself better than they are, it is not going to do any good. I understand very well how thin the straw is that I am grasping – how narrow the margin between them and me. There can still be entrapment for me; there are still drugs that come to me in my dreams at night. I still want them.

At Club Eney there are many people who have a long record of sobriety. This is very important because they set an example. It is compassion that brings people together and keeps them together. It is brotherhood – people who have gone through the same circles of hell. You know it is possible because you see that some people have gone through it and succeeded, and are happy. And it’s good to see those younger ones start recovering and getting better. It is very important to have each other.

But it is very, very hard not to want drugs after you have already tried them. Because drugs allow people to experience feelings and emotions that they would never have in their normal lives. But when people have suffered enough there is a chance that they will stop. It is difficult, but possible. When they have ruined their health, when they have offended everyone around, when they have hurt their loved ones, when they have lost a lot of money, when they have ruined everything in their lives… there may come a point when they can hold onto sobriety.

In order to treat this disease we have to lead it out from the underground. Because who are the first casualties in this war with drugs? Bright, talented clever people: they die first. I have buried many of my friends – I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count them: my friends with all their gifts and all their genius, and all their brilliance.

For a long time I wasn’t keen to know my HIV status. Knowing is no longer a fetish for me. I prefer to live without things that are not needed. There are also plenty of reasons not to know – you become criminally responsible for infecting others. Besides what’s the hope, there’s no treatment. There’s nothing good that can come of knowing.

This summer I decided to get tested. It was obviously not good news. The CD4 count is not good. The disease is in the AIDS stage. But it is not hopeless. I am holding on, I have hope there will be a cure. And you know what, I feel great. I feel like I am 25 years old, and in the past ten years I have not been ill. Now I feel calm and confident. I don’t need anything more. No need to live through those cycles, those torments. Life is good.

    The first casualties in this war with drugs are bright, talented, clever people