Editor’s Note: This article touches upon potentially triggering subjects such as sexual assault and drug abuse.
Dana Saltalamachia’s story puts a face to the reality of many drug users: a traumatic background.
Saltalamachia, a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor intern at Integral Care and volunteer at the Austin Harm Reduction Coalition, has been through trauma that is unfathomable for most people. She spent part of her childhood in an abusive foster care family and part of it in the hands of her abusive grandmother.
When Saltalamachia was 12, she was sexually assaulted. The same year, her mother died of a heroin overdose. Her grandmother did not let Dana attend the funeral.
To cope with the pain in her life, she began self-harming in the fifth grade. But Saltalamachia’s traumas piled up. She experienced homelessness, found herself barely escaping human trafficking, was kidnapped on more than one occasion and was forced into sex work. To cope with her traumas, she turned to heroin. It had a hold on her life for 11 years.
“My substance abuse was mostly related to trauma and not having anyone that I trusted or (anyone) to talk to,” Saltalamachia said.
Despite all that she has endured, Saltalamachia has been sober for 11 years and now helps drug users access services such as counseling and basic medical care. The organizations she works with focus on low-income and homeless populations in Austin. With Integral Care, Saltalamachia works on the street outreach team targeting populations at risk for contracting HIV and Hepatitis C.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 15,500 people died from drug overdoses involving heroin in the United States in 2016. Part of Dana’s work at Integral Care and the Austin Harm Reduction Coalition is ensuring that this number goes down.
Saltalamachia said that one challenge vulnerable populations face, such as those experiencing homelessness, is that they do not know what services are available or how to access them.
“Even if you want help, (they’re) so overwhelming to figure out,” Saltalamachia said. “When I was using, I didn’t know I could go to a treatment center for free.”
James Lee, a member of UT’s chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy and philosophy and sociology junior, has volunteered with Saltalamachia at the Austin Harm Reduction Coalition. Lee said the Austin Harm Reduction Coalition does not just save lives by reviving those who overdose, but by giving them a community.
“The big purpose of harm reduction is to be a point of contact and a stable community figure for people who are in a reckless point of their life and (Dana) is that person who provides a lot of stability,” Lee said.
Anand Pant, Students for Sensible Drug Policy member and MIS senior, said Saltalamachia’s work in harm reduction is so valuable because she can truly empathize with those who suffer from addiction.
“She has an amazing background in terms of teaching people about what it’s actually like to be in the midst of addiction,” Pant said.
Pant also said Saltalamachia truly meets people where they are at — one of the values she emphasizes the most.
“Instead of passing judgment on the next person, you could change someone’s life,” Saltalamachia said. “It’s about meeting people where they’re at, not at where you think they should be.”