Tuesday, January 3, 2017

It's not about drugs

I don't write enough about my life in America. From looking at this blog you would think my life stops when I am not carrying a passport in my purse. But though this I do an injustice to the meaning I find in my own country, and especially the work I have done over the last several months. These days I joke my life is all about drugs. As part of my social work Masters degree program I work 3 days a week at an addition clinic set in a homeless shelter. I'm in a drug policy research group for class. I write this from a conference on opioid addiction, and I spend my down time reading about drugs and watching videos on YouTube and out drugs. But the more I learn about drugs the more I learn that it's not about drugs. The problems we ascribe to drugs stem from poverty.  From child abuse. From racism, and the systemic oppression which trails in its wake.

Did you know that 80-90% of drug users are not addicted?  Think about it. It makes sense. You know drug users -- maybe your college professor who slyly works LSD references into his lectures, or maybe your nephew who comes in from the backyard smelling a little odd. Maybe even your last three presidents are publicly known to have used drugs. We know that drugs, on their own, don't ruin people's lives and yet we treat them as if they had some inescapable gravity. Some malicious force of their own corrupting the good and the innocent, and catalyzing the bad and the lazy. Rather than the gravity of drugs leading to addiction I believe it is the gravity of pain which pulls people to use drugs destructively. One of my favorite quotes I have read on addiction comes from a Vancouver doctor who works with the homeless who writes “we should ask not why the addiction but why the pain?” I see this question etched into the lives of the men and women I work with,  who struggle with the pain of rejection, of loss, of abuse as children.  When we wage “war on drugs” we should be waging war on poverty,  on desperation,  on the forces and pressures which lead parents to beat or abandon their children. The good doctor says drugs are a replacement for the love his clients were never sure of as children -  as source of comfort they can be at last be sure will never abandon them.

Even in cases where drugs become destructive forces in people's lives I have come to see this damage stems as much from the way our society reviles drugs as from the drugs themselves. I wonder how many of my clients would still be pouring their pain into our cycle of plastic chairs if their lives hadn't been fragmented by a as series of imprisonments, if their chances for legal (much less meaningful) employment weren't destroyed by a criminal record or a urine test. Our society’s monolithic view of drugs fails to recognize gradients of use, and is only now beginning to recognize gradients of the drugs themselves. From the perspective of housing authorities, the homeless applicant who smokes Crack twice a month is just as ‘dirty’ as the one who shoots up twice a day. So I have the task of helping these men (primarily) wrestle with the impossible demands placed on them, as well as their own demons.

It is difficult to imagine a more difficult place to overcome addiction than a homeless shelter. Violence pools like a slick layer of oil on a dirty floor, tempers are sharp and minds and spirits are broken. The place mirrors prison life, and digs the trauma of it ever deeper.  And it is a place absolutely saturated with drugs. I cannot overstate how difficult and labyrinthine the systems which envelop the homeless are, how contradictory and obfuscated the demands are which are placed on the people least prepared to meet them.

But at the same time, I cannot overstate how much hope I’ve found in my clinic’s cinderblock walls. How much compassion and support the guys have for one another, and even for me, this clueless white intern young enough to be a daughter to most of them. What floors me is not the hardship or the failure or the relapses but the (many) times when one guy will tell another that they can do it. When someone reminds his friend of the things he has going for him, or of his qualities. When you see the other person believe it.

For as long as I have been able I have sought out the depths of suffering. But always, whether it is among the genocide survivors in Rwanda or in a refugee camp in Uganda, an orphanage in Cambodia or this shelter in New York City - what I have found is hope.  

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