“Why should we save them?”
Those words stuck with me.
I was reading an article about naloxone and fentanyl. The comments section was alive. Beyond the normal trolls and general nonsense that we have come to expect from social media, what struck me were the number of people who lacked any compassion. Very few of the comments expressed empathy.
Many people view those that use drugs as outcasts. People that make bad decisions. I understand the stigma. I was like that before. When I was a young police officer and later a new DEA Special Agent, I felt the same way. I asked the same question: Why can’t they just… stop?
I used to feel the same way about domestic violence. When I was first dispatched to domestic violence calls as an inexperienced police officer, I did not understand what I was seeing. During 99% of the calls that I went on, the abused wife or girlfriend would put on Oscar-worthy performances questioning why the police were even at their house. I can vividly remember a wife that was practically fighting us as we arrested her husband and when his back was turned to her, she mouthed “thank you” as tears rolled down her face. I left asking myself why. Why can’t she just… leave?
What was happening? How could I help? I began learning about abuse. About the cycle of domestic violence. About power. About control. I learned as much as I could to better prepare myself and better respond. If I was going to help people, I needed to know how.
Now, I am not suggesting domestic violence and drug addiction are the same. But I realized that I had to also learn how to approach this. How to better understand addiction and dependency.
If I was going to help people, I needed to know how.
What I learned is that most people do not want to be addicted to drugs. That getting high and needing a drug are two different things.
I also learned that addiction is a disease. When you use drugs, your brain is fighting to find balance, to keep you safe, and ultimately you get to the point that you think you need drugs just to survive. I have met people that use fentanyl multiple times a day to, as they say, function.
Another young man, when talking about his addiction, acknowledged he made poor decisions but now he was suffering every day. He asked, “do you think I want this?”
I think for the most part, society does not care. We question why we would want to help people that choose to use drugs. I hear it all the time: They made their bed, now they can sleep in it.
Opioids, specifically fentanyl, have certainly made this more complicated. Casual and experimental drug use has changed. The entire drug landscape has. Stories of people dying from first time or experimental drug use, especially younger people using counterfeit drugs, have become daily news.
Did these people deserve it? No, I do not think so.
Now would be a good time to clarify something in case you are wondering. I had no problem arresting drug traffickers. In fact, I miss it. The mission of the Drug Enforcement Administration is noble, it matters, and I am proud of the work I did there to make our communities safer.
My empathy does not negate these feelings. And it also does not mean I approve of their behavior.
Empathy is an ability to understand another’s situation or feelings.
By learning more about addiction, I was more prepared to help people. Or at least, better understand them.
This opened doors. I learned these people are used to being judged, criticized, thrown aside. When I removed my judgement, it allowed me to communicate. To try to understand. The more I was able to communicate, the greater the trust. It is not perfect. I still struggle to understand. But I am trying.
Because yes, they are worth saving.
- Brian Townsend, Eagle 6 Training