Today, in this place where people struggle with drug addiction, I wish to embrace each and every one of you, who are the flesh of Christ, and to ask God to renew your journey, and also mine, with purpose and steadfast hope.
To embrace — we all have to learn to embrace the one in need, as St. Francis did.
A young man was diagnosed as schizophrenic at the age of 14. He shortly thereafter developed an addiction to heroin. He had been in and out of hospitals every few months until age 22. I initially encountered him at age 22. He was severely depressed, heard voices, and was in immense distress. Within days of my first encounter with him, he had an intentional overdose after a significant familial conflict. He was revived with Narcan and became belligerent with the paramedics and refused to go to the emergency room.
Deeply concerned and seeking to build a trust I offered to take him to the ER myself. He agreed and I sat with him for about 7 hours. In this time the medical staff initially directed all questions to me though he sat right next to me. I told the medical staff that he was not invisible and they could simply speak to him. He later patted me on the back and told me that no one in his life would ever have spent the time I did with him.
He asked me why I did such a thing. I told him it was simply what needed to happen. From that, we forged a bond where he became more open and voluntarily requested to see me. He told me he enjoyed my humour and appreciated that I was willing to listen without judgment. He had never discussed his voice hearing with anyone before and he began to share this experience with me. I saw his strengths in spite of his struggle. I saw him as a fellow human being deserving of respect and dignity just like anyone else.
Those With Addiction Are Neighbors
We must understand that people who struggle with addiction are our neighbors, siblings, friends, and fellow human beings. Addiction is not a crime. And often when an unfortunate criminal act is committed by one struggling with addiction the intent is not to harm other people but is focused solely on being able to find the means to continue the addictive behavior.
We lock these people away at great cost and there are those who profit of such suffering. We give fines to those probably most not able to pay them. We ask these people to become ‘productive citizens’ but erect many barriers for them, dehumanize them, and disconnect from them by cruel forms of stigma. We must focus on their true nature, help them to triumph over the tragic, to believe in themselves. Confrontation and disconnection will never be a solution. We must be patient and invest our energy into the means by which we not only save lives but transform lives by giving opportunity and dignity.
Often addiction is a result of persons enduring oppressive conditions, a crisis of meaning and purpose, a signal of discontent and unhappiness. It can often be connected to confusion over identity when one was told what to do, what to think, and what to be. A focus on self becomes a mechanism of survival. What might society be like where there is no longer a fear of life and the desire to escape and be numb? What might society be like where life is embraced and persons can actually be free to be persons?
An Inner Struggle For Meaning
Addiction would be better called that inner struggle for meaning and purpose which has been lost through oppressive conditions. Many focus on substances as what one may use to fill a void. But there are many forms of addiction and it can be argued that every person is addicted to varying degrees as we all seek distraction and brief moments of relief from what is challenging. For some, they find that initial period of relief and despite all the trials and tribulations to arise, continue to grasp for that initial euphoria. There becomes an attachment which leads to suffering that is difficult to break through. There arises that greater pain in an attempt to avoid pain. Our society rather than address the oppression and the pain and create deeper purpose instead punishes, shames, and erects barriers where the person is more oppressed, more downtrodden, deeper into despair and devoid of purpose.
Our society has provided the fuel for what we term addiction and government policy is never proactive but minimally addresses the aftermath of hurt and destroyed lives. The ones labelled as addicts are often our sensitive souls, our creatives, our idealists who become brokenhearted and disillusioned. When substances are involved we will blame the substance alone for their change of personality and character forgetting that the dynamics around the person before. What we term addiction can only be healed when we look beyond just seeing an addicted individual to seeing our common humanity and when we can connect and restore a true sense of community.