Birds Of A Feather

Harm Deduction

“This is the 3rd message I’ve left, Raffi.  I don’t think you’re busy.  I think you no longer care for our friendship – I get the message.  I am really sorry you feel this way.”

Amin, one of my best friends, left this message in my voicemail in the summer of 1996.  He hadn’t done anything wrong – on the contrary, he had been helpful and caring.  He dotted over me during bad times as any good friend would.  But my cocaine use at the time had gotten so out of hand, I didn’t want to be with anyone that didn’t use drugs.

Amin (not his real name) was the last friend I had who didn’t use illicit drugs.  Actually that’s not true.  Amin smoked hash or pot every hour of the day.  But he had a hard time accepting my drug use.  Not that he was mean to…

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Isolation — and the Constructs Behind it.

In sorting through all the background noise behind our attempts to be heard — even in blogs — the initial starting point remains loudest: to be heard. To be felt. To feel as though, no matter who we are, there are platforms that allow us to voice our individual, tiny, bids for connection. We all crave it.

Sitting here now, after a long five or six years trying to piece all the narratives together, in this space of winding down after two very climactic and formative years spent in Vancouver, the ever-growing pile of studies and articles looks overwhelming. And that’s because it is. When those articles, papers, studies and facts are boiled down — when the points lost in translation bubble up to the surface, the time spent gathering and assimilating all the information takes on the air of a dark comedy — its script composed of people proving points by spewing numbers, sterility, and tidy sentences, all the while attempting to validate and justify which political platform they are backing.

But these tidy statistics, these published findings — they are built off the backbones of stories that beg for us to bleed. The truths, are messy. And in our last-ditch efforts to break it all down, we seem to fall into the habit of categorizing ourselves into boxes on shelves, negating the frame. We compartmentalize ourselves to death — sizing ourselves up through judgmental lenses of right OR wrong, good OR bad, ethical OR unethical. The middle ground, is where we find our answers — always. But it seems to take us forever to reach that understanding.

To be blunt, the research has already been done. The findings are in: what each of us are seeking extends beyond our categorical-cuffs and our carnivalesque displays of success. And in my opinion, we are making ourselves and our young, quite ill with our own clinging. Over there, are the addicts. And over here, the non-addicts. Over there, are the homeless, and over here, the busy, productive, contributing wealthy. On this side, on that side. Them, and us. So when we break those definitions and categories down even further, there is a base that remains the same. It’s built of belonging. Of connection. Purpose. Meaning. Whether we are isolating ourselves or another, the outcome remains the same: the Isolated begin to cling to whatever is around them to fill the voids, which makes those of us on the outside cling to the stigmas that isolated them in the first place. We all cling. And when we recognize that, when we rest with that understanding and accept it for the fear and control it rests on, we can dissect the arguments or escapes we cling to and attempt to break them down. Where we have not internalized acceptable, healthy belonging, we will find it — in dysfunction or not.

Our fear generates the idea that if we begin to accept and adopt Harm Reduction practices, we are saying yes to the consumption of drugs — illegal or not. We tend to stop at that point. We don’t look ahead enough to see that each step towards acceptance will land us closer to a place of compassion and empathy, as a culture. The more walls we take down, the more capable we will be of seeing beyond each of our constructed boundaries, to the people in front of us and the positions they are in. We cannot look at the issues of addiction and poverty without looking at the entire picture of where we are as a culture, and as a species. And I am calling on us to look at our value system and dissect every aspect of it. We create the divides that breed dysfunction, and then we cast people out further, forgetting to see that in casting people out, we are creating the need for people to flock together and cling to whatever they can in order to survive.

When we erect boundaries and borders based on our definitions of right and wrong, we inherently create sub-cultures of people who disagree; they will seek belonging with one another. These neighborhoods, then, become playgrounds for the categories and stigmas of disobedience to flourish. Our closed minds and the environments bred of that dysfunctional categorization (the DTES comes to mind), become playgrounds for the very people we cast out, and those of us who are deemed delinquent will find belonging anywhere we can. When we create value systems that have such clear and striking definitions of acceptable or unacceptable, we breed environments and lifestyles that reflect the divide. And then we punish people further when they finally find it.

My issue with the DTES is not the people who make up the community. It is not in the stories of resilience, survival, or trauma. My issue with the DTES is that we have literally created an environment for dysfunction to flourish, and even still, we do everything in our power to prevent those community members from finding peace, acceptance, or belonging — but it doesn’t end there. Not only do our closed minds create the need for such environments, but then we have the nerve to decide when to clean up the very messes we created in the first place. We start giving out more tickets to the vendors, doling out more penalties — shaming people even further into shadows, corners and culverts. Our politicians lie. Our police offers come down with more force and more anger. When people start acting out in protest of the only area they can claim in a city, we label them defiant. And they are. And every day I hope they remain so — for their sake, and for the sake of our growth.

Do you know, how many of the people down there, were raised by the system we defend with such blindness? How many Ministry kids became adults with no acceptance, no belonging, and no hope? Do you know that the new faces appearing are getting younger and younger? It’s not the drugs driving them there — it’s US — as a culture — it’s our values. We need to grow and develop, but we are stagnating in our isolation and our fixation on individualistic, consumptive practices.

The stories of kids who make it out in tact, on their own two feet — with no criminal record or addiction to speak of — are as low and as shocking as the stats on surviving decades of Opiate addiction. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t listen to the kids down there who are still looking for answers. In fact, if they pose enough of a challenge to our comfortable jobs, because most of us aren’t trained enough to recognize attachment issues, let alone deal with them therapeutically — we are likely to kick those already traumatized beings back out onto the streets!

Do you know how many adults I spoke with in their 40’s and 50’s who began to see clearly what really fucked them up so badly, and led them to a life of drugs and crime? They weren’t seeking defiance — they were seeking love. They were seeking acceptance — the very thing we make it impossible to find once people are hurt enough to start really acting out. Do you know how many nights I would spend holding a mop or a broom, silenced and forced still by the horrific accounts of what it was really like to grow up in government care? And some gangster thug with dope boxes or bags in the backseat of his car responded to the same calling they probably had in their youth, as well. They gave that lonely kid a job, because they knew that lonely kid would do anything to belong. Lonely kid becomes an adult — just barely. God forbid he steals some coffee packets from Starbucks and winds up with a criminal record he can’t shake for years. God forbid. Because he’s an adult now, and needs to start behaving like one. Into prison he goes, tried and treated like the adult he became two minutes ago, at midnight.

You know, I had a 23 year old kid confide in me about murder. The kid talking to me, in the midst of a holding back a breakdown, no longer looked 23 as he spoke. His form shifted. He appeared more like a quivering, mortified little kid. We spoke, he paced. We smoked, he paced, looking at me through the corner of his eyes — never straight on. His body was a mess. He was saying very little, and I felt as though all the weight of the world — the entire future of it — hinged on those moments alone, at 2am, with a shelter full of guests sleeping through their traumas. What I was feeling, I can only surmise was the weight of this kids world, every day, if he was forced to remain sober.

“What is it, you are seeking right now? What is it? You’re here.”

“There’s nothing for me here.”

“You’re 23…I don’t understand what you mean…what do you mean?”

“There’s nothing for me out here! I served eight years for murder, before I knew what murder was. People care for me in jail — I belong there — this place, this freedom — there’s nothing for me out here. The programs are a fucking joke!”

Behind the mess of tough tattoos on his face, and neck — behind all his attempts at appearing so tough, so particularly, was the reality. I found the words for a truth I’d never before been able to articulate: the softness was tucked away behind the black, edgy, untouchable ink. He cried. I had nothing to say.

I didn’t care to print out any forms for him, so he could tell me he would fill them out, only to toss them into a garbage can on his way to bed. I didn’t want to shut him up, or shut him down, with promises of hope that really just amounted to a brief cessation of his suffering by filling out more forms. He wasn’t asking for a way out. He was asking for a comforting presence on his way into himself.

So, we finally just sat, my eyes occasionally flooding with the loneliness of his reality. We connected. You don’t have to be a professional to provide that. Ever. Just start listening, and digging at your own egos. Let your guards down.

What broke me most, about this story, was in the reality of looking at a person so young — and the systems we left him to. What broke my heart and opened my eyes, was that here he was — 23 years old — referencing prison as home. It’s much the same with the prison of addiction, and the prison of the DTES.

These places are not terrifying in and of themselves. These places — our prisons, our ghettos, our Harm Reduction arguments — these places are terrifying to us, because they mirror our dysfunctions. They are strong evidence, providing a paper-trail of reason right back to the values that created them.

That, is what I found so terrifying. How many other stories were there, of a similar nature? How many adults led astray by nothing more than our fear and our judgment — of our inability to dig a little deeper than we think is comfortable?




Waiting for Hours, Bus-Stop Epiphanies, and the Power of Connection in Facing Addiction


The feeling of the present moment, of leaving my job and standing only as myself, was like buzzing static. I’d heard about the high of crack-cocaine, of uppers — especially if they were injected. Blood pressure can rise so suddenly, people are left with an incessant, electric ringing of the ears, until finally their senses return — leaving them with the supposed ability to hear everything around them with unusual clarity. Sometimes, in the panic of trying to gain perspective within that, people freeze, or pace, in paranoia. I was nowhere near freezing. This was a sober version of increasing blood pressure. I could see things differently. Where I used to be afraid of letting go, I was now free — I was alive and alone enough to hear everything and see every synchronized, tiny moment for the manifestation of culture these derelict city-blocks represented. This, was waking up to the numbing delusions we cling to — addicted or not.

The structured noises of traffic on these soggy, blood-stained streets — the wailing sirens woven like melodies into the maddening, cacophonous choirs of slimy, cheap losses down here — they were as unsettling as the puddles of piss, shit, rig wrappers  and coagulating blood– as shopping carts passing in gutters and on sidewalks. These sounds of time continuing, of the world spinning madly on, tossed me out of mind and back to the present. Here, on these monochromatic corners, the familiar realities could always be found — the evidence of time passing but very little changing– the same shopkeepers, the same tacky multi-colored lights, and all the many signs lost in translation.

The sight of Carnegie’s staircase all lit up — my glowing beacon of safety and reassurance. InSite down the block, with its sidewalks packed from end to end with people seeking refuge, belonging, dope or debts-owed. And occasionally, the lost face of a mother seeking her daughter, her son.

The same old Delica van with the poster of a missing boy taped to the back.

The Ovaltine Cafe sign blinking off rhythm, worn out but still masquerading. The woman in the leather jacket with curly black hair, pacing, waiting, headphones blasting — passionately screaming lyrics no one could make-out.

And finally, there — that bus stop across the street, where I would sit — sometimes for eight hours — believing in the hope that she would choose a walk, over Heroin. Maybe. Just fucking maybe — even once would be worth it. Those were the nights when the threat of missing the last 135 Bus into Burnaby drew people over — out of bars, out of studios, heading for home — to the little bus stop on Hastings where I could often be found passing time in the rain. Meeting other strangers in waiting, having them ask why I was so comfortably sitting, wrapped up in my scarf reading and writing, became a part of the dialogue surrounding the bigger picture. It was interesting to watch, and later reflect, while people struggled to figure it out, trying to break it all down. With a shake of their heads they would laugh and plead for me to either go home, or admit it was foolish and I was being used. I was ready, expecting it. It was the typical train of thought people rarely explored. It was the typical soundtrack of our culture, our times, our clinging to individuality, self-protection and selfishness. It was part of the same bull-shit justification for the War on Drugs and the endless isolation of addicts in our society.

How silly. How obviously silly.

“Am I? Am I really foolish? This world moves at a pace much quicker than I am comfortable with on the best of days, and we leave each other in these gutters, calling it progress — calling it development, safety and self-protection, waiting for the ones we’ve left behind to catch up to us again — not knowing they have long since fallen asleep, and this little dope-dream became confused for home. We leave. Our hearts break. We believe we can’t take anymore, so we remove the addicts from our lives. We judge them for being here. These gutters — they become dangerously comfortable, and they are murky, and they fucking eat people. I am aware of my boundaries and my strength of mind, and so I wait, wrapped up in my scarf, for the moment when someone who trusts me chooses a walk, over dope. Two hours, four hours, six hours — does it seem that long? It’s nothing. Nowhere near long enough.”

In those moments, people rarely stopped their minds long enough to silence the chatter of everything they had already digested as fact. They rarely dared to question it with me. On the upside, though, one young man sat with me at least one night a week — sometimes for up to three hours, while I waited. We talked about things that mirrored the current moment — the things we use to signify and define progress, and the sacrifices we make in our relationships in order to attain a fictional notion of success. I didn’t have answers, and I never claimed to. I just wanted to find people who were willing to try new things — new ways — or at the very least, to talk. Yes — my body was motionless in those moments. It was doing very little. And sometimes it seemed foolish and out of place. But I was using everything in my power to challenge aspects of that environment that killed people — the monsters in those gutters I wished I could breathe life into, just so I could choke it back out of them.

There were days and nights so heavy in that job, walking the long way home would mean a winding detour through a numbed out, thought-filled, six hours. Yes, I wanted to suffocate those monsters, those traumas, so instead I would find a forest to scream in, to stomp around, because for the most part, my coworkers didn’t want to talk about it. We didn’t explore creativity. We became as comfortable in our dangerous delusions as the people at our doorsteps. I chose to wait, because in waiting the opportunity for a new way of doing things sometimes surfaced. The opportunity came, for people to connect to someone outside all the dope, and the misery, and the typical worker/client relationships people rarely trusted anyway.

Despite intentions and thoughts of a walk, 32 would sometimes fall asleep. It was Heroin. I was always aware of Heroin, and with a shake of my head I would hop the last bus or start the walk home. The difference was that I was here — I was alive. I was a conscious being, where Heroin was only a substance. I could out-wait it. I could out-do it. I just had to be there, swallow my pride, dissect, and look at the big picture.

I found it alarming, complex and heartbreaking, that even in those gutters, simple acts of kindness and compassion were questioned more than our blindness to the dope, and the violence. We could accept the trauma and walk beside it, but we feared the open space of digging, of trying new ways of engaging with people — of connecting with people outside of working hours. My job didn’t teach me to respect boundaries. It taught me to fucking hate them, to work around them in defiant silence after communication led itself into tighter cuffs, holding patterns and gossip-circles. Collaboration shouldn’t scare colleagues, and cooperation shouldn’t mean complacency. It should excite us to dig.

Agencies were scared of potential liabilities — fair enough. But couldn’t they see it? The liabilities they feared were hypothetical — in the present moment, they prevented forward motion due to phantom fears. The destroying of paperwork, the shredding of facts, the removal of a persons ability to live in reality and face the consequences — Christ! We were, at times, keeping people comfortably asleep. I understand non-judgment. I understand acceptance. But I couldn’t dare allow myself to confuse that with complacency. We were enmeshed in violence and denial — becoming a part of the landscape and denying our own accountability to the people who came to us for guidance — to the few who were begging us to challenge their dope-dreams and help reveal them as the nightmares they really were.

At first, when people are beginning to wake up, they will test the waters and gauge the responses of the people around them — just to see where they are coming from, how many angles there are, how many layers of judgement and criticism they are going to be forced through in order to get to their point across. And it’s in these moments, we need to separate ourselves from the rest of the noise going on around us, as workers, and we need solid colleagues to take over that weight. We do not need to waste time checking in to see if our colleague is hurt because they never dive into building relationships. We need to be given the room and space enough to have the tough conversations. They take time, delicacy, awareness and reflection. They require absolute presence.

It’s in these very real moments of waking up, that we need to embrace creativity and get out of the environment in order to dig at it alongside another. Most of us are aware that we need to stand outside of situations and concepts in order to dissect them. We can rarely do it with clarity, from the inside. In my opinion, it is much the same on the DTES and in environments like it. To communicate, sometimes we need to get outside the walls that contain us.

Her eyes were blackening, and the contrast of her grey hair made the moment feel heavy and threatening. She was in major, major pain. She wasn’t seeing where she was. She was screaming at everyone who entered the kitchen — and then, the threats began.  My colleague had the phone in her hands, threatening to call the cops. I flew into the kitchen,

“NO! No, hey — just, get outside with me! Come on, this way…come on, man, let’s go…”


“Because you are literally STUCK in these walls, and your energy is taking over the place — LETS GO, NOW, OUTSIDE, and SMOKE — lets just go and breathe a little, NOW, please. Come on. “

As I spoke, I was putting my jacket on, walking near her, careful not to take over her space, but still very strongly suggesting she get the fuck outside. Now. We had a lot of very strong, physically capable women, quite enraged at this point. And it was the start of the next shift, and the end of mine. This needed addressing. Right now. But did it need the cops? NO.

She came with me, and began to calm down as soon as we stepped outside. She leaned against the wall of the building, and we both felt it — like an immediate release. I lit her cigarette for her, with my trembling hands. She continued breathing. I didn’t care if I sounded cheesy — I was going to tell her exactly what just happened when she let herself walk out of the House and be vulnerable in front of everyone present at the time.

“Do you feel that? As soon as we opened the door?”

“What? What do you mean?”

“The weight lifted and the energy changed. You were stuck, and the energy in that House, it can get stuck sometimes with us, you know? We all need reminders to come outside and breathe. To get out of it. A lot of things go on in there. I can do that with you sometimes, if you want. If it helps.”

She was softening already. This woman, she was in pain.  Major, debilitating pain — emotionally and physically. The cops couldn’t help her through that — what could they do? Why was that the stock answer to difficult scenarios? No wonder people lost it further when we called the cops. It’s stupid — it’s the stuff made up of no longer trying. Plus, it strains the relationships between us and the cops. It’s just stupid. Half the time calls to the cops were made, it was legitimately embarrassing.

Another confusing realization, was that we had extremely small numbers of people who wanted the challenging conversations. There’s a difference between people who want it, and those who don’t. My heart broke when I saw the few people who were still putting their hands up for support, while we lulled them back to sleep — only for us to turn around and justify it to ourselves, congratulating each other. It was the equivalent of covering vomit with rugs, spraying some Febreeze, and calling it clean. Attempting to open dialogue around this rarely went well. I had one colleague say, “Hey — these are graveyard shifts, and I just want to come here and do what’s expected, okay?! I don’t want to talk about what we do!” Welcome to the reality: even when you are dealing with the lives of other people in crisis, sometimes your only partner in crime is a complacent fuck. For eight, painfully long, cell-phone oriented, hours. Yep. Not only are they complacent, they may as well have been fucking their cell phones.

The manager saw it, too. We talked sometimes. She had a heart like mine, but had to contend with the anger of some of the childlike employees around her. Dealing with her, taught me to word things in a way that appeased professional hoop-jumping, so we could both justify our bending of the rules. We tried to brainstorm ideas to generate dialogue. She was right all along, and looking back, I feel sorry to have let her down. But towards the end, I felt like we were never really working. We were stuck, rarely challenging the environment. It would have been scary to do that — to face things. So we slept, too, in between cooking meals and handling crises that demanded immediate attention. But even in crisis, people just wanted to tidy it up by calling the cops — afraid to make room for people to simply release their pain.

My heart always broke down there — and I see now — it didn’t break over the difficult situations; it broke over the destructive choices we made to look the other way, convincing ourselves we were embracing non-judgment. We weren’t. We were making our own shifts easier to digest by appeasing dysfunction.

These, were my reasons for staying there, and my reasons for finally leaving. These, were my reasons for wanting to go to court and color outside the lines for people. On the days I felt the enormity of the paradigm we operate under, even in Harm Reduction, I could sit and wait for hours. Most days, I could be found right in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, talking, sitting with people while they sold whatever they could to make ends meet. I heard stories of workers I began to admire — and I met those workers tucked away in corners of the best agencies.

Sometimes, with Head Office meetings and investigator-like phone-calls always lingering and taunting from the background, the waiting turned in on itself — the minutes turned to hours, my curious eyes became tired and tear-filled, closing in respite to the carnival outside. I started to see agencies as helping to bubble-wrap dysfunction, as a means of keeping themselves, and their funding, alive. The waiting felt suddenly heavy, and vacuous. The meaning behind it, became devastatingly uncomfortable when I recognized an umbrella-like resignation to chaos — by everyone. Everywhere. On those days, I numbed myself to the details until every word spoken, every face and every siren, just bled into the next series of attempted intrusions. Finally, the greying, flat-line affect sunk in, and the waiting was easy with crappy pizza and cheap ice cream.

Where only hours prior I’d been humbled by the resilience of these souls, these cast out beauties, there was suddenly an absence. This, for now, was it. These were the spaces it was easy to get lost in — the ones bred of battles won and a necessary gap in momentum for the sake of catching breath. In these times, I didn’t notice the stories of resilience, couldn’t appreciate weathered faces as evidence of lived experience.These were, my gaps in time — the moments I needed, in order to catch my breath and dig for purpose again.

I didn’t care anymore, to try and burn into memory the fragmented sentences, so heavy with the horrid wisdom gleaned through tragedy and loss, that there was no room left to breathe. Those spoken gems — those rare, revealing and devastatingly resounding fragments — they were so delicate in composition, made up of so few words, I was afraid moving would cause them to crumble and scatter, revealing all the dead space between them. Now? It was all bullshit. It was all nothing. At least despair had an energy to it. These moments were not unlike staring into the murky, muddied wastes of puddles settling in gutters, bleeding and draining into sewage.

It was in these isolated moments that her arrival meant the most. Despite the fact she was exiting InSite, despite the fact she may have just spent two hours trying to get a shot of Heroin into her veins — despite the fact the sidewalks were stacked and packed to overflowing with distractions and techniques of avoidance — despite it all, she was choosing a different trajectory. And I call into question every person who says, “It’s because they were ready to get out of addiction.” I disagree. It’s because another avenue was offered — something different to connect with. She met me downtown, but we left. Every time.

It is connections people are missing, because they aren’t available outside contractual agreements of client/worker, bound by ethical jargon and antiquated, professional elements of removal.

So don’t stay away from these areas. Do the opposite. Parade the streets with what you are — your genuine, authentic intentions, and you will find scattered plea’s and painted calls for connection on every last one of the sidewalks. If you open up and listen, you’ll hear beyond the sirens and the cussing,  beyond the proclamations of ROCK-POWDER-DOWN. People are scared of it, and when you ask them why, there is rarely a clear answer. So challenge it and call this paradigm out for the fear-based practices it packages as sanitary and professional. The medical/professional paradigm we operate under, in my experience, negates the most humane aspects of human services. It wishes to sanitize reality. Life, is extremely messy. When we embrace that truth, we embrace creative, curious approaches to healing ourselves and each other, because we let go of tidying up and micro-managing our base motivations to death. It’s okay to connect, so give it all you’ve got — and if people who have lost so much are still asking, and still reaching? Applaud that. Always applaud that — and respond to it, in kind.



This, is What it Felt Like, Just to be There, on the Hellish Days…

This was a reflection I wrote on the way home from work — upset, worked up, and more alone than ever. My partner had been away for a few days, getting her drugs and avoiding the ringing phone in her pocket. These days, thankfully, I don’t remember those days very often– but this piece of writing captures the unrelenting sense of futility that can accompany the choice to stick it out beside someone you care for. If you are currently walking beside someone, or you know someone who is, please share it with them so they know they aren’t alone…20150217_152555_1

“If I could tell you anything and everything, where would I begin? 

I’d begin at the start. I wouldn’t hide a thing. I’d tell you everything I saw in her outside the devastating, severe worlds of Heroin and Speed. I’d tell you how she sat across from me, telling me of her life, her world, her thoughts. I’d tell you how amazing she was, even in those moments. I’d tell you I hated the work we did, but I was thankful to be there doing it. I’d tell you I was the odd worker out. I’d tell you that even though I wouldn’t dare tell the clients, most of the staff didn’t really care, and if they did, they were taught all the wrong information on boundaries. I’d tell you my worst enemy was policy. The things this field calls progress: the complacency of the burnt-out, retired but never satisfied, addicts.
I’d talk about how I loved that the House itself brought people through it’s doors, but I hated the guts of the place. I hated the very reason it stood there, a beacon, representing the snail pace of change.
I’d tell you that I was full of energy, full of thoughts, full of reasons — for her, and for them. I’d tell you I believe addiction is something to be figured out, to be dismantled. I’d tell you I wanted to take the whole world on, and that the pace of fall and spring had me chasing clouds, to see if I could keep up — never running out of breath. I’d tell you how hard I worked. I’d tell you that at the time, I could not see myself ever burning out. I never saw myself looking back with tired eyes and new wrinkles, greying hair and a saddened, jaded outlook. I’d tell you that if I thought back even further, to myself sitting at a desk in college, I figured I would change the entire field, by jumping through all the correct hoops.
And now? I tell you this.
I’m tired. I don’t know what I believe anymore. I don’t know what words, what thoughts I can hold onto. I tell you now, silence is everything to me. Stillness. I find talk cheap, motives questionable, and the best hearts the worst to believe in.
I tell you now, I believe very few people really care. More than ever. I’m no longer chasing clouds; seeing their pace in the sky, I feel lifeless. I feel full of weight, stagnation, fatigue. I tell you now, when you choose to do this, when you make this choice and push to see it through, you make the choice to let go of asking for help, for support. Because when you do, everyone else believes they know the answer. They are waiting for you to catch up. But you become the slow one, and you feel exactly how you are.
I tell you that fighting like this, now has my arm scarred, a vodka cooler in my hand before noon after working a graveyard, and cigarette ashes on the floor of my bachelor apartment. I’d tell you how awful the sound of an unanswered phone feels at 7:30 in the morning, when you know that the last conversation you had with your lover was an entire fabrication, but you don’t have the energy to call her out on it and fight it out this time. Because you’re wasted. You’re tired.
I’d tell you that insanity, and mental health, are the direct results of paths gone astray.
I’d tell you how lost I was walking home, hearing singing from a church, envisioning myself going in and praying, because I don’t know what else is left. I’d tell you that I didn’t see a point, because earlier this very morning, I listened to a man with a coffee stained t-shirt and frazzled hair, yelling Moses verses out of three different bibles into a payphone that didn’t work. And he was animated. He was in his reality. And I am in mine. And God wasn’t picking up the other end. I’d tell you how lonely you feel asking for clerks to make change out of your twenty because you left your phone with your partner who isn’t going to answer it anyway. But you’ll spend $18.00 of it hoping she does.
I’d tell you she is probably doing a fix, holding a loaded rig, and moving on to picking her skin out of guilt and shame.
I’d tell you that when you are denying shifts just to be there, but at the same time you are holding up your end of the bargain by working, no matter what you do you feel exhausted. I’d tell you how strange it is to feel guilty and crazy for worrying. I’d tell you how awful it feels to be angry, how no response is correct, and what it feels like when the body and mind have no idea what to do anymore, so they become excellent at shutting down rage. I’d tell you how sad it is to not be able to talk to your mother about all of these things.
I’d tell you, you can’t plan for the insanity. There is no policy/procedure manual for the insanity of slowly watching your good intentions mock you from the pile of shit, rubble, and wasted energy they’ve become. I’d tell you everyone blames me for trying this in the first place.
I’d tell you I feel stupid for believing her, and worse for thinking that. I’d tell you I wish I was done, that I could say goodbye right now. I’d tell you I think there might be something wrong with me to be continuing like this. I’d tell you that at the end of it all, I am lost. This is what it is to be lost.
But right at the end? I’d tell you the plain and simple truth: I’d tell you that she enjoys getting high. That’s it. It’s that fucking simple.”

Punishment VS Discipline

TerryNLarissaZ2Lately I have been mulling over the phrase, “WAR ON DRUGS,” and I find myself questioning which of our therapeutic practices were developed under the paradigm of a war on addiction in general, and how counter that realization is to healing. People and families need to develop their own processes — their own boundaries — their own ideas of enabling. They need to understand their own definitions and their own needs. What are your limits? Are we allowing ourselves the space in our lives enough to reflect on what matters, and what we are willing to sacrifice in order to maintain that meaning and purpose?

I understand the need for people to protect themselves — but if you are struggling, and you find yourself at odds with someone for stealing your television or your radio — if that is your breaking point — then you have a lot of work to do before you can tackle the complexity of addicted minds and loved ones. To get anywhere, we need to break the habits of addiction down beyond the habits themselves, to the survival mechanisms they stemmed from — to the mind of the person who reached conclusions that caused others pain — and then justified them. We need to see the person that came first, and bring them into that conversation without pointing our fingers and resorting to screaming matches.

NEWSFLASH: MOST PEOPLE KNOW ITS WRONG TO STEAL. THEY GET IT. They are past that realization, and have long since moved on to justification — even denial. Point the finger back at yourself, and ask yourself where you are coming from in stating the obvious, with such righteous indignation. It isn’t comfortable or easy, but you need to understand you aren’t teaching anybody anything they don’t already know by staying in that space. There’s no healing there. Move on to something bigger.

This is not a justification of acts that cross us personally, that infringe on our individual boundaries. It is a plea for all of us to deconstruct processes further than definitions of right and wrong — to see things like desperation, and isolation, from the perspective of the other. Punishment, is a quick and often immediately gratifying, therefore vacuous, spectacle of justice. Discipline requires reflection, contemplation, conversation and compassion. It is time consuming, often challenging our egos to detach from rigid, categorical binds to black and white perceptions of right VS. wrong. Jails, like many aspects of the Criminal Justice system, are lacking in consciousness. They are fear-based, punitive institutions, rarely capable of generating meaningful, holistic, substantial change. They are the institutions we resort to in the absence of awareness, patience and trusting relationships.

PUNISHMENT (external power): I will cause you pain and suffering to teach you how to fear certain actions. I will give you ultimatums. You will learn to fear your bad actions because of the uncomfortable consequence, making you less likely to behave BADLY. There is right, and there is wrong. There is good, and there is bad. You are behaving badly, and you are wrong.

DISCIPLINE (internal power): I will question your decision making, allow you the room to explain, and engage in dialogue with you around actions that will inherently cause you suffering in their dysfunction. I will stand beside you while you figure it out, and walk with you during that uncomfortable growth.

Now, you are likely asking yourselves if this is verifiable — quantitative, researched, validated and proven to be effective. In my personal experience, it has worked. I had nothing but a naive belief to act on, and I did it at the expense of my job, and most of my supports. For the most part, we are not ready to accept a lot of these ideas. I am going to go out on a major limb, and describe an event that changed the course of two years of my life — going on three now.

At the time, working at the House I’ve described several times throughout the beginnings of this blog, my partner and I were nothing more than the worker, and the person in addiction. She decided to steal another residents cheque, making the wonderful decision to deposit that cheque into my personal bank account.  You read all of that correctly. She had stolen another residents cheque, and deposited it into my bank account, using my bank card. How did she get my bank card? Well…see…the thing is… I gave it to her willingly, to try and develop trust. Yep. Good old, naive exercise in attempting to build trust. Would I do it again? Probably, but I’d alter it slightly. Maybe I’d just give out cash and ask for change so they could pick up groceries for the House, or a snack, or something. But my bank card? With the PIN…yeah…look — I learned my lesson, okay?

Between being terrified of losing a job I loved, and terrified of having to explain how said person managed to get their hands on my bank card, I had moments where I could literally feel the emotions of the person suffering in addiction. How tired they must have been. How exhausted, terrified, isolated and alone they had become. How many people had trusted them, only to find items and money missing from their homes, their rooms — the very homes and lives they had allowed her into. The most eye-opening realization was that the very messes Heroin created, were the very reasons Heroin became a best friend. It was the cause of so much pain, and the only escape from all the suffering it created.

When I figured out what had happened, I went to my coworker at the time, and my manager, and explained the situation. It was, hands down, one of the most ethically confusing and challenging situations I have ever been in. EVER. It was a heartbreaking, confusing mess.  It catapulted me through some extremely challenging internal dialogues, and provided proof for, rather than negation to, what people referred to as my naivety. Do I sever ties with this person? Is this who this woman really is? Do I go to the cops now? Write a statement? Do I protect myself? Do I protect her? Can I do both? YEAH! I’LL DO BOTH!”

I thought of the work I had been doing at that House, and the environment it existed in. I thought of our mandate, and how much my work actually meant. That’s when I decided to leave my job, and walk beside someone through some extremely hard moments of admission to guilt, and the consequences. I figured it was the only arena capable of generating change, understanding, and acceptance — because it was right in the trenches of the reality. At the time, a woman I respected very much pulled me aside and told me I absolutely had to press charges — I had to go to the cops.

I remember where I was standing, trying to take in every last detail of that amazing House, the energy it carried — the relationships built and the nights of laughter, singing, healing and transformation. In between tears of realization and terror, questioning my own ethics and gauging whether or not I was headed into a psychotic breakdown, I kept running into the words, “No — listen up, SELF! You will NOT go to the cops. It is not healing. You will first try and work with the woman behind all of this. Justice doesn’t mean time served. It means lessons learned.” I knew before anyone else, what my decision was. I was going to leave my job and solve this — the holistic way. People kept saying, “She will never admit to this! No one would — it’s fraud. This is serious. You need to press charges!” I couldn’t believe it. How could they stand there, doing this work every day, if that’s what they truly believed? Couldn’t they see people beyond this? I left my job — that night, and started really working.

At first it was hard. She was so lost in her addiction, it took days just to get her to talk about it — really face up to what was happening. The time was wasting away — the hours were adding up. Every time my phone rang I was terrified it would be my manager telling me they had called the cops. I was receiving threatening emails from the agency I had worked for only two weeks prior. I had asked for their patience, saying it would take time, but it would be handled with care, and empowerment. It would be handled by facing things head on, with discipline and compassion at the forefront. I was stupid to think they would care about any of that. That, was my true naivety.

Standing at the doorway of the Ministry of Social Services, we both had no idea what to expect. I was horribly nervous for her, wondering if the cops would show up and have her in cuffs within the hour. We had no idea what to expect. Waiting on the usual seats, under typical fluorescent lighting, with the generic security guard at the front door, we started to sweat. There wasn’t much of a wait — not nearly enough of one to prepare for all the possible outcomes. Clerk One opened up, and called us forward. I approached with her, and still a a big part of me questions whether I actually believed in her at all, before that moment, because when she began to speak, my eyes welled up in awe, and amazement, with the sudden realization that I could not see myself having the courage to go through what she was willingly putting herself through. I was taken aback by her words. “See…well, I came across another persons welfare cheque — I know their name. And, I just kind of put it into someone else’s account — hers, to be exact — and so I’m here to ask what I’m supposed to do now.”

In that moment, and the ones to follow, it was amazing to feel the culmination of the past weeks. The Clerk looked baffled, and finally spoke. “Uhm…just…can you hang on a minute? You’re admitting to fraud, correct? Of the government? See, it’s just, I’ve worked here for 23 years, and I haven’t seen this happen before, and I really don’t know what to do here. Fraud happens all the time, but I’ve never seen someone admit to it, in person, like this. So I’m just going to make a quick call, okay? Hang on.” When she returned, she provided a phone number to call. Again, we looked at each other in shock. What did this lady mean when she said we could walk back out the door and make a phone call in two days? That’s it? Apparently, it was. A charge-free, holistic approach to justice and healing. No cops, no statements, no self-hatred and consequential desire for Heroin on her part, in order to escape. No record. No fraud charges to be dealt with. No loss of hope and systemic feeling of never-going-to-make-it-out-of-this. Instead? Warmth, connection, tears, and forward motion. Addiction was still present for her, but in developing such a trusting and accepting relationship, Heroin was losing it’s gripping, all-encompassing definition as being the only friend to an isolated victim.

The woman I was with, looked over at me, mirroring on her face what I was feeling. A breath. A sigh. A feeling that the ceiling was lifting back off of us. Because perhaps, in this world, what we want is to know that people can own up to their failings and errors in judgement — you know? Maybe, when we face things head on, our natural tendency is to forgive. The lesson has already been learned — owning up to it, is justice.

Everything that followed still seems very anti-climactic to the pain and suffering we had gone through alone. It shook me to realize that if it was so hard on me, it must have been hell for the woman I was walking beside. I’d left a job I loved. I’d lost a lot. Moments of self-pity would quickly give way to realizations that the path I had taken was less traveled, but held a lot of meaning. The lessons I value, are developed. They are the stuff of lived experience, trial and error. I heard more and more about the rumors being spread at my old job, even six months after I’d left. They were horrendous, and it took a lot of courage and strength for me to keep going, to keep believing in myself when I looked in the mirror. It was a nice feeling when I found myself walking taller, speaking with more courage, and kicking ass at my new job. I suppose people fill in the gaps for themselves when they are given no explanations. But it was pretty eye opening to be on the receiving end of people who resorted to gossip and slander, because they were afraid of losing their jobs if they spoke to me. Juicier fiction was easier and tastier to swallow than digging for the truth. Often, that’s the way.

Through that experience, we developed a serious bond that holds to this day. We found that it stems from a hard-won respect for one another. I respected her ability to walk into a potentially terrifying circumstance with courage, and own up to something so severe. I respected her ability to keep one foot in front of the other, despite all the losses she faced. I respected her process of facing addiction. I respected and admired the lessons she’d learned from the scars she’d accumulated. I respected her desire to start waking up.

She respected my willingness to act on what I believed in — to walk a path that backed up the language I used, even if it meant challenging my career, along with calling years of research on boundaries and ethics into question.

I asked her once, if she could see herself doing the same — walking beside someone who had betrayed her in the same way.”Honestly? I don’t think so. I like to think I could, but if push came to shove, I don’t think I could. I’d be furious! You left the job you loved because of that, remember?”

“No. I think we see things differently. I ended up leaving my job, instead of calling the cops and doing things the professional, sanitary way. I was protecting the agency, too. If I left to deal with this, it wasn’t their mess to clean up, and I knew that. If I didn’t leave, they would have had to do a lengthy investigation, the cops would have been involved, you would have fraud charges on your record, and things would have been entrenching.  I chose to do this a different way, that’s all. And it worked. Everyone’s okay! See?! I really don’t know what I would change…everything that’s happened since? It’s weird. I think it was all supposed to go this way. We’re fine!”

“Yeah. Yeah. You’re unemployed, selling your juicer to make ends meet, and everything’s just fine.”

Everything, in fact, was beautiful in my world. The block was busier than usual, but everyone was pretty relaxed. I could see in their faces, in their weathered stories, the allure of such a place. Resilience. Time served. Lessons learned. I became convinced she would never be able to see the beauty in all of it until she had weathered the storm. Her darkness — those hard parts of herself carved out by years of hidden addiction, and three years surviving in a neighborhood where violence and vengeance were as common as the litter on the streets — were beginning to soften. She began to tell her story — without glossing over the ugly parts.

So, although I am far from saying I chose the right course of action in attempting to build trust by providing access to my bank card, I am calling on us to define what our limits are, in our own words. I am hoping that we can learn from dealing with things creatively and with integrity, rather than relying on third parties and professional institutions to do the work we are capable of doing ourselves, if we make the space for it in our lives.

And if the cops did end up involved? I would have accessed the same parts of myself I did when I left my job, with tears in my eyes. I would have dug down and silenced all my fear, in order to see through it to the good stuff life is composed of. The notes behind the melodies, so to speak. The parts we have to really dig to find. And I would have told them the whole truth, begging them to try and see the point behind what appeared a little crazy, or naive. Every time I’ve done that, it reaches people. And that’s because we need to do it more often. We need to not only speak from our hearts, but act from them.


Unsent Letter to an Addicted Loved One

20150129_004214“Both of us exist in two separate worlds, two separate lives. You have your addicted mind with all the gory bits associated, as well as the person you were before and outside of that addicted mind. I have a trusting mind, and a fearful mind. The four of our selves get tired. We battle. We mend. We get tired again. We battle. We mend. We each have an aspect of self stuck in very murky, sad worlds. Our capacities for reflection and awareness allow us to meet in our efforts to heal. In our gory worlds, with our gory selves — you in addiction, and me, in the distrusting fear — we operate in mania, and depression. The euphoric space we find ourselves in when we are connected and hearing one another all too suddenly, morphs and writhes into something of a nightmare. We are left depleted, reaching, and clinging to egotistical definitions of right and wrong. It is not until we both wake up to our dysfunctional clinging that we begin to see each other, healing together.

What we are working towards, is not something we can grasp right now. It is being constructed, and sometimes we lose a couple bricks in the process. We find ourselves breaking the momentum, reaching down to pick up what we’ve dropped — carefully putting it back into its right place. And in those moments, my gaze becomes skeptical and lost. The anger comes. And from you, a defensive decoy manifests. Our egos go to battle, each righteously defending itself against the pains and lashings from the other. You are battling nearly two decades of a numbed out existence. As parts of you reawaken, you are adjusting to pain and daily struggles. You are developing patience, where before you had no need of it. These are beautiful, challenging growths. I apologize for my own fatigue in the face of it, but I want you to see my dysfunction, too. We all have our broken, faded pieces.

My wanting to be with you Downtown, in some potentially dangerous and questionable situations, was about calling your own logic into question. There is enough written about the dangers and risks associated, there are enough — in fact, too many — conversations around enabling. I wanted to know what could happen if we turned the tables and dove right in, alongside someone in the throws of fairly self-destructive patterns. I wanted to know what could happen if we told fear and punishment to Fuck Off, and walked alongside our loved one through what we know is very real, happening in every city, everywhere, all the time. The intention was never to be a wing-man to danger, but a reflection of your patterns onto themselves. If it wasn’t okay for me to be there, eventually your mind would see the intention behind the actions I was taking. There were times all I could do was sweat, tremble, pace and hope for the best — hope no one would see me. Luckily enough for us, it didn’t take too long for the intention to sink in. Sometimes, things ended up pretty bloody and raw. And other times, in our healing moments, when we were really seeing each other, we would turn to go home instead of continuing Downtown. I always wanted to know that if you were down there, you had a connection to the world outside of it, even if it meant standing right next to you in the gutter. If we leave people surrounded by something long enough, it becomes home. It becomes normal. All I wanted, was to fight that — naive or not.

Now that you are healthier — now that you have several days in a row of not using, you are growing into discomfort. You are more a part of the states I have been living in, without escape, for months. You are beginning to see the impacts of certain actions — and when you’ve had your fill, and can’t take anymore, you reach for your comfort. When I am not ready to reflect, when I am tired after work or full up of stress, and you come at me with reflections of the state I am in, I too, reach for the comfort of not dealing. “How dare you point out my emotions! Like it’s that easy! Like I brought myself here! I hate this! I can’t stand to even look at myself in this weak, sad state!” Those, are my unhealthy states. I am convinced we will remain in this holding pattern for as long as is necessary, and that when we are both ready, we will come back to the drawing board to develop the third stage to this process.

We need to support each other in building our lives apart, and together. We need to support each other through the very real impacts of addiction, healing, pain and rage. Today I am reflective, forgiving, and aware, after writing several angry letters to release the pain. I am here now, in my soft core, needing you to know I love you and I’m here.”

A Glimpse of Front Line Work.

11211829_840170822736183_2007345201_oA television had been busted again. Couldn’t ignore the crashes, and off from the background came the reminder — the constant static of 26 trying to hit the right radio frequency, convinced she’d find the source of her psychosis.

Most times I wasn’t nervous, approaching her door. Tonight, I had to take three deep breaths — aware of being out of sight of her doors peep-hole. Had she seen me doing this, all bets would be off. I knocked. She came pounding, angrily opening the door.

“WHAT?! I dropped the TV trying to get to my window. There are people out there!”

“It’s okay, it’s alright. Can you open your door so you can see my face and get where I’m coming from? We just need to talk this stuff out! It’s not about punishment, alright? It’s a struggle, but a couple new people down the hall aren’t feeling easy about leaving their rooms, and we need to reach a balance.”


She wasn’t causing any harm, but the second floor was quickly becoming an uncomfortable zone of sudden crashes and smokey hazes. This woman was one of my soft spots. With many counts of harassment on her record, this was longest she’d managed to remain housed. She was doing well, but it took conscious effort on our parts as workers. 26 could never be tamed, never be silenced. And her mind was at it again. Standing in her doorway, I couldn’t help but note her power, and the struggles behind it. Her walls had more writing today, her window had several small holes, and her electronics were positioned and covered — evidence of the state of paranoia she was in.

“We want you to work this stuff out. That’s not a question.”

“But it needs to be appropriately handled, correct? I need to be polite in the breakdowns, eh?! If it wasn’t a breakdown, nothing would ever break!” This woman was always a warrior with her words. Killed me every time, because she was bang on — absolutely correct. And I couldn’t argue. That wasn’t the point in my being there. So I would plead with my eyes and stand in her doorway, focusing all my energy on projecting compassion, often saying nothing. Her eyes would soften, and in those moments, her pain would surface, seeking solace. Tonight, however, things were coming undone on all three floors — not just hers. Tonight, with two staff and 36 women, we just didn’t have the time. So I figured, for her sake, we had to find the time in between the rest of the breakdowns. Women coming home from bad dates, doors slamming, debts owed, people puking in their sickness. It was one of the nights that called you to task.

She breezed past her window, screaming about how she knew she was being watched, being recorded. I could feel myself shrinking in the harsh realization that we were operating in two different realities, trying to bridge the gap. Seemed perfect to be standing in her doorway. I remembered to bring my energy back to my breath, calling for strength. Sometimes, my eyes would well up. Some nights, those moments became reflections of the weight of the entire human condition, wrapped up and cast out into the radius of the DTES.

“Oh Christ, it’s someone’s birthday and they need a swig of my HoneyJack.”

“Are we foregoing the shirt idea tonight?” She zipped around me, wearing nothing but a thin strapped black bra and designer-destroyed jeans. If anyone has been in the company of a group of people high on Crystal Meth, you know the energy I’m talking about. It never stops — you’re lucky if you’ve felt as though you can catch your breath. In that House, some nights called for many cigarette breaks, just so you could catch up to yourself in the night air.

“FUCK MY SHIRT! THIS IS A FUCKIN TRANSITION HOUSE AND WE AREN’T ALLOWED TO BE IN ONE! The fuck do you care anyway, man.” With that, she grabbed her Jack Daniels, with her classic, thin-frame swagger, parading down second floor hall. I smirkingly shut her door, more at ease with the thought of her seeking company than getting lost in the walls of her room, and all the nothing within them.

With the shutting of her door, it was on to the next moment. 33 was sick again. Extremely. We could hear her moaning from the second floor. With a run up the stairs and  a quick check down hall, the pace of the night was set. For whatever reason, four people on this floor were sick as hell, begging for Opiates. All I was armed with, was compassion, back rubs, warm cloths and puke-buckets. Jello powder was a quick antidote for turning stomachs. I didn’t care how it worked. I only cared to find boxes of it in the kitchen, and putting them to use. A quick check-in with my colleague and it was back to work.

“Hey man. Third floor’s not going well tonight. I’ll be in camera view, but I’m going to be giving some back rubs and warm cloths.”

“Don’t you think that’s crossing boundaries?”

“Well, its a far cry better than going out and getting them heroin, eh? Ha! Just kidding…but seriously. That’d be a boundary-crossing for sure.” Poorly timed joke as always. Poorly, poorly timed.

I’d been arming myself with humor since I was called into Head Office for taking too long on building checks, rather than chatting it up with my colleague in the office. Out of that meeting, came good things. They’re called ‘walkie-talkies’, and using them quickly shut the mouths of the whistle-blowers. I thought I was in trouble, until we all sat down with the Executive Director. She turned to my colleague, and said, “She should not have to justify the depths of the relationships she is developing with the women, because you feel left out. We will get walkie-talkies so you can keep in touch in case of an emergency.” Forward motion.

Once back up on the third floor, I could see what looked to be a crouching human figure, smoking a cigarette, draped in white blankets, at the hallways opposite end. It was 35, moaning and groaning. Sure enough, within seconds, she was down on the floor, inching her way over to the side of the woman I was caring for. 33 was a pretty severe case of dope-sick. Her skin was turning a greenish yellow, and her urine was extremely clouded, dark, and aromatic. The pain she was in, made me cringe. At first, my attempts at caring for her were futile. “FUCK YOU! GET OUT OF HERE,” she would yell, while she threw something at the closing door. She was intimidating to say the least, but she was hurting. Badly, badly hurting. There were days I was close to obliging her by leaving, but I kept at it — sometimes emotionally limping away from her door. “I’m going to check in. You can yell and scream, feel free. But I’m coming back.” After a few days of that, she was beginning to trust me. After a week, she was allowing me to change her blankets and sheets, and provide her with fluids and a clean bucket. There are no words to express or translate those moments. Soon, we started to communicate, which helped warm her to the idea of compassion. Tonight, she was all in.

The self hatred and shame that accompany years of addicted life, are the parts of this work research and statistics tend to deaden.

So, while I was rubbing her back and changing her puke buckets, 35 had made it down the hall, begging for money.

“You know I would never do that. Ever. Please tell me that by the end of this, you’ll get it.”


“You aren’t going to die, man. I’ll call an ambulance if you need one. Come on. I’ve got cloths, buckets, back rubs and blankets. But I have nothing else.”

Every person who came down the hall was victim to her pleading. Then 32 came home. She paraded upstairs, the smell of Vancouver rain still wafting from her clothes, still sniffling, glasses fogging. She assessed the situation from the landing, as quickly as ever. “Woah man, what’s up with the third floor today, hey T?”

“Everyone’s sick. I don’t know enough about dope yet, but 303 is bad. She’s writhing. Is this just bad dope?”

“HA, no, it’s not bad dope. All dope is bad for this,” she responded, looking down at the women around me with the body language of someone who had been there herself. For a brief moment, I saw what looked like reflection on her face, and just as quickly, she switched it off and began talking. “Oh boy. This is a sad state. Are you guys begging for money yet? T won’t cave, but if she plugs her ears and looks the other way….” Before she could even finish her sentence, the women beside me were looking up, and looking a degree or two better. “T,” she tentatively began, “I’m just going to assume you get where you are, and you know what’s up. These people are sick, seriously sick, and I MIGHT have something they need. In my pocket. Understand?” I nodded. “But, in order for me to give them what they need, you should probably get the hell out of view of cameras and let me take over.” 32 was an interesting woman, and we were just starting to develop trust. But I wanted to know if she was operating out of compassion, or not. “That’s all fine, and I get it. You have heroin, or something. But they don’t have to pay for it, okay? Don’t make them pay you for it. They can get you back if you’re ever sick, but please. No dealing in the House, at least not like this. If you want to do this, you do it without money.” She smiled, shaking her head, and told me to get lost, after chiming in about me heading back to the land of naivety. I made it down to the second floor landing, where 22 had been listening in on everything. I was beginning to feel naked, like I needed to check in with myself and make sure I was still in line with what I knew to be ethically correct, and there she stood.

“People are pretty sick up there, hey? You should be working at Insite. You’d be perfect. I’m going to show you a trick for these ladies, because they trust you, and sometimes, this might help. Come on up to the staircase in the back, and I’ll show you what is fucking us all up so badly.”

22 proceeded to show me all the ropes. From out of her pocket, she took drug after drug after drug. A little of this, and a little of that. Now, don’t kid yourselves. I was sweating up a storm, thinking of my manager, and some of my ridiculous excuses for coworkers, who would probably have called Head Office on the spot, had they known what was going on. But to me, this was important. It was necessary not to shut people down. This was reality, and in order to accept it fully, we had to look at all of the ugliest, most uncomfortable parts. I didn’t want to start choosing. I wanted to see the whole picture.

“Now, these little suckers won’t get people high if they are familiar with Heroin, unless they take quite a few. And they take a little while to cook up. Then you have these guys, and these guys…and this…” Her words trailed off while I took a ride somewhere else, thinking about how tiny the bags were, how tiny the amounts were, and how big our problems had become — over what, I couldn’t define. I didn’t get it. I couldn’t understand it. I felt like a child — tiny, and helpless, at the mercy of deciding whether to trust people or not. I was lost.  How a House full of some of the most powerful women, were riding on the coat tails of their own little deaths, had me reaching for answers. Her words came trailing back, “…so here are your supplies. You’ve got yer cooker, yer tie, yer water, and the trustee old lighter. Some people use the filters, but you can use anything that’ll absorb the nasty stuff.”

I’d seen this done countless times before, sitting with 34. But I was there for the relationship building. This woman was amazing. Complex, and amazing. “No, I get all that stuff. I’ve seen it done. I just…what do I do when people are sick?”

“Listen, if people really trust you, they will let you know if they are holding any dope at all, and they will intervene — like what just happened up there. That rarely ever happens when staff are around. But it’s the truth, man…I mean, we hide it. But we all know it’s happening. You just got the raw deal. So go work at InSite and do this stuff over there.”

The truth she told, is tough to stomach in Front Line work. It made all the best workers feel lousy. We carried guilt sometimes for the strong relationships we were building, for having answers to questions a lot of workers were too afraid to ask. We carried a hint of shame every time we were asked to go for a smoke break with clients over our coworkers. And this becomes a quickly divisive line for clients as well. When you carry yourself with curious engagement, and you dive into the work you are there to do, people all around you can feel it. So don’t numb your talents to keep people comfortable holding you at their level. Attempt to bring people up to yours and show them what it takes. If people are too scared to bridge that gap, then just keep working like you know you can.

For all the academic verbage people tout after graduation, there is very little true absorption of the meaning. People discuss non-judgment, but when push comes to shove, they slam the doors shut when they are asked to walk through them. It takes a great deal of on-the-spot reflection to open your minds and souls to what really goes on in the darkest spaces of that work. And yet, interestingly enough, we ask addicts to open those doors and reveal all. Fascinating, isn’t it? Our moral high-grounds and the gutters they create…