Gaining an understanding of the power of compassion through experience
Reprinted from "Concurrent Disorders" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2(1), p. 25
Some years ago, I found myself driven to my knees by my own addiction. Oh, what to do? Nothing that I tried seemed to make any difference at all. I became paralyzed, mired in guilt, shame and fear. I felt helpless, hopeless and useless. I eventually reached a point where I didn't care whether I lived or died. In fact, dying seemed somehow more attractive than continuing to struggle on as I had been.
A family intervention, miraculous in and of itself, sparked off an intense flurry of activity, which ultimately left me standing on the doorstep of the local detox centre. I was so frightened and ashamed that my legs would barely carry me forward. I fully expected to be met with criticism and scorn. Instead, I was made to feel welcome and was treated without judgement, with great respect and sometimes even a little bit of love. The love seemed to make a difference where nothing else had worked in the past.
In spite of the inspiration created by this warm reception, early recovery was not smooth sailing for me. Frequent and unexpected relapse was crushingly demoralizing. And I was not alone. Fully ten per cent of any population you care to measure will have a problematic relationship with substances in their lifetime. This year across Canada, about 10,000 people will die as a direct result of substance use. Many more will have their quality of life severely compromised by addiction and mental illness. By contrast, during the recent, dramatic and well-documented SARS outbreak, four people died in British Columbia, and another 36 elsewhere in Canada. The point here is not to trivialize the hazard posed by a highly communicable disease, but to draw attention to the fact that the larger community has never given this other epidemic the attention that it deserves.
It's just not possible to travel to the downtown core of many BC communities without being a witness to the little dramas that take place as street involved people, many of whom have complex mental health and addictions issues, do what they have to do to just get through another day. It's worrisome, but even more distressing to realize that these folks are just the tip of the iceberg, that there are a great many more whose daily struggles are not so public.
It is difficult to know what to do. The world we live in today is fast-paced and complex. Every day we are confronted by scenes on our streets, by news stories, or by situations in our own families that demand an emotional response. The problems faced by many folks today are so overwhelming that many members of the community just don't know what to do. We all seem to suffer from compassion fatigue. For many of us, the only way that we can turn our backs on obvious need is to create some sort of a disconnect in our minds. By concentrating on the differences between ‘us' and ‘them,' we can, for a few moments at least, pretend that folks in difficulty are somehow different from us, deserve what they have got, and do not warrant our support.
Our conundrum, thus far unresolved, is this: demand for mental health and addiction services throughout British Columbia far exceeds capacity. It seems that additional resources are required across the province. At the same time, the system of care is complex and difficult to access. Many people who would likely benefit from mental health or addiction treatment cannot or will not engage with services. There is something very wrong here.
In retrospect, I see that I was ideally situated in many ways to make dramatic and positive changes in my life. I was white, male, middle-aged, middle class, employed, reasonably well educated, and had no apparent concurrent disorder. I had little difficulty dealing with bureaucracy, so I could easily access the system of care and enjoyed wonderful support from friends and family. And still I struggled. Two sessions of residential treatment, loads of group and individual therapy, and a healthy involvement with the 12-step community all helped. But in spite of all this help, I nearly didn't make it. Today, as I continue my journey, I marvel at the folks I meet. Many of them lack some of the advantages that I had, but continue to make heroic progress, one day at a time.
Ignorance, anger, fear and shame continue to tear our communities apart. Let's work together to change the way that those who struggle with addiction and mental health issues see themselves, and the way they are viewed by others. And a little love wouldn't hurt either.
About the author
Gordon is a social activist and an advocate for those who struggle with substance use and mental health issues in Victoria. He is a trainer in the Comprehensive, Continuous, Integrated System of Care model mental health and addictions integration initiative and serves on a number of regional committees concerned with addictions, mental health and homelessness