Gary Sutton – Thank you for “never giving up on us.”

Twenty four years ago, I made a new friend. Tragically, he died recently – too young.

Back then, he was working at a GP Surgery on the Docklands. The Doctor there was running a private addiction clinic in the South East End of London. Gary was counselling drug users there, and doing a great job helping them access medicines for HIV , Hep and addiction. A Harm Reduction Clinic extraordinaire.

We were peers in this extraordinary Harm Reduction Movement, a social justice movement initially born to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS among Injection Drug Users (IDUs), which is how we worked together in the Drug Users Rights Forum initially based at RELEASE: 1996-8. We’d both suffered some pain related to Hep and did what we could to support each other with this, even as we got on with our counselling/working lives. One day, he arrived a bit stressed and we were so happy he could make it as there were only a handful of us, and we needed his input. He began to talk about the matters at hand. I looked up to Gary:
a) that was the only way a shorty could view this six footer! But seriously,
b) he was smart and dedicated to his work. As the meeting progressed, I noticed that he was getting kinda dopey, and assumed he was just tired from working all day at the Clinic and then rocking up here. But I wondered about his health:I knew his Liver hurt sometimes. As ‘dopey’ as he became, he did not lose his capacity to think and communicate, (as opposed to myself, who can lose that capacity perfectly alert!) Another time, he invited me to a group he was facilitating, in West London. A few people were obviously high and I was a bit bemused, as most of the groups I’d been part of sometimes excluded active IDUs! Not very inclusive then, but Gary was a purist when it came to reducing harm in the community. Pretty-much everyone was welcome..

He understood so much straight away. Just because he was struggling, did not mean he was unconscious of the impact seeing lots of drugs would have on a person trying to stay off drugs; (particularly the drugs of their addiction.) Such was his pragmatism and sensitivity: he could be a drug worker, sensitive of the needs of the entire spectrum of people who use/d drugs.

This was a time when the UK had the backdrop of a novice-but-pioneering harm reduction movement; so after the realisation that we could not go on denying people clean needles, or drugs for that matter. We, in the movement had managed to convince Prime Minister Thatcher’s government that addiction could be halted, but HIV was invariably fatal (then) so the government must take responsibility to fund needle exchange programs: to stop harming us and the rest of society by letting HIV spread from us – well, that’s how one professor argued the case. The point is , this argumentation worked and Gary Sutton worked day in day out in the trenches, either helping people already ill, or trying to make sure others remained HIV-negative

He was a smart and powerful person in the UK’s harm Reduction Movement, but none of us are invincible. After one of the European Harm Reduction Conferences, and the forced-closure of his workplace/the Clinic , I noticed him looking very thin. His Liver was hurting and so he had begun to eat less.

Weeks later, he came to see me at home, and said he intended to end his life: that it would be a good idea because it might make the powers that be think again about swiping prescriptions away from people who desperately needed drugs daily. There had already been more than enough casualties. And now the State, with its punitive power wanted to sack his boss , a doctor, who was trying to keep people away from the criminal markets with ‘liberal prescribing of psychoactive drugs.’ We were all friends and this cruel episode was very painful, hence his suicidal ideation. I felt desperately sad to hear him speaking like that & leapt into the air, telling him that ending his own life was certainly not an answer and besides he was my friend and I needed him; that many of us loved and cared about him. He survived, and valiantly rose up again, as all Phoenixes do from their ashes.

Mainliners needed an Outreach Worker. Given he already was one, he got that job and continued making sure injectors had access to clean works and essential medicines/prescriptions: reducing harm in an otherwise misunderstood community. By then, was beginning to thrive and he wrote a campaigning article in it, which we still treasure. I was always a bit in awe of his self-determination and capacity to thwart any attempts to question this new style of drug-worker. Sometimes, I wanted to be the same, but mostly we only saw each other when there was a job to do, where we could help each other, so I felt i missed out on learning some of the key prevention ‘tricks of our trade’ – I’d only worked with people already sick and dying from HIV.

As some of you know, he went on to live many more extraordinary years, working as an Expert Witness for RELEASE, the drugs charity: in court, defending people accused of breaking one unhelpful drug law or other. Continuing to work in the field, he also found a wonderful life partner, Monique. Together they made Katie – a great musician and friend to my daughter Milly. After our kids were born, we saw slightly less of each other but I was well-impressed when Gary trained as a psychotherapist and knew that he would help a lot of people in this new role.

I can’t tell you how much people will miss him, but I know it will be A Lot and many.  I am missing this friend & human being – who cared so much. May he rest in peace and power, knowing that his legacy will always make his loved ones proud to have had Gary in their lives.

Andria Efthimiou-Mordaunt, London UK

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