Q&A: Justin Shytle on harm reduction, naloxone and recovery

SPREADING THE WORD: Justin Shytle, who handles safe syringe program container pickup for Sunrise Community for Recovery and Wellness, has trained local restaurants and bars on how to administer naloxone. Photo by Jessica Wakeman

Justin Shytle moved to Asheville when he was 7 years old and remembers a childhood attending Bele Chere and skating around the former Vance Monument.

But at 14, their childhood came to an abrupt end when they discovered their father dead from an overdose. The experience “opened the door for my IV drug use and mental health issues,” says Shytle, who uses they/them pronouns. They had previously experimented with smoking marijuana, drinking, taking pills and hallucinogens. But “after my dad’s death, I went right to shooting pain pills and heroin,” they explain.

Then “in high school, getting high was a cool thing, and I wanted to be cool,” Shytle continues. “So I took it to the limit and used as much as I could.” They primarily took heroin and benzodiazepines (a class of anti-anxiety drugs such as Xanax), and “had a year’s streak with meth,” they explain. After being flagged for potential abuse of their Xanax prescription, Shytle began buying pills off the street.

During their teen years, Shytle underwent juvenile probation and was placed in psychiatric wards and in-patient treatment. But they continued to use drugs to excess, resulting in 11 overdoses. Their first experience being administered Narcan to reverse an overdose occurred at age 17.

In March 2020, after 12 years of misusing substances, Shytle pursued recovery through a combination of medication-assisted treatment, harm reduction strategies and the support of a peer support specialist.

Shytle subsequently trained as a peer support specialist and earned their certification in June 2021. Today, they are the harm reduction community educator for Sunrise Community for Recovery and Wellness, a recovery nonprofit that works in partnership with the Buncombe County Department of Health and Human Services to educate the community about harm reduction. Employing individuals such as Shytle is part of N.C.’s Opioid and Substance Use Action Plan.

Shytle spoke with Xpress about distributing naloxone, the concept of “tough love” and why they believe “meeting someone where they’re at” is crucial for substance misuse recovery.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your job at Sunrise is teaching people about harm reduction, like how to reverse opioid overdoses with naloxone. How do you get naloxone out into the community?

[Sunrise employees] always have some to hand out to make sure people have it. We’ve been doing training at different housing authorities, trying to pass as much out as possible and to train folks on how to use it. I do trainings for businesses, treatment centers, solo, whatever. As long as you’re wanting to be educated, I’m going be there.

Is it hard to convince people to get trained on how to administer naloxone or to carry it?

A lot of folks will act like you’re assuming that they participate in activities where Narcan would have to be used. I mean, my grandma had to Narcan someone!

You just never know when you’re going to come across [someone overdosing]: out on a drive, bus stops, the grocery store, bathrooms in the grocery store, parks — everywhere. I always got high in parking lots, so I could have easily been somebody overdosing in the car.

Safe syringe use is another tenet of harm reduction. There are a lot of people who believe that supplying clean needles to people enables their drug use or that people who are using substances need to get some “tough love.” What are your thoughts on that?

That whole “tough love” thing is out of the question. It’s all about just loving and meeting someone where they’re at. I don’t try to push anything on that person. If they want to go use drugs, I just want to make sure they’re safe. We’ll give them clean syringes to help reduce any hepatitis C or HIV.

“Meeting someone where they’re at” can feel like a tall order. Like, I have a sibling who has struggled with substance use most of their life. And it’s really hard to watch a loved one make choices that hurt themselves and those around them. You just want to force them to stop, you know?

I’ll speak personally. People would want to throw detox on me, or treatment, or religion, and push and push and push. I just wasn’t feeling it. When that person would do that, I wouldn’t want to be around them anymore because I knew what their agenda was. With us at Sunrise, when we go meet someone, we’re not going to drown them with stuff that they should be doing. If they one day want to try something different, we’re there to guide them with experience.

Was there one event in your life that led you to pursue recovery, or was it a series of events?

A series. The legal system, treatment centers — a lot of it was forced. I wasn’t ready to get in recovery during those times. Eventually, I got sick of the suffering, like being sick and tired all the time.

You’ve been in recovery for 31 months. What’s being in recovery like?

It’s a lot of work on yourself. The drugs are a problem, but you are the problem, too. There are different kinds of recovery setups — some use the 12 steps and a higher power, medication-assisted treatment.

I imagine it’s difficult for some people to accept what you just said — “you are the problem, too.”

Somewhat. A lot of recovery deals with mental health or trauma. Anything that you’re not comfortable with or OK with can lead you to using substances.

One last question: Do you have the most tattoos of anybody associated with the health department?

Yeah, I would say so!


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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