“Mitch” has been in his own apartment for about three months now. To my knowledge, he’s still able to receive methadone daily as a part of the little backpack of supports that are helping keep him alive and responsible. He’s also participating in group and individual therapy and working whenever the temp employment agency has suitable work. There isn’t much of that for him.
Mitch had a relatively brief stay at the Shelter. He was responsible and followed through on the plan that he and staff devised. We still see him occasionally, and thanks to private support and an understanding specialist who offered a deep discount, we’ll help him with serious dental reconstruction soon. We think the change in appearance will make him more interview friendly.
How did Mitch get to this point? He’s 41, from Washington County and has paralegal certification. He has a wife and three children. He used to have a professional career. The family was happy and functional. And then his wife was in a horrific car accident. The ensuing several years consisted of chronic pain and bills the couple couldn’t afford, and as Mitch got more and more desperate and couldn’t sleep, he turned to the opiates prescribed for his wife. Just a little at first—just to experience a little relief from anxiety—and then a vicious addiction took hold. The family is now in pieces. Mitch’s wife is cared for through a combination of disability income and the sacrifices of a not very well off extended family. One of the children is in state custody, the other two are living with grandparents. Mitch has rotten teeth, hepatitis C, chronic indigestion, and enough guilt and shame for ten men. But he’s trying.
So what do we immediately conclude when we see someone like Mitch, someone who is not anyone we know, based on first impression? It’s tempting to feel judgment and frustration—“Why the hell did he let things get to this point? Why didn’t he stop the pills earlier? Why does this have to be our problem?” (Please know that employees of emergency shelters have to deal with their own feelings of frustration regularly, as they see paths and choices seemingly available and good for the people they’re trying to help, and those people make other choices.)
If all those of us who are living relatively comfortable lives can do is to make snap conclusions based on sensory first impressions linked to our own experiences and our own personal values, then the anger and the righteousness of eliminating treatment programs and other supports makes sense. We feel like we’ve reduced our collective burden and forced those on the dole to make better choices (or lose). If I agreed with that perspective I would agree with the current, multiple proposals in the Governor’s budget that would eliminate treatment options, cut the benefits platform out from under a ton of poor people, and make demands on them to find work or volunteer in order to maintain some of those sparse supports. I don’t believe there are enough jobs paying a living wage that would be a good match for most of these folks. This Shelter is choosing not to be one of the locations for “suitable volunteering”—we already have our hands full trying to help psychotic adults and veterans with PTSD and keeping things safe, and we do not have the capacity required to do that while training and supervising volunteers who would frequently not have room to work inside this crowded place.
It took me 40 years to quit smoking. I really tried to quit, seriously tried, in 1981 and again in 1984, lasting ten months each time. Yes, we need more active addicts to get healthier, but how we choose to try to make that happen is a reflection of us more than it is them. And simply in terms of economics, over the course of things it is less expensive to help people recover than it is to incarcerate them. Show me a study documenting the cost savings and clinical effectiveness of a four-year sentence.
We who have our health, and jobs, and who pay taxes need to connect with each other and get beyond the easy, angry rhetoric. We need to work hard collectively to chart a better course for the state’s economy and employment opportunities. We need to be careful with our collective resources. We need to invest in our future. We need to protect our children’s and grandchildren’s interests. We don’t need to incur greater costs through angry rhetoric, and we won’t get healthier by continually shunning, isolating and punishing people who need help. Of course there have to be reasonable limits. But not on hope. And not without a view of things that is clear, objective, and keeps our future in mind.