At the age of 12, Guy Felicella began using street substances to cope with the trauma of physical and emotional abuse in his childhood, along with the resulting self-hatred, anxiety, and depression.
His dependence on drugs eventually led him to spend the next 30 years in the repeated cycle of gangs, crime, addiction, treatment, and jail. For 20 of those years, Guy resided in the Downtown Eastside, where he lived through three major public health crises: the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the introduction of opioids, and the beginning of the ongoing fentanyl crisis.
During his time on the streets of the Downtown Eastside, Guy relied on harm reduction measures, like Insite’s safe injection site — which he used over 4000 times — to stay alive.
"I used their detox services, hoping to find recovery,” says Guy. “The staff helped build my self-worth because they treated me like I was someone who mattered.”
In addition to suffering numerous health complications — including 5 bone infections — Guy survived through 6 overdoses requiring resuscitation in the year that opioids hit the streets. In 2013, an overdose left him dead for nearly 7 minutes.
“When I came to, the nurse was in tears and I remember asking her ‘why are you crying?’ and she said ‘because I care,’” recalls Guy. “I was moved by her compassion and it brought me to a place where I knew things had to change.”
Guy made the decision to pursue the road to recovery, but his journey was full of challenges. The isolation he experienced for decades made it difficult to reach out for support, and he remained entrenched in the cycle of addiction — going through recovery programs numerous times, achieving sobriety, and then relapsing again.
After numerous obstacles, Guy found himself at an out-patient, trauma-informed program with the promise of access to long-term support after treatment, including housing and employment opportunities. To Guy, this offered the purpose, self-worth, and human connection he needed to face his emotional scars and keep fighting for the life he wanted to live.
Guy Felicella: Photo: Avrinder Dhillon.
Committed to building bridges and inspiring systemic change, Guy is fiercely fighting for a system that better acknowledges and supports those suffering with addiction through harm reduction, recovery services, and safer supply of drugs.
Today, Guy works as a Peer Clinical Advisor in a shared position with the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions’ Overdose Emergency Response Centre, Vancouver Coastal Health’s Regional Addiction Program, and the BC Centre on Substance Use. In this role, he advises provincial Cabinet Ministers and works with government organizations on developing programs and systems.
Having been both a participant in and a provider of harm reduction, treatment, and recovery programs, Guy puts a face to addiction by sharing the perspective of someone with lived experience. His is a message of compassion that aims to destigmatize people living with drug addiction and the services they need, and to open up conversations about seeking support for substance use.
“As a health issue, we need to move from criminalizing and punishing people and stigmatizing and instead work to change those laws and policies that keep people from breaking free of their circumstances,” says Guy. “As a society, we have to be more empathetic, but also demand action from our policymakers, our city and our government to do something to stop the deaths of people by giving them access to recovery and support services.”
Guy shares his personal story on countless platforms, reaching students, educators, healthcare providers, law enforcement, government figures, and the general public through TED Talks, conferences, school presentations, news outlets, and through his blog and social media platforms. He has authored over 10 published articles across North American and is a columnist for Vancouver Is Awesome, writing about the overdose crisis in the Downtown Eastside.
Now sober for 8 years, Guy went from being just another face in the Downtown Eastside to a man with a life that he is proud of, with a blossoming career and opportunities to influence positive changes with individuals just like him.
In that time, he married the love of his life and had 3 beautiful children together.
“My wife was the one who took the time and the patience to teach me how to actually live and how to love not only myself but others,” says Guy. “It's hard to imagine my life without her support.”
Never forgetting where he came from, Guy advocates for the Downtown Eastside, supporting the very people in the same position he had been in before. Believing in the healing power of human connection, Guy frequently visits the community, meeting them where they are at and helping set them on a different path.
“I don't think anybody has survived that long there without having the support of the community and people looking out for you,” says Guy. “It’s about those moments that give you hope that people care and it’s those things that kept you going.”
Currently, Guy is supporting the COVID-19 vaccination rollout in the Downtown Eastside, helping the team of nurses by making sure people in the community know the importance of getting vaccinated and setting up appointments for their shots.
“I can guarantee we are saving lives,” says Guy. “I’m glad that people are able to have that layer of hope provided to them by giving them the vaccine.”
A protector of the vulnerable and a believer that everyone living with addiction is worthy of a chance at living a fulfilling life, Guy will continue to use his voice to destigmatize addiction in our society and to champion life-saving harm reduction alternatives and treatment services.
Every year, Coast Mental Health Foundation celebrates the stories of British Columbians who have overcome extraordinary adversity to come back and give back to their communities.
The Courage To Come Back Awards have raised critical funds for Coast Mental Health to support people living with mental illness in the Lower Mainland, through housing, support services and employment.
Find more inspirational stories and to find out how you can support, visit couragetocomeback.ca.