Originally published as a column on CFJC Today Kamloops and Armchair Mayor News on Monday, September 24, 2018. 

I had been at the Old Courthouse for many art exhibits and for a wedding once too. There is an air of sobriety that attaches itself to you as soon as you step inside, no matter the event: the dark wood panels and large windows, the old staircase that creaks softly as you make your way up, the echoes of people’s voices.

Last Thursday evening, as I honoured an invitation to an event called EXPOSED: A Photo Voice Project Gala, organized by Addiction Matters Kamloops (AMK) Coalition, the tone was somber than ever. The sea of people who filled the upstairs room was a welcoming sight though. It is a good thing when the community cares to gather in support.

Then, there were the photos and stories. To call them heartbreaking would be an understatement. I found myself tearing up more after each one, silent screams gripping my heart as I stared at each photograph and read each story. It’s hard to be in the presence of so much suffering. Still, some stories had a happy end; people can beat addiction. The message was clear as it was humbling: it’s not that so many out there still trapped do not care to get out or choose to ‘indulge.’ Addiction is not a choice. Moreover, hurting of that kind cannot be judged by those of us not affected by it. On the contrary. Compassion and willingness to lend our ears and hearts to the issue are the only acceptable ways to begin to understand the reality of addiction.

How else will we ever come close to turning the tide before it swallows more of us, more of our children?

It may seem easy to be detached, but not so after you see the stories from so close, and I believe everyone should see them. Those stories cannot be unseen. Nor can that soul-drilling feeling of despair that emanates from each of them. Children telling of their first exposure at ages younger than my youngest is at. How could that be? The answer sounds almost silly and it’s anything but: It just is. Kids who have yet to leave the pre-teen years behind carry trauma and are being forced into the bottomless dark world of drugs by circumstance or people. The rest unfolds in back alleys, and among others whom we barely acknowledge, and most times only as an annoyance, likening them to shadows lingering in a world that sees them as less because of addiction.

There were almost 300 people who came to see the exhibit. There were professionals, family members, volunteers, people who struggled with and managed to beat addiction. Gazes were often averted because of how vulnerable one feels when face to face with so much grief. But there were smiles and hugs too, and the beauty of humanity that refuses to yield to darkness; there was hope, amidst all the tears shed, past and present.

I talked to mothers who lost their children to drugs. As a mother myself, I cannot face the thought. My eldest, a teenager, speaks of a reality that he often sees up close in the world of young people, a reality which we cannot ignore or write off as usual teenage craziness, or ‘rite of passage.’

I read stories of kids who took to drugs. Some spoke of deep, lengthy trauma from growing up in abusive homes. Others spoke of being born to survivors of residential schools or the 60s scoop, revealing how darkness hooked them with the falsest of promises.

I read stories of people who started using drugs after becoming addicted to pain medication, legally prescribed. Pain medication is legal, and some of it can open the gate to addiction. Food for thought.

I also read stories of successful, straight A students, happy and joyous in their pursuit of academic and sports excellence, who for reasons impossible to understand, slipped into the very world we dare not look into without shuddering. We are all tempted to say ‘not my kid’ but so did so many of the parents who are now left with the unimaginable heartbreak. They cannot say it anymore and the rest of us should not either. This is not a contest, it’s a stark reminder: no child is safe until they all are.

That was the message that I could not miss: that we need to look, listen, see, and never ever dehumanize anyone who is gripped by the darkness of addiction. That we need to stay connected to those we love, and we need to work to understand how to form a connected community to save people. It starts with remembering that each of the people who is addicted have a story they carry within.

We ought to listen and support those who are in the fray, the mothers, fathers, children and friends of people who struggle with addiction. We ought to stay away from words that hurt and judge, from burdening people with stigma and shame. People in the fray are the ones who refuse to give up hope even when hope seems more elusive than ever. We have to learn from them.

We ought to stay human and understand that being human comes with faults, frailty, trouble, and heartbreak. But it also comes with love, compassion and hope. Let’s choose these latter three, so we can turn the tide. That was the feeling that took over my thoughts as I left the exhibit and walked home in the drizzling rain.