I spend all of my workday and a lot of my learning time online, so I am always delighted to step away from my desk and out into the real world for a legitimate interactive experience. Some, like the one I had with a young friend a few days ago, open my eyes in a way that no artificially intelligent technology ever could.
My young friend was talking about a project for English class. She and her friends wanted to write about the drug problem in the United States and, specifically, in Vermont where the opioid crisis has destroyed families and claimed so many lives. She and her friends have had intimate, tragic, experiences as witnesses to and collateral damage of addiction, and I thought I knew how they might feel about addicts and addiction. but real life people always surprise me, often in the best of ways.
“I think they should just let people overdose if that’s what they want,” said one of her friends. Another friend nodded while still another furrowed her brow as she listened.
“I thought that for a long time,” said my first friend. Her opening salvo surprised me.
Intellectually I tell myself addiction is not a choice, but emotionally, and not that deep down, I assign guilt to addicts. I classify them–the strung-out people in the emergency room that I move me and the kids away from, former co-workers who were constantly unavailable because of what I tell myself over and over is a disease. I look at them with judgement and suspicion, even knowing my own struggles with addictive behavior with substances nowhere near as powerful as opioids.
“I think they need help,” my friend said. She went on to relate how she had lost a parent to addiction, and I had to pretend my allergies were making my eyes water. What made my eyes sweat was not pity for this young woman who had lost so much because of the choices of others but admiration for her ability to have compassion still. As she elaborated on her belief that people don’t choose to become addicted, her classmates began to nod in agreement with her. Even the first friend, who had also spoken from her experiences, appreciated the nuanced perspectives they were beginning to share.
I am ashamed to admit I am not compassionate when thinking about addiction. I abuse food and caffeine, but, because they don’t interfere with my ability to earn a paycheck or take care of the kids, I haven’t put myself in the category of addict.
But I know that feeling of surrender.
My wise young friend inadvertently made sure that, going forward, I would make a conscious choice to extend a little more compassion to other people who aren’t always winning their battles with addiction.