A few of years ago, a video from the Civic Center Bart Station in San Francisco went viral – showing a line of people in the station, shooting up and passed out due to drug use. With the tagline on the evening news, “Bart Junkies,” I was interested in the language explaining the video – “Shocking,” and “Unacceptable,” etc. The comment section got to me too, for each and every one illustrated a stereotypical idea of what or who an addict is. The lack of regard for these lives that have been tragically affected by addiction was apparent and the labels, “trash,” “human garbage,” and so many more, illustrated how isolating and harmful addiction is to every human on the planet.
The fact is, we all know an addict of some sort. Whether they are in recovery and have been sober for 1, 5, 10, or 30+ years, or they are still using, we all know an addict. We work with addicts. They are our family members, partners, neighbors, colleagues, and friends. They are faith leaders, government officials, teachers, techies, doctors, bus drivers, performing artists, and flight attendants. They are homeless, living in their cars, on their boats, and they are also living in million-dollar homes. And just like in the video from the Bart Station, they are shooting up, drinking, snorting cocaine, and popping pills. Addiction is addiction. It is no prettier or excessive in a Bart station, than it is in your friend’s or family’s home.
At the beginning of this month, a very good friend of mine died. A recovering addict who was sober for over 2 years, this man filled a place in my heart with his laughter, his boisterous personality and his love for life, his daughters, and his family. We’re not sure how he died, but in the larger picture, focusing on why or how he died isn’t important to me. What matters to me is who he was, how he cared for me, and I cared for him as friends, and how his spirit lives on in all those he came into contact with throughout his life. My friend is not, nor will he ever be, defined by his addiction. He was more than his addiction.
Last July, I lost a colleague to addiction. As his wife shared publically at the memorial, my colleague literally drank himself to death. His trauma was too much to bare and he made a choice. The lesson in his death is that addiction doesn’t happen to people because it is fun or a simple escape. Most, if not all those who are addicted, have suffered something in their lives that cause them to choose harming themselves to ease their pain. This plays out in a myriad of ways, be it through substance abuse, sexual activity, cutting or self-harming, violence toward others, and so much more. The phrase, Hurt people, hurt people – is not just applied to those around us. This goes for us individually, as well. Those who are hurting, hurt and harm themselves more than anyone else – and that self-harm manifests in various forms and in various ways. Many times, we can know someone their entire life and never know they suffer from trauma and perhaps an addiction – and therein lies the lesson.
It is important to note that both my friend and colleague went through addiction recovery programs. One was free, the other cost a lot of money. Addiction recovery is a necessary component, yet these programs are stigmatized and those with privilege and money often have better and more access to recovery programs in general. Healthcare will usually only pay for minimal stays in recovery programs, therefore people are left to their own devices and without the tools to continue their rehabilitation on their own. Hence why it is usually an average of five-seven times spent in recovery programs, before sobriety is reached.
I often wonder if the guy that filmed that scene in the Bart station, so his friends could witness his experience, had he been given the opportunity or even thought to stop and ask questions, such as…
What harm have you experienced?
What is hurting you?
Can I help you?
What if he had asked and received answers from each of those who were shown in that video? Would that have changed the narrative around the video and those subjugated, from one of disgust and disdain for those “junkies,” to one of empathy and compassion? More, the lack of acknowledgement that this type of drug use is happening everywhere, not just at the Bart station, but with those we know, admire and support, is vapid to say the least. I guess it’s easier to label those deemed unworthy as such, rather than acknowledge the ugly truth about addiction – it exists and it is insidious. Yet, the reminder in that truth is again, that those who are addicted, are more than their addiction.
I am not an addict, so I learn from those who are willing to teach me. I have a friend that I talk with often about addiction and all that surrounds it. He is very patient with me and openly shares his own struggles. I find these exchanges invaluable and I root for him every day. He works with men who are addicted and in that deep work, he ensures that he is real, grounded, truthful and as holistic as possible. He educates about addiction to his followers on social media and is greatly respected for it. And, he has suffered immense losses of friends and colleagues to addiction. Each time, he offers lessons in his loss. I appreciate his perspective greatly and I value his insight. It is my wish that everyone has these kind of conversations, for they offer the ability to understand and reach deeper inside of ourselves.
I believe the unifying spiritual essence in each and every one of us affects our existence here on Earth. What happens in a Bart station in San Francisco and the pain and trauma from addiction experienced there, reverberates throughout the world. Our faith traditions call us to be empathetic and compassionate and yes, for us to hold people accountable. We can offer to help an addict all we want and are capable of – but until an addict is ready to help themselves, our offers, many times, fall on deaf ears and scarred hearts. This is frustrating. We can’t save anyone unless they want to save themselves. This is why addiction is so painful and so bound in stigmas that cause our society and communities to ignore it, rather than address it. By addressing it, I don’t necessarily mean recovery programs. As with anything, we need to work on stopping the reasons for addiction all together, wherever and however possible.
In reality, we expect a lot from our fellow humans and when they don’t meet our expectations, we judge and point fingers. This is why many addicts hide and feel ashamed. Imagine as people of faith and spirit if we welcomed and acknowledged All as the broken humans we are. In that brokenness, we are all beloved – not just by God, but by each and every one of us, regardless of who someone is and what they do to survive. Imagine empowering those who are addicted by standing next to them in love and acceptance, instead of judgement and condemnation. We can empower those who are our friends, colleagues and family that are addicts, to recognize their own worthiness and their beauty. Meeting an addict where they are, isn’t easy and can be awful. Imagine the pain they feel. Imagine the pain someone must feel to shoot up on a cold floor, alone, in a Bart station. I understand addiction comes with a lot of undesirable behavior and consequences. I do not have all the answers. I only posit that we recognize the importance of this very difficult topic and conversation. Because “junkies” don’t just hang out in Bart stations.
Addiction matters. Until we change the whole conversation around addiction, we will continue to lose our most loved family members, friends, colleagues and those that are strangers to us. An important reminder is that those we deem strangers and unworthy of notice – they are sons, daughters, uncles, aunties, cousins and siblings. Someone misses them. Someone loves them.
My friend was a wonderful human being. My colleague was a good human as well. They were not, nor ever will be, defined by their addiction. Instead, they will be remembered for how much they were loved.
For Basil, For Eric
Dr. Karen Leslie Hernandez is a theologian, restorative justice practitioner and interfaith activist/peacebuilder. She has published with several media outlets including the Women’s United Nations Report Network, The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, and she is the only Christian to have published an ongoing Op-Ed Column with OnIslam out of Cairo, Egypt. Karen recently graduated with her Doctor of Ministry from Claremont School of Theology and she also holds two theological master’s degrees – one from Andover Newton Theological School, the other from Boston University School of Theology. She did her BA at Wellesley College, graduating with honors in her major, Peace and Justice Studies. Karen currently lives in California and focuses her work in non-profit community organizing – to create more inclusive, equitable communities. She is also a certified domestic violence advocate and mandated reporter, and she loves to kayak, hike, practice yoga and spend time with her daughter.