Birds Of A Feather

02Aug10

“This is the 3rd message I’ve left, Raffi.  I don’t think you’re busy.  I think you no longer care for our friendship – I get the message.  I am really sorry you feel this way.”

Amin, one of my best friends, left this message in my voicemail in the summer of 1996.  He hadn’t done anything wrong – on the contrary, he had been helpful and caring.  He dotted over me during bad times as any good friend would.  But my cocaine use at the time had gotten so out of hand, I didn’t want to be with anyone that didn’t use drugs.

Amin (not his real name) was the last friend I had who didn’t use illicit drugs.  Actually that’s not true.  Amin smoked hash or pot every hour of the day.  But he had a hard time accepting my drug use.  Not that he was mean to me, or he was angry with me.  The man respected me, cared for me, and was glad to be around me.  But he always looked for signs of drug use.  When he asked me how I was doing, it was clear he wanted to know if I was using, and how much I was using.  When he saw me sweating, his face took a look of pity – as if to say, “why are you doing this to yourself?”  When he talked about my future, he always predicated it with, “When you get out of this stage, we’ll take our girlfriends and go to ….”.   There were times when Amin would put his hand on my shoulder and say, “When am I going to get the old Raffi back?”

If I had a nickel for every “old Raffi” I’ve heard, I’d have about 25 cents, maybe less.  But I’ve heard the phrase enough to infer that I’m less of a person now than I was before I used illicit drugs.

Now don’t ask me to write about my relatives.  Okay, since you insist…

My relatives stopped talking with me about my drug use very early on – not because they didn’t want to, but because I ran circles around their arguments, painting their mundane habits much more damaging than my puny drug use.

“Why do you keep talking about my heroin use?”  I would say.  “Look, you smoke in a roomfull of grandchildren, damaging their lungs, making our clothes smell; and tomorrow, when you have lung cancer, I am going to have to pay part of your humongous hospital bills.  At least I’m doing something that I enjoy.  If you think I’m hurting myself, at least I’m not hurting anyone else”,

Or,

“How many egg yolks did you eat this week? FOUR?  Fuck, you probably have so much cholesterol, your arteries are chocked.  Instead of worrying about my drug use, go get your blood work done.”

Then I’d start talking about harm reduction and how hypocritical they sounded when they drank like a fish and criticized me for using a little bit of heroin – by the time I shut up, everybody else did too.

Nowadays, when they really get courageous, some family members ask me, “Are you tired?  You seem tired?  Do you want to go sleep in the room upstairs?”  Does the door upstairs have a lock, I’d wonder, cause I could sure use another hit.

My family and friends live in another world, and I live in mine.  The two worlds are separated by misconceptions, recrimination, vilification, and discrimination.  Hate, fear, humiliation, deceit, and squabbles repel the two worlds from each other until the citizens of both worlds divorce from each other.  When sometimes one citizen refuses to abandon the other, self-imposed separation ensues.

This is called self-isolation, or if you want to sell the idea, you can call it, Social Isolation.

Social isolation does not happen to drug users alone.  “Birds of a feather, flock together”, claims an old English adage.  Many police officers socialize only with other police officers because they feel the average Joe doesn’t understand their need to indulge in donuts.  Teachers marry teachers and keep teacher friends because who else would put up with having to ask for permission to go to the bathroom?

These are mild cases of social isolation.  Police officers and teachers are not denigrated.  Most people – umm, I mean, some people look up to them.  They maintain contact with their parents, relatives, and schoolmates.   Drug users go through another kind of social isolation.  Something more sinister; something that affects our social, emotional, and physical well-being.

When we stop seeing our friends and parents, we no longer have their love and support.  Our psychological and emotional growth becomes stunted.  We also miss out on, for lack of better word, common-place life.  We miss out on employment opportunities.  We miss out on all kinds of things.  We are no longer able to have a ‘frame of reference’ – a way of comparing what we are doing against what others are doing.  We feel all alone in the world, and that can be quite dangerous.

Research shows that a social isolation causes “two- to three-fold increase in risk of mortality”, in terms of diabetes, cancer, and especially coronary disease (Social Isolation Kills, But How and Why?). When you live alone, you eat more, drink more, smoke more, use more drugs, sleep less or more, and, of course, watch better TV than if you lived with someone who loves watching Hell’s Kitchen or So You Think You Can Dance?

Social isolation can occur even if you surround yourself with drug-using friends.

Having friends around is good and well; but sometimes it can have its problems.

Being around drug users all the time will definitely affect the way you use drugs.  For one, you will use more.  But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.  Because drugs are illegal, our community is always poor, homeless, underhoused, sick, and tired.  Many of our friends do stuff that they wouldn’t do otherwise.  For example, ripping each other off, beating other people up for money or drugs, forcing others to do sex work, etc.  If you live in such conditions all the time, it is going to affect you.  Eventually you start to be depressed, or angry, or paranoid, or pessimistic.

If Social Isolation is so bad, why do we do it?

Most of the time, people push us away.  The language they use is quite hurtful: “Why are you so selfish?”  or, “It’s all a matter of willpower!  If you really want to, you can stop it!”, or, and this is one of my favourites, “why are you doing this to me, to you, and to your family?”  And so it goes…

I was at the wedding of my girlfriend’s sister.  I didn’t want to be at this wedding, but my girlfriend was adamant that I had to accompany her there.  At the time I sold drugs to pay for both of our habits, which meant that we had to use for seven days without making any money.  The trip actually broke the bank and we had to go through a horrendous withdrawal when we returned.

Anyway, during the wedding, I noticed that my girlfriend’s parents were doing everything to ignore me.  I am a parent, and I can understand why they didn’t want me to be with their daughter.  The fact was, their daughter was using drugs when she was 12, and was a drug ‘runner’ at the same age.  Also, her mother was a problem drinker throughout my girlfriend’s life and was extremely abusive towards her while in drunken tirades.  As for my self, I had started using at 37.  When I was in high school, the young women in my class used to lie to their mother whenever they were going out, claiming they were with me (I should be embarrassed for being deemed so safe; I am not!  Really I’d like to think that I had them all fooled).

Getting back to the wedding fiasco, when it was time to take the family photos, both parents didn’t even pretend that they did not want me anywhere near.  They even cajoled my girlfriend into believing that the family photos were to be taken later – that these were just park photos.

Although I didn’t really care for my girlfriends’ parents at the time, their behaviour totally floored me (things changed later, btw.  As they got to know me, they hired someone to have me killed.  Just kidding.  We got along just fine).  Anyway, that was the first time I was so bluntly rejected.  Until then, I had another perception of myself.  Now I was facing the facts.  (BTW, I should be honest and say that both my girlfriend and I were covered in track marks in the summer and showed up late to the wedding and on the nod).

Another scenario:  A few years ago, Amin, with whom I eventually reconnected, and I tried our luck on making serious dough.  Amin persuaded me that we could make millions by selling health information to Saudi Arabia: brochures, videos, catalogues, that kind of stuff.

Once my feet were wet, I jumped into this venture with body and soul, even though I still was coordinating COUNTERfit.  Every evening, I used to join Amin and write letters, email to different organizations, get quotations, send quotations across the world.  In short, I was clocking 4-5 hours every night on top of my work at COUNTERfit.

One of those nights, I was talking with Amin, when he said, “You know, if you were well, we could go to the top!”

“What the hell do you mean, ‘if I’m well’?”, I protested.  “You don’t have a job.  I have a job and I work even more than you do on this venture!”

“Well, yes, but,” he stated while his lanky fingers were rolling another joint.  “you could be doing so much better.  You would be doing better than me”.

“Amin, you’re a fucking grifter.  That’s your job and I don’t judge you!  But how is it that you’re better than me?  I fucking work at the best needle exchange program in the world.  Why are you better than me?  You smoke a pack of cigarettes and at least a gram of hash every day — not to talk about the bottle of wine you polish every night.  How is THAT better than what I do?”

He closed the argument when he muttered, “I have way more money than you do!”

True, he had more money because he cleverly embezzled a bank, and all the more power to him.  He lived in posh dwellings, drove the best cars, wined and dined at the ritziest restaurants, and read books like, “How to Make a Great First Impression?”  But Amin is an intelligent man.  He knows that more money doesn’t make a better person.  What he was really telling me was that he was a better person because he didn’t use injecting drugs.

Being an illicit drug user means having to put up with these kinds of attitudes all the time.  We experience these attitudes in the pain in our parents’ eyes, or in the anger of an ignorant brother or sister.  We see them when we are getting our methadone.  We feel them when we are denied jobs, or evicted from our homes.  As long as drugs are illegal, society is going to look down at us.

When you study sociology, you will inevitably be taught about Charles Cooley’s ‘Looking Glass Theory’.  According to Cooley, when people keep telling you that you’re stupid, or lazy, or nefarious, you eventually believe that you are stupid, lazy and nefarious.  Because you start seeing yourself as they see you.  They become your mirror and you start to reflect back what they think of you.  It’s called a ‘self fulfilling prophecy’.

And people tend to try not to look into mirrors if mirrors are not going to be kind to them just as I refuse to get on my scale because I don’t want to see the pounds I’ve been putting on watching other people eat ice cream (yes, really, I don’t eat nothing.  I must be like Mary – divine intervention – I’m carrying the next messiah).

I was visiting my parents the other day, and my father took my arm and gently pulled me aside.  “Son,” he said, “I am not going to tell you to stop using drugs.  Use, but every time use less, until you either don’t need to use, or if you do, it doesn’t ruin you”.

If there were no people around, I would have bawled.  There was a period in my life when I refused to see my parents because I did not want them to get hurt anymore.  But I started to visit them again when I found out that not visiting was worse for them and I.  And because of these visits, because I did not close the door completely, my 85-years-old father was preaching harm reduction to me.

“Sure thing, Dad, sure thing,” I said, while I put my arm around his stooped shoulders.  “I already am. And look, am I ruined?”  He turned his head towards me, looked up, and pinched my cheek as if I were a boy.

“No, you aren’t” he said.  Did I tell you that I love my dad?

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