Thoughts / understanding

Awareness (again)

It’s another day for awareness today. Are you getting a bit sick of me writing about these yet? Today – the 26th June – is the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. The United Nations, governments, non-governmental organisations, the media and citizens around the world will use this day to raise awareness about the impact of drug abuse and illicit trafficking of drugs. Apparently.

To be honest, I’m not sure we need any more awareness on this issue.

Because all the peoples that I’ve met and listened to at dinner parties and social events and at random occurrences during the day seem to have heaps of awareness. That is, if ‘awareness’ corresponds to ‘very passionate and unwilling to compromise opinions’ on the matter.

And as someone who has worked in the Drug and Alcohol sector for over a decade, sometimes this awareness and these opinions make me want to cry.

A little while back I had the weekly privilege of spending an evening with a bunch of beautiful souls. I was running a recovery group for people wishing to change their substance use. We’d spent the couple of hours, amongst other things, discussing love and fear and vulnerability and hope. As is often the case, I left the group with a sense of warmth in my being.

As I was driving home in torrential rain, I attempted to find a local radio station for a river/flood update. I came across some talkback radio. I should have changed the station. But I persisted. And I listened to the shock jock and an ill-informed listener from Gundagai discuss how Australia’s ‘War on Drugs’ had failed because the Australian Government had been too lenient on people who use and sell drugs. The alternative strategies they discussed included lifelong gaol sentences and the radio presenter called for “bringing back the guillotine”.

And the sense of warmth in my being died.

This shit makes me really, really sad. Because, believe it or not we are still talking about people. And these comments are dismissive and disdainful. They reflect a moral judgment that is a relic of a bygone era when our understanding of addiction was limited, when we didn’t have access to the evidence and research we do now. Yet, these are the ‘opinions’ of the ‘aware’ that we hear over and over again.

Scientific progress has helped us to understand so much about alcohol and drug use. And it’s complicated. No one ever chooses to become dependent upon a substance. Instead, a unique and complex combination of epigenetics, environmental stimuli, psychological factors and drug components form to create a melting pot of factors that can result in physical changes to the brain’s circuitry, which lead to tolerance, cravings, and the characteristic compulsive and destructive behaviours of addiction.

We also know that people who experience other vulnerabilities – mental illnesses, poverty, social disadvantage, homelessness, unemployment, intergenerational trauma and childhood sexual abuse – are more likely to experience substance use disorders. Yet this never seems to be mentioned in ‘awareness’ raising.

When we talk about drug and alcohol use disorders, without a thorough understanding of the complexity of the issue, or we offer quick-fix solutions or make large-scale generalisations we have the potential to cause wide-spread harm.

If we hold and express negative attitudes towards people who are suffering, we have the potential to increase the suffering infinite fold. Research has shown that when people experiencing substance use disorders feel judged or shamed they will not seek treatment for the disorder. Communities can become less accepting of treatment programs due to popular, but misguided, opinions regarding people using substances.

We might not always realise the effect our judgment might have on others. Judgement and shame can come as a result of the way a non-addict looks at, talks to or otherwise mistreats the individual who is suffering from an addiction or who once suffered from an addiction. This social stigma can deepen suffering. For many, it’s not just the fight of addiction, but also the fight against the stigma associated with it.

If you ask me, that’s the real ‘war on drugs’.

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Understanding love

Happy (belated) Love Day my friends!

Phew! I am exhausted. After a full month of blogging all things relationships, I’m a little drained. And a little confused. And I don’t know if I’m all that much wiser on this thing called love. Are you?

We looked at intimate couple love and fighting and breaking up and being single. And we explored love as requiring components of acceptance and compassion and communication and reality.

But it very much feels like there are some glaringly obvious holes. And I’d like to acknowledge (some of) these. As a single, white, childless, heterosexual woman who has never been married (or divorced), my personal experiences are somewhat limited when it comes to relationships. So my inspiration for the content may have been a little vanilla, or lacking in diversity. Despite this, I believe that everyone deserves to be able to love and be loved. In the respectful relationship of their choosing.

As an example, I never mentioned LGBTIQ relationships. So I’ll quickly mention one thought I have on these relationships now. According to law in Australia marriage is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life. I think this law is ridiculous. This being said, I believe that the choice to marry should be available to all of us regardless of the sex of our partner. I believe all members of the LGBTIQ community should have the same opportunities to celebrate their relationship and be afforded the same respect, love and recognition from their community as that of their heterosexual counterparts. And I look forward to a time that the law reflects these beliefs that we are all a bit more equal in a more socially just society.

I also didn’t discuss the complexity of domestic and family violence. Because it’s so hard and complex and tragic. And it would have taken me months and months.

So, instead we barely scratched the surface of love and relationships over the past month. And it’s all pretty confusing, but I recently came upon this beautiful definition that might just help us a bit more.

“love is understanding”

For the more religious of us out there, this definition comes from a medieval thinker Thomas Aquinas who was trying to define what Jesus was getting at, when rather than be shocked by particular people around him, he continually embraced them (E.g., apparently in Matthew, chapter 8 Jesus is approached by a man with leprosy. He’s in a disgusting state. But Jesus isn’t shocked, reaches out his hand and touches the man. Despite the horrendous appearance, here is someone (in Jesus’s eyes) entirely deserving of closeness and kindness. In a similar vein, at other times, Jesus conspicuously argues that tax collectors, prostitutes, thieves and adulterers are never to be thought of as outside the circle of love).

In this way of talking about love: if we truly understand love, we could possibly love anyone. In other words: love isn’t specific in its target. It is open to everyone. All of humanity, even (and in a way especially) its less appealing examples.

And we do this often. Express our love as understanding. For some of us, we commonly do this with our extended families. If I had a dollar for every person who upon disclosure of me being a psychologist replied “Oh, you should come work with my family”, I would not be renting anymore. And it is the same in my own family. We’re all highly functioning and get along very well. But things are a little bit weird round the edges. But it’s only because we really, really know the intricacies of our families and what’s gone before for decades and decades that help us to understand. But despite all of this, we still love. We understand and we love.

Working in a therapeutic role assists greatly with this level of understanding. As therapists we get to ask heaps of questions and listen. And as you hear the stories of a human developing, whether it be through a story of childhood trauma or an unexpected incident, we can begin to understand why a person might be behaving in a particular way. A person is not a ‘sex offender’ or a ‘drug user’, but another human with needs and imperfections.

We’re all flawed. It’s part of the human condition. But we’re social creatures and I reckon that means that part of our job as humans is to love. Not the romantic head over heels love with one person only. The effortful love. The love that takes work to see beyond the outwardly unappealing surface of another human – in search of the tender, interesting, scared and vulnerable person inside. Our minds tend fiercely to resist such a move. For instance: if someone has hurt us we naturally want to see them as horrible. The thought they might themselves be hurting themselves feels very weird. If unpleasant events happen in someone’s life – if they keep on losing their job or acquire a habit of drinking too much– we’re tempted to hold them responsible for everything that happens to them. It takes a deliberate effort to move the mind to understanding. But the more energy we put into looking at love through understanding, the more we might be able to love more people than we initially thought.

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