Thursday, April 03, 2008

Close Encounters with Addiction


I just finished reading that book up there, the one that I stole my title from. The problem is, it paints a flat picture.

It doesn't show the things that I have seen, up close and personal, working with the homeless population of this fair city.

It tries to. It introduces you to addicts living in downtown Vancouver, in a shelter not unlike the one I've worked in. But the truth as I've come to understand it is that none of us can really understand it until we've been elbows-deep in it as I have. Because I thought I knew. I thought I had the gist. I went to school, read the books, took the tests. I knew how it worked, how it didn't work, how to fix it, how not to fix it, how unfixable it sometimes was.

But really, I knew shit.

I didn't know that a person could be so desperate for a fix - a fix of anything - that she chugs hand sanitizer until a stink so bad it could strip wallpaper comes out her pores and she literally pickles herself. And then one day, on the gritty floor of the shelter cafeteria, I found her. And later found several empty gallon jugs of the stuff hidden under her cot.

I didn't know that a 20 year old girl could cry to me about being in agony, stripped raw, really, from so much whoring that she can barely walk right, and thus has to earn her drug money one 5$ handjob at a time.

I didn't know the pain of watching a crack addict give birth to her 11th baby, place it in the arms of children's aid for the 11th time without shedding a tear, and then sob because the nurse wouldn't give her any pain medication.

I didn't know how I would feel the first time I walked in on a dead body floating in a bathtub and think to myself Thank God. Yeah. Brutal. I am the lowest of the low for thinking such a thing, but maybe it gives you some indication of the kind of life this person led. It wasn't much. It was mostly heartache, misery, and drugs, with the occasional fish stick thrown in.

I didn't know what it would be like to sit face to face with someone, ask them about their cutting habit with their scars in plain sight, and hear them explain it so rationally - cutting and bleeding is the only way to feel something, feel anything, through the haze of drugs and pain - so rationally that I find myself nodding in agreement.

I didn't know how sick I would feel when a client was jonesing so badly during our short time together, scratching at invisible bugs, twitching violently, glazed and seeking, that they would eventually think up some excuse to leave the room, and we both knew damn well it was to go shoot up. And upon their return, with fresh track marks on display, the farce starts all over again. It never ends. It makes me sick.

I didn't know that there was a whole new level of sadness of frustration reached when a client celebrates their 3rd day of sobriety by going out and getting high.

I didn't know what a job that has you asking people Do you have Hep C? Do you have HIV? Do you think you might be pregnant? and hearing yeses to all three does to you over time. It breaks you down. It makes you cry at night.

I didn't know what it was like not to save them. Not to save very many at all. To lose them to coke, to meth, to the street, to pimps and johns, to knifings and prison and psych wards and the icy claws of death that stalk homeless shelters like you wouldn't believe.

I didn't know what it would be like to call someone's parents with regret, to inform them that their child who hasn't returned home in 5 years never will again. That the unclaimed body of their baby girl can be found in the city morgue. That they will never see her again. That she wanted to come home but couldn't. That she spent her last days craving the stuff that killed her, lying on a dirty mattress that didn't belong to her. That she spilled tears of remorse on her lumpy pillow. That it wasn't AIDS, although she had it, and it wasn't malnutrition though she'd rarely eaten in a month, and it wasn't hypothermia though God knows she'd spent nights half-frozen in snow banks, that it was a simple bacteria from a dirty needle that got into her bloodstream and went straight to her brain. That it was a sorry way to die, not nearly quick enough, and that she suffered, and that she missed her mother, that she suddenly realized she'd been living her life all wrong. And that in the end, it was too late. And all I could do was watch.

All I could do was watch.

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