The other day I was on a conference call and we were discussing which tags and keywords should be included in a collaborative online database.
The terms “substance use” and “harm reduction” were both on the list. I suggested we add “addiction.”
Some other people on the call said that we don’t use that term anymore, because it’s considered stigmatizing. Nowadays we prefer the term “substance use.”
I deferred to their expertise and dropped it, but I keep thinking about it. Not about addiction per se, but about how and why language changes. We decide a certain word has become corrupted by certain associations we collectively attribute to it, and then we retire the word and come up with another, less beleagured word.
In some cases I can see it, but getting rid of a useful word like addiction seems pointless to me.
“compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal; broadly : persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful”
In my opinion it’s not interchangeable with “substance use,” because not all substance use involves addiction, and there are arguably some addictions that are unrelated to substances (eg behavioural addictions). There’s nothing about the word “addiction” that strikes me as value-laden or stigmatizing, other than that the thing it refers to IS stigmatized. Addiction is stigmatized, not the word but the condition. It doesn’t matter what we call it, the stigma will still be attached to the condition. And maybe we’re contributing to the stigma by saying the actual word for the condition is stigmatizing.
Do you know what I mean? Or am I missing something here?
Also, what happens to all the organizations that have the word addiction in their names? Will they all have to change their names now?
On a related note, I’m in the process of developing a survey, and one of the questions is about substance use (“How often do you use the following substances?” – tobacco, alcohol, injectable drugs for recreational purposes, non-injectable drugs for recreational purposes). I sent the survey out to a bunch of people for feedback before submitting it to the Ethics Review Board. Someone responded that the use of the word “substance” is objectionable because the only people who use the word are researchers and authority figures. People who actually use substances never refer to them as such, and might be put off by it. I racked my brain trying to think of an alternative word, but came up empty. Any suggestions?
Well, they’re not NEW, exactly. The original lovebirds – Oboe’s parents, Billie and Lester – have moved from GC’s house to mine.
It’s really nice to have them here, and they’re adapting very well. At first they squawked like crazy, and their arrival happened to coincide with the arrival of new next door neighbours, so that was a bit worrisome. The revolving tenancy next door usually gives us neighbours much louder than we are, but a nice quiet Asian family just moved in. The only noise they make is someone playing the piano, and we like that. Meanwhile, we’ve got all these squawk hawks over here, screeching obnoxiously. Or at least that’s what it seemed like on the first day.
Our three lovebirds are the smallest of the five birds, and the noisiest by far. Kazoo the Double-Yellow-Headed Amazon can, and sometimes does, call loudly. But most of the time she’s silent. (She loves company, though – if you ever come to visit, she will make a great big noisy fuss over you.) Simon the Grey chatters and whistles a lot, but not loudly. It’s the little guys who have the most piercing and insistent calls.
The thing with Billie and Lester is they’re a bonded pair of lovebirds: they’re like two halves of the same whole. They hang out together all the time, and if they somehow get separated by more than a few feet, they call loudly and non-stop to one another until they’re reunited.
They’re not hand-tame, but they like us. It’s possible that they will become tame if we’re patient. They really like it here. They LOVE the homemade food, and they’re having fun exploring the place. Like any good female bird, Billie is casing the joint for suitable places to lay eggs and raise a family. She agrees with Kazoo that bookcases make excellent nesting spots.
There are few things that can match a lovebird in persistence, but I am one of them. As determined as she is to make a nest and lay some eggs, I am equally determined that there will be no more baby lovebirds.
Speaking of persistence, Oboe is attempting to make Billie and Lester be his friends. They don’t remember that he is their son. All they know is that he’s a lovebird and three’s a crowd. So every time he gets close, they fend him off. Oboe is undeterred. He used sheer persistence to force Kazoo, Simon and GC to be his friends. And now he’s working on Billie and Lester. I have absolutely no doubt that he will succeed. There’s just something about him. He’s so cheerful and exuberant and relentlessly persistent that nobody can fend him off forever. Eventually he just wears everybody down.
Kazoo turned 16 years old on Saturday! Here’s a video of her and the gang after her birthday shower. I know it looks pretty chaotic with birds everywhere, but they’re only out of their houses for an hour or two each day.
I was in Toronto last week for a conference on HIV, pregnancy and mothering. It was an excellent conference, very interesting, with a good mix of researchers, HIV+ mothers, and frontline workers. There were even a few babies, and a toddler who took his mom’s cell phone, placed it on the floor, made sure she was looking, and then stomped it as hard as he could.
Infant feeding guidelines in third world countries are practically opposite those in the developed world. Because HIV can be transmitted through breast milk, Canadian HIV+ women are strongly advised NOT to breastfeed. Their third world counterparts are strongly advised to exclusively breastfeed their babies for the first six months, while taking HIV medications. The reason for this? In the developing world, there are bigger threats to the baby’s life and health than HIV. The baby needs the mother’s antibodies to protect it from all kinds of other illnesses. (The HIV meds she’s taking will help protect the baby from HIV. If she’s part of a study, she gets access to these drugs; otherwise, she probably doesn’t.)
This was my third out-of-town trip since I started this job six months ago. Once I’ve done my bedbug check (so far they’ve all passed), I settle in and get comfortable. I eat a lot of junk food and I watch a lot of junk TV. (I don’t have a TV at home, but I had TWO of them in my hotel room.) I watched a transgender reality TV show called Changing Sexes, a reality real estate show called Love It or List It, and several episodes of Hoarders.
I love that crazy Hoarders show. A huge woman with a bunch of dogs lived in a house that was filled to capacity with garbage and stuff. The dogs regularly pooped on the stairs and of course it just accumulated there. The woman pooped in the bathroom, but the plumbing hadn’t worked in years, so you can imagine what her bathroom was like. She had two apparently normal sisters. One of them said the hoarder sister was a compulsive shopper, but she’d just throw the new stuff into the mess, bags and all. Whenever she ran out of money their parents would help her out because if she lost her house then she’d have to move in with them. Nobody wants to live with a hoarder. (I bet even other hoarders don’t want to live with them, because they’d have to compete for empty space to fill up.)
This hoarder actually seemed like a very nice person, kind of sweet and funny, and she loved her dogs and they loved her. But still, you have to wonder how people get that way. Is it a mental illness, or a symptom of a mental illness, or what? Can it happen to anybody at any time in their life?
Visiting the Downtown Eastside (DTES) has churned up some contradictions for me, and resolving those contradictions requires re-thinking some questions I thought I already knew the answers to:
1) To what extent do people choose to live in the DTES, and to what extent are they stuck there?
2) Does the DTES community strengthen its residents or weaken them? Does it help mitigate the impact of addiction and poverty, or does it help perpetuate addiction and poverty?
I don’t know. Maybe they choose it and are stuck there. Maybe they are both strengthened and weakened by it. Maybe it mitigates and perpetuates. Maybe there’s no universal, static answer to these questions. (Maybe my questions are naïve.)
The Downtown Eastside neighbourhood is much more surreal and intense in real life than in books and videos. It isn’t just a backdrop against which addiction and poverty play themselves out. It’s an intrinsic part of the addiction and poverty.
Do you remember that woman in Florida who broke her leg and literally stayed on her couch for six years, until eventually her partner called 911 and the paramedics had to cut out a wall and take her and the couch to the hospital because the fabric of the couch had fused with her skin? That’s kind of how the Downtown Eastside struck me, only less domestic and more feral. A grotesque fusion of people and place.
(And what’s worse, separating the person from the couch, or leaving her there? For the record, the woman died after being surgically separated from the couch.)
To its credit, the Downtown Eastside is not an assortment of individuals suffering miserably in isolation from one another. It’s a very small, densely populated neighbourhood, and everybody seems to know each other. Collectively they’re a community, along with the people and services that support them. Many of them seem to share a sense of belonging there, and would probably be worse off elsewhere. (Which isn’t to say they necessarily belong there forever; but at this juncture in their lives, it’s possible that the worst place in the world may be the best place in the world for some of them.)
The neighbourhood, by the way, is vigorously defending itself from gentrification. Vancouver’s a very expensive city, and this little piece of the downtown core would be worth a fortune if it were upscaled. But the fact that its residents are resisting gentrification makes me think that, on some level at least, they choose to be there. (Is it only because there’s nowhere left to go? Or is there more to it than that?)
When I was an addict in Ottawa, my community was critically important to me. We weren’t just a bunch of addicts, we were human beings with qualities and flaws and personalities. I’m sure my community around Bank & Gilmour held little appeal for outsiders looking in, but I felt connected and comfortable there. I was at home. I reminded myself of this as I walked through the Downtown Eastside…it’s the same principle, just more extreme.
As a former addict, I can’t look at the residents of the DTES without thinking “There but for the grace of God…” And the only way to protect myself from the implications of that thought is by speculating that there must be something intrinsically wrong with them that isn’t wrong with me. Something that doomed them to – and protected me from – cataclysmic failure.
While that might be true in some cases, I don’t believe it’s true in general. There’s a complex web of factors influencing our paths through life. Genetics, family environment, mental illness, pre-natal conditions, structural disadvantage, abuse, racism, poverty, neglect and on and on. Some people’s addictions start out as survival strategies in the face of something even worse. Some people are more resilient for some reason. Some people just like taking drugs and living on the edge. The fact is, everybody’s got a unique story, and while there are recurring themes that can’t be ignored in the stories of addicts, you can’t generalize. And you can’t entirely discount luck either. Good luck or bad luck.
The infamous Balmoral Hotel
Most of us are doing the best we can with what we’ve got. And maybe that’s the case for people in the Downtown Eastside too. Maybe it’s even more the case for them.
In a society where more money means more options, is it possible that the severely impoverished, addicted, disenfranchised and mentally ill have any choice left in anything? They’ve sunk to the bottom and they’ve not only stayed there, they’ve carved out a niche for themselves, squatting in the squalor and the misery. They’ve become part of it.
Maybe the only way they can cope with the reality of their circumstances is by perceiving themselves exclusively within the context of that reality. We all form our own ideas of what’s normal from the environments in which we live. If you’re addicted, mentally ill and poor, maybe the Downtown Eastside’s context of addiction, mental illness and poverty allows you to feel normal, whereas no other place possibly could. Maybe it’s the only place you can fit in and feel you’re not at the very bottom of the heap.
Ultimately, why does it matter if the DTES’s residents have any choice in where or how they live? Because I’m not sure it’s okay to force people to live under those conditions if they are powerless to leave. On the other hand, if this is where and how they choose to live, I don’t think it’s okay to kick them out of their own neighbourhood. Aren’t they entitled to take up a little bit of space? To have access to basic services? To belong somewhere?
I wrote down all my thoughts about my visit to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and it was a big fat mess of contradictions, so I will continue to think on it before posting the second instalment.
In other news, our favourite local quilt shop has offered to host our wedding in their shop. We were thinking of getting married in Dundonald Park, across from the beer store on Somerset Street. My Dad asked me what Plan B was, in case of rain, and I said “Umbrellas.” But a quilting shop might be fun too, and dryer if it rains. What do you think? Quilting shop or urban park?
I have GC’s permission to blog about his penis again. He is going to the hospital this morning for a cystoscopy. That’s where they feed a camera through your penis and take pictures of your bladder. GC’s kind of nervous about it. He knows it’s not a 35mm camera or anything like that, but he doesn’t think it can possibly be small enough not to hurt. (And, because I’m an empathetic sort of person, I’ve refrained from saying things like “At least it doesn’t weigh 8 pounds 2 ounces and take 26 hours.”)
I’ve been inspired to pick up my knitting needles for the first time in a couple of years. If you’re wondering why, check Rachael’s blog.
We went out to Almonte last weekend for the grand opening of General Fine Craft, Art & Design. This is a collaborative shop, run by Chandler Swain and Richard Skrobecki and featuring the art of 65 local artists and craftspeople, including some who were already my favourites: Meaghan Haughian, Stefan Thompson, Maureen Marcotte, Chandler Swain and Maggie Glossop.
This place is fantastic! There’s a real variety of things – jewelry, pottery, paintings, woodwork, glasswork, textiles and more. Everything’s unique and of excellent quality. The store has a light, airy, inspired feel to it, and the people who work there are warm and friendly. It’s on Mill Street, and there are other good shops on the street too, including an antique store and a quilting shop. We were their very first customers – we bought a bowl. We were also the first customers to go there twice, since we returned half an hour later and bought a second bowl. If you’re looking for something to do on a Saturday afternoon, I highly recommend a drive out to Almonte.
I’m still mulling over my visit to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside – I’ll write Part II of that post once I figure out what I think.
In the meantime…here’s something fun for you to do on May 1st if you happen to be in Ottawa.
Gil’s Hootenanny, an evening of “Songs of Protest, Songs of Hope”: Wednesday May 1st, 7:30 p.m. at the Glebe Community Centre, 175 Third Avenue
This is an annual event in honour of Ottawa activist Gil Levine, who loved folk music sing-alongs.
This year’s Hootenanny features Kristine St-Pierre, Mighty Popo, Three Little Birds, the Shout Sister choir, Maria Dunn, and Terry Tufts. It’s hosted by the Spirit of Rasputin’s Arts Society and is sponsored by CUPE and PSAC National Capital Region.
So…I went to Vancouver for a whirlwind business trip. I arrived Wednesday afternoon and left Friday morning. I was working most of the time, but I did have two more-or-less free evenings, so I did what I could to cram Vancouver in.
I hadn’t been there in 30-odd years, and Vancouver and I have both changed a lot. Back then, I used to hitchhike and my idea of luxury was to check into a youth hostel for the night. This time I was on a business trip, staying in a fancy-pants hotel and experiencing a very different side of a very different Vancouver.
Skyscrapers on West Hastings
It’s a pretty amazing city. It’s a visual feast, with its mountains and ocean and skyscraper architecture. I’m not generally a fan of skyscrapers, but they have some really impressive ones. I was in awe as I walked around downtown, just taking it all in.
My hotel was just a mile and a half from the Downtown East Side, which is where North America’s only safe injection site (Insite) is. The Downtown East Side is referred to as “Canada’s poorest postal code.” I’ve seen documentaries and youtube videos and I attended the Supreme Court hearing on Insite’s right to exist. I thought I knew what to expect. But nothing could have prepared me for the reality of actually being there.
I walked from my hotel down West Hastings to East Hastings, which is where Insite is. West Hastings is all high-end stores, and then it turns into East Hastings and BAM! Suddenly you’re there! Everything changes! Instead of upscale jewelry stores and people in suits, there’s shelters and food banks and the Pigeon Park Savings and Insite, and you’re in the thick of this bizarre sidewalk sale, surrounded by addicts and homeless vendors selling weird stuff, like half a guitar and four little bags of grapes and a box of cereal and a single high heeled shoe. Almost everybody’s got a grocery cart, and lots of people have their wares spread out on the sidewalk. Everybody looks so old, but they’re not. They rarely live long enough to get old…they just look old because they’re addicted, decrepit and toothless, and their faces are sunken and many of them have visible disabilities.
The first evening I was so shocked by the spectacle of it all that I literally fell down just half a block from Insite. I was looking around at everything and everybody except the curb I tripped over, and I slammed hard into the sidewalk. I was bleeding from my knuckle, one elbow and both knees, but I didn’t realize it until later. Several people put me back on my feet and I kept going.
I didn’t take pictures. I thought it would seem rude, like I thought they were freaks or something. And honestly? I was afraid someone would grab my phone if I took it out of my pocket. I didn’t feel safe at all. For the record, nobody accosted me, nobody talked to me, nobody asked me for anything or behaved in a threatening way towards me. But there’s something that feels threatening about seeing so many people (and there were SO MANY PEOPLE) who are so poor and sick and with so little left to lose.
The first evening I just kept wondering “How do they do it? How do they live like that? How can they stand it?”
I kept getting stuck on one thought – that they must, in some fundamental way, be different from “us.” They must be wired wrong or something. They must be inherently deficient to allow themselves to sink to the very bottom and stay there.
I didn’t like these thoughts. I didn’t like what they told me about myself. I was having a tough time reconciling what I was seeing with what I think I believe about poverty and addictions and stigma and desperation and social justice and EVERYTHING.
I went back the next evening. Stay tuned for Part II.
We have a bird perch in the shower – Simon showers with me, Kazoo showers with GC, and Oboe is versatile. Anyway, yesterday, after Simon and I finished our shower, we saw that Duncan was crouched in the doorway looking profoundly disturbed.
A few weeks ago, a hinge for one of the mirrored panels on the medicine cabinet broke. GC fixed it a couple of days ago and leaned it against a bathroom wall where it was drying before being re-installed. I guess Duncan had never seen himself in a mirror before, so he didn’t recognize himself. All he knew was that some huge, magnificent stranger was in his bathroom, staring at him with a look of sheer horror on his face.
I tried to distract him, but he was focused too intensely for that. I got dressed, took Simon downstairs and came back with GC. Neither Duncan nor the stranger had backed down.
Poor Duncan. We got him away from the mirror, but he still looked very, very worried and unhappy. GC turned the mirror around so that it faced the wall, and we showed Duncan that the other cat was gone. Then GC took him downstairs and gave him some chicken and extra affection. Duncan’s a very mellow cat, but sometimes when he feels anxious he pees on our stuff. It has only happened three times in five years, but that’s more than enough to motivate us to try to minimize any anxiety he might be feeling.
So weird that he has no idea what he looks like. Maybe he doesn’t even know he’s a cat.
In other news, I’m flying to Vancouver for a meeting on Wednesday. I’ll be back on Friday. I haven’t been to Vancouver since I was about 20. It usually took me five days to hitchhike from Ottawa to Vancouver, maybe a little less if I caught a ride with a trucker, or if I was hitchhiking with another woman. Once I took the train, which seemed like the lap of luxury compared to hitchhiking. This will be my first time flying out there!
In other other news, we’ve picked a wedding date: July 13, 2013. And we’ve picked an officiant. There are all these people out there who are licensed to perform weddings, but how are you supposed to pick one?? Well, I say you pick the one with the best name. Our wedding will be officiated by Floralove Katz.
We went to a great little event the other night at Patrick Gordon Framing. It was called Curated Castoffs: Art & Decor Edition. It was kind of like a collaborative garage sale where everything’s free.
It works like this: At 7:00 pm everybody shows up with five art + decor items for swapping: prints, paintings, mirrors, frames, wall hangings, fabric, ceramics, pillows, lamps, taxidermy heads, etc. No junk. You pay a cover charge of $8, turn over your items, and spend the next hour or so drinking wine, enjoying the tunes, socializing and checking out what everybody else brought. Then at the appointed time, there’s a big friendly free-for-all, and everybody gets to take whatever they like, provided they grab it before anyone else does.
Our five cast-offs included a dry-mounted 1998 Bluesfest poster, an abstract oil painting in yellows that I bought at Southworks, a mixed-media canvas by Gwendolyn Best that I bought at Everybody’s Art Show, a stained glass piece that hangs in a window somehow but I could never figure out how, and a painting of a sunflower. These were all pieces that I liked over the years, but I’ve since run out of wall space and it was time to let them go.
I spotted a Dan Martelock piece that I really, really, really wanted, as did several other people. It was in the middle of a table where I couldn’t reach it easily, so the long-armed GC stationed himself right next to it and pounced on it as soon as the free-for-all started.
Meanwhile, the woman next to us pounced on the mixed media piece that I’d brought, and seemed surprised that we hadn’t wrestled her for it. “I thought you guys wanted it too,” she said, “Since you were standing beside it for the last 15 minutes.” We explained that we had been staking out the Martelock piece next to it. She loved the mixed media piece, and it gave me great pleasure to see it go to a new home where it would be appreciated.
We also picked up a framed giraffe batik for my giraffe-collecting son, and a puppet for my puppet-collecting boyfriend.
Anything that was left over was donated to Highjinx, which is a trippy little second-hand shop in Chinatown that uses its profits to help homeless people get off the street. So it was a win-win-win situation all round.
I love the Curated Cast-offs concept and it seemed to work well too. People were civilized and there was no blood shed, although if anybody had challenged a certain young woman for the taxidermy deer head, there might have been.
Taxidermy is one of those things that is kind of awful and cool at the same time. I can’t decide whether it’s more awful or more cool.
About 10 years ago I was a guest at a party on Georgian Bay. A second party splintered off from the main party when a handful of us got in a boat and zoomed off to someone else’s “cottage” for a couple of hours. This splinter party was held by a nouveau riche couple who had tons of money and extraordinarily bad taste. They were loud and crass and they took tackiness to bold new heights. The decorating theme for their house was Dead Animals. They had heads mounted everywhere: moose, zebras, antelope, all kinds of animals. They had a real bearskin rug in front of the fireplace, and they bragged about how often they had sex on it. It was an awesomely awful party.
Anyway, ever since then I can’t see a taxidermy head without thinking of them. But I think the girl who got the deer head the other night will be able to pull it off better than they did.