Looking around the room in our focus group, we all realized two really interesting things about who we are and where we’ve been. Number one, that none of us were kids anymore, which is a nice way of saying that most of us already crossed the threshold of mid-life and were heading somewhere on the north side of 50 years old. And number two, that we all shared the experience of trying, sometimes for decades, to overcome our substance use challenges.
And, at the end of the day, our discussion revealed that harm reduction, and recovery in general, is an individual process that looks different for every one of us.
We started out with defining the word “harm,” or at least trying to. Here are some of the things we came up with: Harm is putting bad things in your body, and it’s especially scary now because drugs are not what they used to be, and you don’t know what’s in things any more. Harm is going down the wrong path, over and over again. Harm is all about negative thinking, thinking about things that are very bad but that you know give you a high or a rush in your head. Harm is drinking, and what it does to you emotionally and physically. Even though all our definitions of harm came out of our personal pasts, we saw a lot of commonality when each person talked about what harm meant for them, and there were a lot of us nodding our heads in agreement even when the experience didn’t exactly belong to us. With all these definitions put out there, we spent some time talking about what it has meant to get really serious about harm reduction.
All of us took different routes that got us into harm’s way. For some, the drug of choice was crack cocaine, and that’s what became the most comfortable thing in the world. It usually started early, and just ramped up over the years to the point where it was the main reason for living. Nothing else really mattered. For others, it was heroin, and for that fix there was nothing that couldn’t be accomplished, even if it meant harming others. For others, harm’s way was strewn with bottles. It didn’t matter what flavor or what brand. It may have started as a cultural thing. In some of our families, little kids would be given a sip on holidays and over time that sip became a gulp, and then there was no turning back. Culture, many of us agreed, plays a big role in the habits we form, good ones and bad ones alike, and our perceptions of “normal” behavior. And let’s not forget about opioids, which usually started out sanctioned by a well-meaning doctor with a heavy hand on the prescription pad.
For some of us, coming to terms with our use meant recognizing that we were accustomed to instant gratification, and that our paths to better health may require us to have to wait to enjoy the benefit of our efforts.
We’ve lost family members who just finally said “enough is enough.” We’ve lost kids who just know they don’t want to follow in our footsteps. We’ve lost friends who got taken advantage of one too many times. And we’ve lost ourselves, almost. Our struggles have made all of us dig deep and try to find our way out of the use and its negative impacts on our lives and the lives of others. We focused a lot of our meeting time talking about what some of these ways are, and the challenges they pose.
One of the hardest things in the world is to sit still. Mindfulness means being in the moment and not letting your mind be places you don’t want it to be. Meditation can bring you to a really good place, but you have to work hard to keep your mind and your body still. Sometimes, you’ve got to face down your demons so you can get your heart and your head into a good space and in sync with each other. A few of us have adopted different ways of being more mindful such as, believe it or not, using adult coloring books.
We also discussed how, to us, reducing harm has a lot to do with attitude. Whether you see the glass as half full instead of half empty makes a really big difference in life, and you have to work hard to start seeing that there’s a lot out there for you if you really want it. Changing thinking patterns and learning to focus your energy someplace other than the negative is a key factor.
People and places also have a lot to do with reducing harm. Some people call these triggers, and say you shouldn’t tempt fate by being around familiar environments. Others say you bring yourself with you wherever you go, so even going to a new place could bring the same temptations. Still, we observed that it is hard to look at a place that reminds you of a past you are trying to move away from and not have memories come floating back at you. So why go there? And in relationships, it’s especially hard to be around people with whom you always did things that you know are harmful, so it’s more helpful to just stay away from those people. Stay away and build a new path.
Two final things: first, when all is said and done, what we all agreed we really need in order to improve our chances of making it are employment and housing. These are the two hardest things to come by, and yet we’ve all experienced the fact that without a place to live and job to help build a sense of self-worth, the temptations to go back where we started out are going to be too great to tackle. More help in the real world to make employment and housing a reality is critical.
And lastly, we all recognized one universal truth about our situations. As one of us observed, “When you’re up against drugs and alcohol, you’re up against the only truly undefeated champion in the world. So, don’t get in the ring!”