She Speaks: Muskoka has an addiction problem and it’s not what you think

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Muskoka has a drug problem.

It might be easier to delve into the statistics of this issue if gathered statistics didn’t group Muskoka with Simcoe County, a larger and more metropolitan area than ours. It might be easier to examine the issue if Muskoka didn’t experience its highest peak of drug overdose death in August, the month in which we have the largest number of tourists in the area.

However, it might also ease the burden of the subject if we decided not to talk about this as a ‘drug problem’ but rather as a community problem.

The heart of addiction is not access, though ease of acquisition doesn’t help. The soul of addiction isn’t ‘chasing the good feeling’, though as far as motivational factors, feeling good is a winner. People who are addicted are not ‘riff raff’ (seen most recently on a local paper’s comment section), they aren’t scum, and they aren’t the dregs of society.

With addiction as rampant as it certainly is, I’m surprised some people still don’t get it. Addiction is a coping mechanism for trauma, and addicts are our neighbours, our servers, our support workers, our loved ones, ourselves.

Please don’t misunderstand me – addiction to drugs and alcohol are major social problems, and from someone who has done dozens of risk assessments with women experiencing abuse, intoxication is a driving force behind the escalation of violence. There is no excuse for abusive behaviour whether the abuser is, if you’ll permit the clichés, stone-cold sober, drunk as a skunk, or high as a kite. This includes physical abuse (putting your hands on someone against their will), emotional abuse (manipulation, gaslighting, passive aggression), financial abuse (controlling money or withholding it for shared expenses, getting someone fired from a job), sexual abuse (not heeding signals like a person’s, usually a woman’s, lack of interest or passive resistance, attempts at convincing or coercing acquiescence, forcible sexual contact). None of these are acceptable, nor should be, regardless of the state of mind of the person enacting them.

Now that that’s out of the way, can we talk about trauma, starting at the beginning, with something called adverse childhood experiences. (Learn more here). It’s been proven that when we have “ACEs” as children, we are more likely to become traumatized adults. ACEs can be childhood abuse, neglect, poverty, racism, colonialism, or dangerous combinations therein. When we collect ACEs without balancing them with resilience (community, positive role models, creative outlets, coping skills, a sense of contribution), we are more likely, by a huge margin, to become addicts.

Addiction is the employment of a coping skill in the absence of others. It is the natural end result of a society that does not value people, does not foster emotional intelligence, and does not teach resiliency at a young age or indeed at any age. People become addicts because they have intolerable pain. Yes, this pain is frequently internal and emotional, but not always. Sometimes people are driven to addiction via subscription medication or physical dependency on legal drugs like alcohol.

But if you ask any person with an addiction – and for those who think they don’t know any, think about why you might not be considered a safe person to disclose this to – they will tell you: they hurt so much. They may not be able to delve into the details; part of addiction is living in the shallows of the details because they are too overwhelming or painful to examine. They may not be able to fully articulate that it’s pain at all; many people with addiction have used substances to successfully block out the traumatic memories or experiences that emotionally levelled them. But I promise you that if you actually listen, with an open heart and without prejudice with the desire to learn, to a person with an addiction, you will see hurt, fear, and shame. So much shame.

And from what we know about shame, (learn more here) we know that we cannot let it remain unexamined. Shame thrives in darkness, under the bed, in the closet, in the shadows. Shame feeds on itself better than any other emotion. Shame is the fear that you deserved every awful thing that ever happened to you: every cruel word, even abuse, every system failure, every systemic oppression. Shame dies when exposed to the light. We are in a life and death struggle against shame. We don’t have the financial resources or the political will, apparently, to actually address this addiction crisis, which is a human crisis. We could, of course, but the funds haven’t been allocated and the steps haven’t been taken to the extent that they need to be (See: Harm reduction works, when you work it).

So here is my challenge to those reading this column, who I am thrilled to report are mostly kind, community-minded, big-picture types (unlike those who read the headlines and rail against their own preconceived notions of what I’m saying). My challenge is to deeply excavate our social attitude toward addiction. It’s to call out the people in the comments section who would rather see people die for want of Naloxone because ‘those types’ aren’t worth the first-aid effort. They are the ones who think addicts themselves are funneling money away from life-saving medical treatments like insulin. Talk to those community members about how there is no profile for an addict other than adverse childhood experiences –  and if we really hold child sexual abuse against the victim, doesn’t that say more about us than them?

To those who don’t understand, can’t understand, or refuse to, I have a challenge for you, too. Listen. Just listen. Focus on your breathing and attempt neutrality. The things you will hear might break your heart, if you can stand it.

And on the subject of ‘us and them’, think about the AIDs crisis. Think about what we, as a society, consider to be acceptable losses. Think about strategic, purposeful divisions in our world – who stands to gain from them, and who loses. As long as we live under these hierarchical, divided strata, there will always be a segment of society that we, at large, are willing to look away from. I posit there are no acceptable losses. None.

I know some people reading this article are experiencing addiction. To you, I hope that you consider the following words a balm, because you have known enough judgement already. You are not alone, you are not bad, you have value, you are worthy of a different way should you desire it. I wish for you, and for us all, a community that sees each and every member, regardless of perceived contribution, as precious, beloved, and good.

The antidote to pain is not ostracism. The antidote to shame is not judgement. In order to have open arms and a loving heart, you have to have good boundaries, true. So if that’s what’s stopping you from trying to understand addiction, let’s talk about that next time. Until then, what do you think – challenge accepted?

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Kathleen May (Photo: Kai Rannik)

Kathleen May (Photo: Kai Rannik)

Kathleen May is a writer, speaker, and activist. Her work in our community includes co-founding the long-running Huntsville Women’s Group, being a Survivor Mentor in the pilot survivor-to-survivor program through MPSSAS, co-facilitating instinct-unlocking workshops for women through I Got This, working as a host and community producer of Herstories on YourTV, volunteering with Women’s March Muskoka, and her role as a front-line counsellor at a women’s shelter. Kathleen is a 2018 Woman of Distinction for Social Activism and Community Development and also received the Best Author award for her 2018 submission at the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a fundraiser for literacy services. Her dream is a sustainable women’s land co-operative in Muskoka.

9 Comments

  1. Brilliantly put. Thank you for shedding light into the dark corners of our area. I hope compassion can win once understanding is the norm.

  2. Melissa Clark on

    Thank you for your thoughtful piece! Hoping it will change some hearts in all sides of the common debates!

  3. What do addicts have in common? Typically, they are those who have been hurt by the sins of others and are seeking to self-medicate the sorrow, rage, helplessness, and yes, shame that comes with being a victim. As a counselor, I have heard their sad stories and not only are they heart-breaking but they are anger-provoking as well. We must get much better at preventing abuse.

    However, there are other causes of addiction. Being raised in an excessively materialistic, barren emotional landscape is a part of the problem as well. When mom and dad are so busy chasing their own dreams that they barely notice their children, they are setting up the background for addiction as well. Children who feel that they are valued for themselves, are not likely to turn to drugs to numb the pain that comes from feeling that their lives don’t matter to anyone, that they might as well be invisible. Children crave spending time with their parents and siblings as a family. It doesn’t have to be anything special or costly–can be as simple as going on a hike together and stopping to have a picnic on the way.

    Sounds a bit corny to say but the remedy for the problem of addition is, as the old Dionne Warwick song implored, “What the world needs now is love…”

    1 Corinthians 13: 4-8 defines love for us: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no account of wrongs. Love takes no pleasure in evil, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” This is an eternal verity that has largely been forgotten in our present world.

    • Absolutely 100% bang on….there is so much despair today. The overdose victims that I care for in the ICU often have reached the end of their ability to self-medicate and just want the pain to go away for good. It breaks my heart. As a nurse I cannot share my personal faith but I can take the time to tell them they are a person of great worth and value in spite of their history of painful circumstances and that their life is worth fighting for.

  4. This is fantastic, and to add on for some people addiction is a legitimate medical/genetic problem. It is something that can be “beaten” but not erased from your life. It’s why some addicts need constant support from those around them because it is an everyday battle no matter what the circumstances.

    • Janice Larade on

      Thank You for this timely article from Your heart Kathleen..
      Its been my lifes journey..
      Shame. Fear. Judgemental attitudes. Isolation. Alone. Self condemnation. All become real.. painful and crippling.. traumas hide inward.. hidden underneath..
      I am not ashamed of my lifes journey! With the right advocate of only one person began my healing journey! Now I listen .. really listen to those around me.. for there they reveal the hints of their past and there I daily choose to treat them the way I wanted to be..
      Valued . Respected . Heard . Accepted Simply for being Created Beautiful and Wonderful… We r Valuable and all have a lifes story.. But it does not define us totally nor stop us.. we r strong and courageous when just one compassionate person comes beside us to walk with us along the way together! (Greatest impact! ) And Timely..yes! Now more than ever we r being made aware of so much more for help and tools to learn and apply in my life.. compared to when i hungered for help and u were ridiculed.. my demographic age is 58yrs old.. u did not get dealt w well! But I choose for myself to be a participant in life.. encouraging. Supporting. Helping those that come into my lifes journey as I continue Onward.. Forward.. participating and engaging not just existing. It began with one.. then more began.. but I am stronger today because of people coming beside me! Thanks to caring hearts.. the right ones come at the right time once I took that first fearfull step out for help.. Thank You for Your Heart & insight Kathleen! Thank You to this community Im a part of.. Growing in Heart Attitudes & awareness but r Actively Helping! Each day I can do my little part.. together w someone elses part.. we can meet needs around us.. My little bit counts positively now! So does anyone elses part in helping anyone around You in any way! Thank You for being able to share even.. in this important conversation! This is freeing.. This is truth..

  5. Terrific as always, Kathleen. Some of us just have addictive personalities: we do everything to excess; gamble, drink, experiment with drugs. I was a drug-user in the 60’s; a borderline alcoholic in the 70’s; and a heavy gambler in the 80’s. Then I was diagnosed with a bipolar mood disorder, and while experiencing the manic highs; I started to repeat my harmful behaviour.
    .
    It wasn’t until the 00’s, with a successful medication regime; that I finally had control of my addictions and my life. I have now been on the wagon for more than 8 years, and have salvaged my health before it was too late.
    .
    That being said (only as a preface), during the entire 25 years, I never stopped having empathy for those who were suffering from similar or other addictions. Respectful listening is key. Look people in the eye. Turn off your phone. They are your one and only priority for the foreseeable future. Most of these individuals have low self esteem: they don’t feel worthy of anybody caring about them. Be the first person to prove them wrong. The difference in both your lives will be immense.

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