Saturday, July 9, 2016

What do you see when you look at an addict?

Stereotypes.  They are all around us, even when we want to pretend they no longer exist.  We judge people based on how they appear to us.  Pass an overweight woman on the street....she's lazy.  Pass a feminine man.....he's gay.  Pass a woman with worn out clothing and shoes....she's poor.  Pass someone with tattoos and piercings....he/she is rebellious.  Pass a man who is muscular and extremely fit.....he's on steroids.  Pass a person smoking with dark circles under far-away eyes, he/she is an addict.  Let's face it.  Stereotyping and judging have become second nature to us humans.  I am just as guilty as the next person.  And not only do we categorize certain groups of people, most of the time we deem them as worthless....we place a decreased value on their lives.

Sadly, this is especially true for drug addicts.

If you ever want to lose the tendency to stereotype/judge, immerse yourself in a group of people whom you think you are different from.  Learn about them.  Listen to them.  Close your eyes and open your heart.  It's a guarantee that you will see them differently; that you will see yourself differently.  That's what happened to me.

You see a girl walking down the street.  A big round belly protrudes from her much too small t-shirt.  She carries a pack of cigarettes in one hand.  She looks rough. You stare.  You judge.  You wonder why God would give her a baby.  You wonder how long it will take for her to lose it or give it up.  You feel sorry for the unborn baby.  I sit in a circle with her.  I don't know her, but I watch her.  I watch her rub her belly....gently, mindlessly, lovingly.  I listen to her talk of her struggles.  She knows that she still has a long way to go to be the mother that she wants to be....many more changes to make.  But, she has come so far.  She has given up so much already.  I listen to her talk about the life she wants to give this baby.  How she wants him to have what she never had.  I see the love she already has for her child, and I wish I could convince you that there is no reason to feel sorry for him, for he is being born to a warrior.

He walks by your car and you lock the doors. He is covered in tattoos and years of trouble have hardened and aged his face.  He stands behind you in line and you tighten your grip on your purse.  You are certain that he is a criminal, and you think you (or the entire store) are about to get robbed. I sit in a room with him.  His time in prison, behind bars, has made him wise beyond his years.  He offers truth, hope, and experience to anyone he talks to.  He speaks with compassion in his voice and kindness in his eyes.  Helping others has become his sole purpose in life.  He doesn't want others to make the same mistakes that he has made.  When he speaks, people listen. He looks at a woman who still thinks that she is a different kind of drug addict, that she is still somehow "better", and gives her the reality check she has been long overdue for.  However, he does it in such a way that all she can do is thank him, and he extends his tattoo-covered arms and embraces her.  She will never forget his words, for they have changed her life.

You see him walking down the street.  He is wearing a wig, make-up, high heels, and a dress.  You gawk at him and condemn him.  I walk into a room full of recovering addicts and he is the first one to speak to me.  He is the first one to make me smile; the first one to make me feel welcomed and accepted.  He opens my eyes and my heart.  And I realize, I don't have to understand him, I just have to love him. 

You see a woman who has given up or lost her children.  You think that she is scum.  You don't understand how someone could choose drugs over her kids.  Well, neither does she.  Neither do I, yet I look at her and realize that I, too, should have lost my children.  I watch her work her recovery harder than nearly anyone else, because she has more at stake than nearly anyone else.  She has gotten clean, is staying clean, and is rebuilding her life.  I listen to the pain in her voice as she talks about her children, about the years lost, about the mistakes made.  But, then I hear the determination take over, and it becomes obvious that she will turn things around, that she will make things right, that her family will be restored.  She will not go down without a fight.

You and I look at addicts completely differently. 
Perhaps it is because you are looking from the outside in, while I am looking from the inside out. 

You couldn't possibly be any more different from them.  I am the same as them.
You are afraid of what they will take from you.  I thrive on what I receive from them (experience, strength, and hope).
You stay as far away from them as possible.  I exchange numbers with them.  I become friends with them.
You see perpetrators.  I see people who have been victims of more injustices than you could ever fathom. 
You think they are bad.  I see more goodness and kindness in the few hours I spend with them than I do the remainder of the week.
You dare not touch them.  I hold their hands as we recite the Lord's Prayer.
You think they are a burden to society.  I watch them make amends and relentlessly give back. 
You think they are liars.  I hear more honesty from their mouths than most people can handle.
You think they are weak.  I know that they are the strongest people I will ever have the privilege of meeting. 

You look at them and see a group of bad, dishonest, weak, burdensome, worthless, hopeless people.  I look at them and see something completely different.  I see MY people.  And, at this point in my life, I wouldn't have it any other way. 

**It is possible to change the lens through which we look at others.  It is possible to become educated about the struggles others go through.  It is possible to love them even though we don't understand or agree with what they are doing.  The thing is, feeling judged never caused a person to desire to change in a positive way.  But, you know what?  Feeling loved is the greatest motivator there ever was.  I think it's time that love became our driving force.  How about you?

Disclaimer:  I realize that not everyone stereotypes or judges addicts.  My writing here is based on the general consensus of how addiction/addicts are viewed in our society as a whole).  If you are in the group who pursues understanding and compassion rather than judgment, thank you from the bottom of my heart. 

To read about why I have been called an unlikely addict, click here.

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