Guest column: Clean needles are an act of grace and compassion
The opinions expressed recently among Garfield County Commissioners about the allocation of funds due to Garfield County from an opioid settlement were based upon common assumptions about drug addiction.
As evidenced by their comments, these assumptions were the pivot point for the opinions of Commissioners Tom Jankovsky and Mike Samson about allocating a portion of the funds for the distribution of clean needles to people addicted to IV drugs. Both commissioners are opposed to the idea because of concerns that it enables the behavior (Jankovsky) and that it makes the poor choices of individuals a public problem (Samson).
These assumptions are based upon a paradigm that views drug addiction as a result of individual choice. The issue with the belief that drug addiction is the result of a series of bad choices and thus, a moral failing, is that it is not based upon brain research. Instead, this paradigm is based upon social and cultural conditioning. (I.e. beliefs that we essentially inherit not genetically but rather from institutions and individuals who raise us.) This paradigm is slowly shifting, however, due to the work of preeminent scientists, neurologists, doctors and people who have lived experience with addiction, studied the research and have a knack for questioning the status quo. I am a member of the latter.
A person who is addicted to a substance has not chosen to lose their innate ability to experience joy and happiness any more than they chose, for example, to be abused by a trusted adult when they were a child — abuse that creates a primal wound. The human brain has evolved to seek out a salve for such wounds. This salve often comes in many addictive forms. Most commonly and certainly condoned and widely accepted: alcohol. As Dr. Gabor Mate says of addiction, “It is not the result of a diseased brain, but a perfectly healthy brain responding accordingly.”
Without either one, the understanding that comes from studying addiction or two, lived experience, it is difficult — if not impossible — to understand from the outside that a person with an addiction, who perhaps steals from his family, lies to his loved ones and seeks out the drug above everything else, does not actually want the hell that he has created for himself. And while there are many mainstream books and articles about this topic within immediate reach of any public-office holder, here is an attempt at summing up what happens in the brain (all brains) when exposed to an addictive substance:
A wound or stress is present. This wound may be the existential pain of being human or it may be a tangible egregious abuse that was never healed. The stress may be a demanding job or it may be the stress of holding down a job. Depending upon different variables — but it has become clear that it is not an “alcoholic or addictive gene” — a person begins to seek out that relief more and more due to the way the brain has evolved to respond to pleasure. The brain’s reward system triggers the wiring of neurons that eventually result in a behavior such as compulsively seeking out a drug. Understanding how addiction works — and that it works this way in all of our brains — we can see that an individual with an addiction is not a member of a morally depraved group of “others” but is a beloved one of us.
Withholding clean needles is not a way of aiding people with an addiction nor is it a way of teaching people with an addiction about the consequences of poor choices. People who are addicted to IV drugs will use what they have on hand (used needles) in order to keep using.
Distributing clean needles is an act of grace and compassion — acts that are required on the path to freedom from addiction. Practically, clean needles help prevent a next horrendous stage in drug addiction: the contraction of Hep. C and HIV.
While I do not believe that a person addicted to or attached to a substance is at fault, I do believe it becomes their responsibility to get clean. They cannot do this alone, nor with judgment and with condemnation. And they certainly cannot do this if they are sick and dying of Hep. C or AIDs.
Sarah Evans, M.A. Ed., is a Glenwood Springs native, writer, educator, artist, mother, and Certified This Naked Mind Coach. She works with people who want to improve their lives by eliminating destructive habits.
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