Today was a heavy day at work, and I found myself feeling frustrated and annoyed and overwhelmed. Not by the clients. Not by my colleagues. Or not even by the job itself. But rather the way in which the people I interacted with today were treated solely based on the fact that they are in active addiction, or recovery or even as so far as just being assumed to use drugs. And it was inconsiderate as hell.
One person I spoke with today did not want to go to the dentist. They have been having a sore tooth for weeks on end but was frustrated and scared and concerned at the thought of getting it extracted. Now, having fear of going to the dentist to get a tooth pulled is realistic. However, they talked about going to dentists in the past, with real and significant pain and being accused of drug seeking. He is an addict? I don’t know. Does it matter? No. He was in pain. He was in distress. And he was completely dismissed based on his appearance. Tattoos. Overly thin. Broken teeth. He must use. No, he was a person who was disrespected based on an assumption. An assumption, that even if true, did not mean he did not deserve the dental care.
Then I talked to a person who is in recovery. They have been sober for over ten months and struggling day to day to keep that goal. They completed an eight month rehab. They attend support groups and AA. And they are actively looking to get back on their feet. Yet, people are questioning them. Why have they not worked in the last year? Are you really sober or are you just saying you are? How do I know you aren’t going to relapse again and screw up? SO WHAT. What if they do? What if they don’t? It shouldn’t matter. In this moment, in this situation, they are trying. Trying to fight a demon each and every day to continue on the right track and not succumb to the temptation. Maybe they deserve to be treated with respect and pride as they have battled a life-threatening disease.
Then I spoke to a person who is injured. They have a medical issue that they have been putting off for over a week because they do not want to go to the hospital. They use drugs. Yes. They are in the middle of their addiction and struggling all the time. Yes. But, they are also desperately in need of medical care. Yet, they do not feel comfortable going. They do not want the judgement from the intake nurse who sees many struggling individuals coming through the door and assumes they just want pills. They do not want to deal with the security guard being called over as they become agitated because their very real pain is being assumed as fake. And, on the off chance, they stay long enough through the judgement to see a doctor, their medical issue will be assumed self-inflicted because they use substances. Is it? No. Does it matter? No. They deserve and need medical care and compassion.
Then I had a person who is struggling with transportation needs. They are being denied cab rides, and bus rides and potential other drives because they use substances. Does their behavior become more erratic when they use? Yes. Do they have a hard time following directions, or COVID restrictions, because they are under the influence? Probably. But you know what else? They are using for a reason. They have chronic pain. They have extensive traumatic history. And they have significant mental health challenges. And they are smart. Smart enough to know when they are being judged and smart enough to have their feelings hurt when they are treated with such disregard. They deserve to be treated with compassion and empathy as they try to navigate their complex world.
Now, are each of these individuals struggling in their own way? Yes. But the most important part of all these individuals is that they are just that, people. They are people who are in various aspects of their recovery and addiction history and yet they are constantly bombarded with the expectation to be better, do better and never screw up. They are “bad people” because they lie, or deceive or hide their true selves with substances because sometimes looking at their histories and their lives is too much. They are “dangerous” because their behavior is erratic, they have mood swings and their capacity to follow direction can sometimes be too much as they are trying to keep themselves alive or stop the sick feeling that comes from weaning off, or quitting drugs. They are also more than just their addiction.
The person facing the dentist is an amazing artist in a way that I couldn’t even describe even if I tried. The person in recovery is volunteering with his local AA to help others who are struggling like him. The injured person is so kind to others that they would literally give the shirt off their back if someone needed it. And the person struggling with transportation is hilarious. Like crazy funny in a way that brings a lightness to the people who interact with them. And yet, no one seems to see those parts. People who struggle with addictions, whatever addiction that might be, are so much more than just their addiction.
I live with a recovered addict. Hubby spent too many years succumbing to a pretty significant addiction that was life-threatening, chaotic and hard as hell. I have seen him be treated with disrespect, inconsideration and outright hostility. I have seen doctors brush him off when in pain because he was “drug seeking.” I have seen insurance companies deny his insurance because he has a substance use history. I have seen bouts of shame and embarrassment for him that have left him too afraid to leave the house after a relapse. I have been met with judgement and ridicule for staying with him through it all because he was a “bad person” and bringing me down. And yet, even while in active addiction, he was still my hubby.
He was the person who goes out to clean my car off in the morning so I don’t have to. He was the person who got up each day and took it minute by minute, hour by hour, as he tried to stay sober and beat his demons. He was the person who showed me how to love unconditionally and that nothing can make a marriage succeed more than the honesty that comes with recovery. He was the person who put his friends, his family, and me before himself over and over again. He was the person who served in the Canadian Army and still had pride in his duty even after they kicked him out for using drugs. And he was sweet, and tender, and loyal in a way that I have found in few other individuals.
And he is also an addict. He is in remission. In the same way others battle medical conditions such as diabetes or chronic pain, he is managing his condition. He is getting up each day, fighting those ingrained feelings and emotions telling him to use, and then chooses not to. He does it in a way that empowers me to try and do that with the unhealthy choices I make daily too.
And yet it breaks my heart that him, and the others I interacted with today are doing the same. Some are succeeding. Some are not. But they are people. People who did not wake up one day and decide to struggle with addiction. But rather people who have a history. Have a story. And are so much more then just what they use. So, maybe me, maybe you or maybe society in general can start to do a better job. A better job at acknowledging their biases and conceived notions of what an addict is or what they look like. A better job of considering that underneath your distain is a person with emotions and feelings. And a better job of remembering, that you too, like them, could end up there and maybe should try to get off the high horse and meet them at the same level.
“She goes from one addiction to another. All are ways for her not to feel her feelings.”– Ellen Burtsyn