This morning I had the opportunity to attend a great presentation in Maple Ridge with Dr. Gabor Mate, physician and bestselling author on addiction, attachment, parenting and mind-body wellness. Dr. Mate began his presentation talking about addiction and the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. He expressed concern for society’s understanding of addiction, explaining that our current system assumes two theories of addiction: the first that addiction is genetic, or the second suggesting that addiction is a choice people make. What he stressed is the convenience of these theories, for as long as we support them we negate the role society plays in the lives of people struggling with addiction. He encouraged the audience to look beyond the addiction, and ask “Why the pain, rather than why the addiction?” Through his work on the Downtown Eastside he has come to realize that addiction is often a result of impaired attachments.
Dr. Mate’s presentation was a good reminder for me, as I often have the opportunity to talk to students about drug use. While some students try drugs for experimental reasons, I would say it is more common for students to turn to drugs as a way of medicating their own stress. I am grateful that our district has an ‘alternate to suspension’ program to address drug use in students, offering counseling services and goal setting. I am reminded to ask questions, get to know students, and dig deeper to hear the life stories, and stresses that may be masked by drug use. Once we can determine the cause of pain, we have a much greater success of helping the student heal. Research indicates that a connection to family and a connection to school are the two most significant factors determining whether a student will engage in problematic drug and alcohol use. When students struggle with drug use, I need to remember that a suspension is a consequence but not a solution. Taking time to get to know the student and helping them find ways to connect with the school will have deeper impact.
Dr. Mate’s presentation this morning also reminds me of a friend I lost a couple years ago, when he passed away from addiction issues. Irvin Wickens became a friend, in the most unlikely of circumstances, and he left me with the most meaningful gift I have ever received.
Here is the story of my friend, Irvin Wickens…
In November of 2009, a church in Port Moody approached our school and asked if we could advertise a volunteer opportunity for our students to work in the local homeless shelter, providing dinner and conversation. The response was overwhelming and we have over 100 students wishing to participate. We committed to two shifts per week, where I would volunteer with 6-10 students and staff.
Our first night at the shelter was November 13, 2009. It was a cold, wet, rainy night where we served chili and buns to provide some warmth to the twelve clients at the shelter. As we served dessert, a student and I sat down beside Irvin. Irvin had the stereotypical image of a homeless man: his clothes were worn and dirty, his hair unruly, and he was unshaven. Yet beyond that his eyes sparkled, and he offered kindness and gratitude as we engaged in conversation. Irvin told us that he it was his mom’s birthday. I asked if he had had an opportunity to call her. He told me no, as his mom had passed away years ago. He also shared that he had lost two sisters. Assuming they had died recently I asked him when they had passed away. Irvin then began a story I will never forget…. he spoke of his childhood in Milwaukee, and a horrific night when he was just six years old. Living in poverty, with a single mom and three siblings, he awoke to find their house on fire. Irvin woke one sister who shared a room with him. He then ran across the hall to try and get to the room his other two sisters shared. The fire blocked the entrance so he ran to wake his mom. He shared his memory of his mom running into the fire trying to save her daughters. He then recalls his images of his mom emerging from the house covered in burns and overcome with grief, as she whispered ‘they are gone’. In that moment, Irvin lost a 3 year old and 8 year old sister. Trying to hold back my own tears I told Irvin he was a hero for saving his mom and one sister. He then politely excused himself to go for a cigarette and I excused myself to tidy up the dishes. In that instant, Irvin taught me that homelessness is not caused by addiction, but rather by trauma and an inability to move forward.
As I waited with our students for parents to pick them up that evening, one student who had heard Irvin’s story approached me and told me that he had been struggling for months with the news of his parents’ divorce. After hearing Irvin’s story, he realized he still had two parents that loved him and he needed to stop feeling sorry for himself as his problems were minimal compared to Irvin’s.
For the next year, we enjoyed our weekly visits with Irvin. His eyes would sparkle as he would speak of his adventures in life, and on a good night he would break out in song and amaze our students with his beautiful voice. Tears would roll down his face as he would sing Eric Clapton’s ‘Beautiful Tonight’. When he finished his dessert, and left the table, he would always shout out with enthusiasm “Cowboy Up!”
In late March 2010, I had a great conversation with Irivn about what he would do if he won the lottery. He spoke of all the charities he would help as he appreciated the help he had received from others and he wanted to pay it back. On our final evening at the shelter I approached Irvin and told him I had a gift for him. I gave him a lottery ticket and told him I hoped his luck would change. I thanked him for sharing his story and for making such a difference with our students. Irvin reached in his pocket and told me he had a gift for me as well. Not knowing what to expect from the pocket of a homeless man, I remember feeling nervous about what could possibly come from his pocket. When he unfolded his hand, he held out a small brown rock. He told me that the year before the shelter opened, he was living under a bridge in Port Coquitlam. Some middle school students had approached him with their teacher and offered him some cookies. With the cookies, they had also given him the rock, and told him it was a friendship rock. They asked him to keep it in his pocket, and to remember each time he felt it, that the community cares about him. Irvin told me the lottery ticket would replace the rock, and he asked me to take the rock, and put it in my pocket to thank me for caring about him. Eight months later, Irvin passed away from his addictions. However, his story, and his rock, will be with me forever.
Dr. Gabor Mate’s message, and my friend Irvin, teach the same valuable lesson. Everyone has a story and we need to look beyond addiction to discover the root of the pain. Love, compassion and connection will always be more powerful that punishment and shame.