By Holly Herring
I have an issue; it’s with people.
Don’t get me wrong, I love people! I really do. I have never been so happy with my employment than I have been since I started providing direct services to people who live outside. People are complex and their lives have all been such incredible journeys. The people who let me serve them—and maybe I am just biased—have lived the absolutely most fascinating lives.
These are the people I learn some of the best truths from. I value these relationships and I know I am privileged to do the work that I do.
People with negative commentary about the folks who live outside have so much to say about lives they never lived. Somehow they take a societal issue that is extremely complex and lump it together with substance use disorders, poor mental wellness, criminality and other equally complex societal issues. I really believe that all of these challenges along with homelessness are symptoms of oppression, abuse, and capitalism gone awry. But, the people who stand in judgment without compassion identify all of these issues as personal, moral failings.
Breaking down just the issue of substance use we can see how complicated the issue can become.
I like to base my work in science because I find it helps me effectively navigate my job duties. What we know about addiction is that there are many contributing factors to a person developing an addiction.
There isn’t any truth behind the myth of some drugs being so powerful a single hit can cause a person to instantly become addicted to it. We also know that there are people with challenges such as ADHD that can find relief in some street drugs. So we can see why trying that street drug and finding yourself suddenly more productive and organized can be a draw.
Science tells us about dopamine and dopamine receptors which explains why street drugs that increase the flow of dopamine in a person would create a more enjoyable life experience.
We know from studies that if you put lab rats in an enclosure without anything to do, but give them the option of plain old water or water spiked with a substance like cocaine, they tend to go for the cocaine water. But, if you put lab rats in an enclosure known as “Rat Park” with a maze, a wheel to run on, plenty of blocks to chew on and even other rats to interact with, they ignore the cocaine water and go for the plain water. The message being that a lack of enrichment and increased isolation can affect how one chooses to relieve their suffering.
To quote a friend “nobody’s trying to die out here.”
People have very complex challenges and some of those challenges make them more likely to develop a drug addiction. There are biological, psychological and sociological reasons that all contribute.
I have a serious lip balm issue.
It started when I was about twelve years old after discovering using lip balm on my wind-chapped lips helped take away the pain in the corners where they cracked due to dryness. I started wearing it nonstop. Thing is, when I started relentlessly applying lip balm, which was helping heal my lips by the way, my lips didn’t feel like they needed to create more moisture.
This meant that I needed to apply more lip balm to keep my lips from getting chapped in the first place. The more often I applied it, the more often I needed to apply it. To this day I keep lip balm available at all times and I am pretty sure my body hasn’t produced a single drop of its own lip moisture in years.
This is similar to what happens when an individual experiences depression due to low levels of dopamine. If they discover a certain street drug makes them feel better, they might not understand that they discovered how to increase dopamine levels in their brain. But, they do make the connection that the substance they just used made life more bearable.
They are likely to use it again.
However, like in my lip balm analogy, this is a solution that can backfire. The body understands its dopamine burden was lessened and it actually slows down the natural dopamine flow now that it has some help.
Coming down off these substances means the dopamine levels have dropped and negative feelings arise. Sometimes people get grouchy or irritable.
The longer the person regularly uses this substance to “feel good,” the less dopamine the body is pushing itself, the less is available, the worse the person feels when coming down.
Now when the person uses the substance, they need to use more of it to get the good effect than before because they are starting at a larger dopamine deficit than the first time. Over time this leads to an inability to get to a point where you feel “good,” but you need to use to avoid feeling “bad.”
I hear people talk about strangers saying things like “If they just loved going to work more than drugs…” or “They could go home if they just wanted to follow the rules…” This cheapens a very complicated and delicate issue when it’s oversimplified. This offers no real solution, only judgment, a moment of puffing out one’s chest with pride in themselves and judgment of another. When people feel this judgment from others, they are far less likely to seek out treatment or reach out for help.
I challenge society to embrace science.
There’s science behind criminality, substance use disorders, mental wellness and homelessness. Familiarize yourself with statistics on these issues. Try something new and listen with the intent to understand a different point of view. And ask yourself, “can science make me a more effective and compassionate person”?
“We don’t set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people’s hearts.”
― Pema Chödrön