“In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts”
- Tuesday, July 30, 2013
By Aidan Sullivan
I have actively engaged many of the community members of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) in Vancouver who receive meals or hang out at the Mission Possible Community Center. While serving lunch, eating with fellow co-op members (a program designed to promote community member volunteering with MP, which creates dignity and a sense of community), and hanging out at the Saturday coffee house, I have been lucky enough to hear many, often heart breaking, stories.
Hearing from people who have faced so many hardships, tickles my own selfish curiosity while also allowing these individuals to express themselves in their often isolated lives. Much of what I hear is about drug addiction, and its control on life and opportunity. “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” by Gabor Mate illustrates some of the most serious addiction stories in the DTES and offers policy and harm reduction suggestions. Mate talks a lot about the scientific roots of addiction and about how stress is often the most predictable factor in the maintaining of an addiction and in the triggering of relapse. These stressors can include ostracism, dire poverty, disease, and food and drug needs.
Mission Possible’s Community Center, by promoting community and warmth, indirectly reduces stress triggers. Saturday breakfast is set-up so that 100 individuals (2 rotations of 50), are seated and have a full meal served to them. Table cloths, real plates and silver wear, group prayer, and the “diner like” set-up are all meant to make the guests feel like they have worth. Often, and it is not a bad thing, soup kitchens serve with the intention to feed as many as possible, and disregard the individual. By acting as a warm host and promoting value, I believe MP is reducing stress in the community. I am very fond of this style, for it makes me feel less like I am serving the needy and more like I am getting to know a community that is sharing a meal. Maybe, although on a very small scale, MP is helping to lessen addiction in the community. Although, as explained to me by an outspoken regular, our hazelnut coffee (made to resemble a liquor – he claims), could potentially act as a trigger to recovering alcoholics. In the aggregate, however, I believe more good is being done.
Before spending time here, it was easy for me to consider drug addicts as creators of their own problems. I would see drug addiction as a distant idea that didn’t affect those in my immediate surroundings. I thought it really just occurred for those who were emotionally and psychologically “weak.” I have realized though, through readings and recent conversations, that addiction largely stems from early life misfortunes that its possessors had little hand in creating. I am privileged enough to be able to sooth my stress by going for a drive and talking to a parent or trusted friend, but others who I have met have no such release and are left isolated to deal with stressors much greater than an upcoming finance test. Who am I to judge them as “weak”? I have never faced anything near the severity of their disadvantages and undeserved traumas. I have never felt compelled nor needed to escape my reality by using drugs because I have simpler and better options available.
Are we willing to care for individuals who suffer from addiction and mental illness because of their own persistent negative behaviors? Should millions of taxpayer dollars be invested in government run recovery programs for individuals who repeatedly deteriorate their health?
A British psychologist is quoted in “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts”, saying “I don’t see why we should reduce the number of deaths (from addiction)….it is the responsibility of the addicts themselves. If they want to inject themselves with heroin, it’s a very bad choice. I don’t feel any particular guilt because I don’t feel any responsibility for it.” This may be a common sentiment, but would this psychologist and others extend this idea to other self-caused injuries. For example, if a woman stays in a physically abusive relationship, should society not attempt aid? If an overworked and stressed executive has a heart attack, should a bystander not call 911? What about drivers injured in car accidents, aren’t they assuming all of the risks? By making drug addicts scapegoats and portraying them as less than human, it is easy for us to hold back aid.
Aidan Sullivan is a Development Intern at Mission Possible. He is originally from Maryland and is attending the University of Richmond in Richmond, VA, where he is studying Business Administration. Aidan’s time with Mission Possible has been focused on the planning and development of the Work Readiness Course.
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