My Number One Lesson From 2017

2017 was a year of high highs and low lows for me. As with all of my years in life, it didn’t go as planned. I had to readjust my sails. I had to adapt. I had to take in all of the feelings and do my best to navigate through them, even in the roughest of seas. I’ve learned many lessons this year, some hard, some wonderful, and some confusing, and others eye-opening. But there’s one lesson in particular that stood out to me. It’s one that is so important for those of us in recovery and also for the general public to understand.

My number one lesson from 2017 is human compassion for active drug users and drinkers. Strong recovery advocates I know have been pushing this for years, but it never really clicked for me until this year. I got the basic concept, yes, show them compassion because they are where I used to be. Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong. This year we got to see firsthand how deeply stigmatized drug users are. This year and in 2016, we saw photos and videos of individuals who overdosed go viral. The images of disheveled human beings slumped over in their cars, laying down on the sidewalk, and their children trying to wake them up or crying in the back seat, or strangers laughing at them - these images will forever be embedded in my brain. And on top of those images, the comments of the public on these social media posts and news stories are also seared into my brain like a brand into skin. “It’s natural selection, let them die off.” “Absolutely disgusting, I hope these people never see their kids again!” “Druggies are losers and pathetic. All I care about is the baby.” “How could someone do that to their child?”

If these comments don’t hurt your heart I don’t know what will. After all, we are talking about human beings here and people are actually suggesting they should die. Several documentaries released this year like Warning: This Drug May Kill You perpetuated addiction fear mongering and used shocking montages of the overdose photos and videos I am referring to. Even a local event that I attended last month, a lunch and learn put on by the Cape Coral police department, started off its presentation about drug trends using the same disturbing photos and videos of overdose.

I’m SO tired of this. I’m tired of it for many reasons. For one, the photos and videos are played out. For another, it’s stereotyping addiction into extremes. People see these images and videos and believe THAT is what drug users look like and THAT is what addiction is, but that isn’t entirely correct and it doesn’t tell the whole story. Addiction is a spectrum and comes in so many different shapes and forms. For a general public that is already sorely misinformed concerning addiction, perpetuating this theory is dangerous at best. Additionally, shocking photos like the ones where drug users are unconscious, have overdosed, or have left children in a dangerous situation further stigmatize drug use and the humans who engage in it. As we can see from the comments, it’s easy for people to demonize that which they do not understand and completely remove the human element from the situation. Instead of thinking about these people as sick human beings, the public is chastising them for their negative behavior and choices brought on by their addiction. And this all goes back to the belief that addiction is a moral failing and not a brain disease, another unfortunate and damaging trend in our society. And last but not least, I’m tired of this because these ways of thinking make it impossible for those who are sick and suffering to ask for and receive help. No one wants to be called an addict, or an alcoholic, or be thought of as a drug user (Yuck! Is there anything worse?), and most of all, not be able to control intake of drugs and alcohol, because in our society this is equated with being a bad or weak person.

You might be saying, ok Kelly, we know all that. But this year I finally took a look at my own judgment of drug users and drinkers. I looked at my part in the stigma against people in active addiction. It’s not just people on the outside of addiction and recovery who don’t have compassion for drug users. Just because I’m sober doesn’t mean I’m not complicit in the stigma. When I got sober I sugarcoated my drug use. I was open about quitting alcohol and the destruction it had caused in my life, but I never talked about how I went through periods of time in my life when I did cocaine every day, and other periods of time when I did ecstasy every day, and how in college I smoked weed almost every day. I casually omitted the fact that I misused every single prescription for narcotic pain meds I have ever been given with all of my knee surgeries, that I sold some of those pills, gave them to friends, and took them before drinking for “fun.” Why did I do this? Simply because alcohol is not as stigmatized as drug use and I didn’t want to be looked down upon for it. I didn’t want to seem “that bad.” I held on to the fact that I never stuck a needle in my arm as a reason to see myself as a superior substance user. I felt like I had to omit pieces of my story because society would look at me like a disgusting and horrible person if I didn’t. But the truth is those who stick needles in their arms are no different from the college kids binge drinking only on the weekends. We all have the same thing - a substance use disorder and we all need the same things - love, compassion, and help - to get better.

In my early recovery, it was hard for me to be around drunk people or watch substance users on TV. As a line of defense, I judged drinkers for what they were doing. Alcohol causes cancer and is poison, so the joke is on them! Shooting heroin? I could NEVER imagine doing that. Gross. No way! I’m SO glad I’m sober! I couldn’t understand how anyone could still be so deep in their using.

This year I realized that the line separating myself and active drug users is extremely thin. I realized they are already stigmatized, judged, and repulsed by SO many. Why would I want to add to that? How could I? 2017 was the year that I sat down with the drinkers and the drug users. It’s the year I told them, I didn’t use, but if you did I understand, and I see and hear you, and I still think you deserve love.

If you needed to drink today, you won’t be shamed by me. Your feelings are valid. Because we are all just human beings, worthy of compassion and if we’re ever going to beat this drug epidemic we must live these values. Sobriety needs to be seen as obtainable and as loving and kind and compassionate.

The people I have seen and talked to this year taught me that. The things I’ve been through have taught me that. I want any person who is struggling in their hearts and souls to know they are not alone and even on their darkest day or through their most embarrassing act, there is someone there to hug them and send them love. Because if we don’t do that, we aren’t showing compassion. We aren’t showing them the power of sobriety. We aren’t loving them until they can take the needle out of their arm, or put the bottle down, or throw the pills out.

To make change we must do these things. It’s not always easy, but I’m committed to doing so. I want you all to know even if you aren’t sober yet, you are loved, you are not a bad person, you’re a human being worthy of every good thing this world has to offer, and you’re worth it.

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