empathy fail

beware of pity by shawnzrossi

The former president of the International AIDS Society and head of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in AIDS/HIV has new appreciation for the experience of addicts:

“I understood everything I was going through, and yet I tell you, it was probably the worst seven to 10 days of my life,” said Dr. Montaner, former president of the International AIDS Society and head of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in AIDS/HIV.

“To be honest, I could not wait to take another dose [of drugs] to get rid of all the pain, the insomnia, the anxiety. …Now I have experienced under my own skin what it’s like to kick narcotics. It was extremely painful.”

Dr. Montaner pointed out that he had been on a form of synthetic morphine for only six weeks before deciding the pain had become bearable enough to stop taking it.

If someone like himself, who understood exactly what he was going through, had trouble ending just a short round of narcotics, imagine the difficulty of long-term heroin addicts kicking their habits, he said.

What is there to say?

“I understood”? What the hell does that mean? Does he really think information/understanding constitutes a significant barrier to recovery for opiate addicts?

Dawn Farm says it all the time in our public education activities: Non-addicts need to stop trying to understand the experience of addicts through the lens of their own experience with drugs.

It’s just so condescending—”It was really hard for me. Just imagine how hard it is for those people.”

Lucky for him he wasn’t surr0unded by helpers telling him he’s incurable and should go one some form of maintenance treatment.

2 thoughts on “empathy fail

  1. As a preface, I read your blog almost every day and really enjoy its content. It has given me many insights about addiction and recovery and I have come to value your opinion very much. But, reading this, I find myself wondering about this rigid distinction between “addicts” and “non-addicts” and your conviction that a “non-addict’s” experience with drugs cannot possibly relate to an “addict’s” experience. Why is that not valuable; why is it merely condescending? Is it not common to struggle with some aspects of addiction and the concentric waves of disorder it brings into other aspects of our lives? Is there a cutoff point where one is “an addict” and can relate their experiences to other addicts’? Again, thanks for your frequent, thought-provoking blog posts and I am interested to better understand your criticism of this “empathy fail.”

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    1. Thanks for reading and thanks for the comment.

      First, given this man’s professional background, I found his response to be condescending. He’s so busy pitying junkies that he doesn’t even consider what it might be be like to have people suggest to him that he can’t successfully detox and that the best he can probably do is take measures to avoid disease and take an opiate for the rest of his days. It never occurs to him to go there. What does that say?

      Second, the addict’s experience their drug and non-addict’s are different. It’s like a dieter using their experience to understand a serious eating disorder or third world malnutrition.

      One challenge is language. For example, a color blind person learns to call a door beige, just like non-color blind people. They may be seeing a different color but we learn to call it the same thing. When non-addict’s try to understand the addict’s, words like “like”, “love”, “want” and “need” are misleading. When an addict says they like heroin, they like it the same way someone at the bottom of a pool “likes” air or the way a starving (literally starving, not “It’s almost lunch time and I’m starving.”) “likes” food.

      It also almost always leads to an unhelpful conclusion. “I drank too much in college and then it was time to grow up.” Or, “I found myself hooked on pain pills, getting off them was terrible . . . but I got through it and haven’t touched them again.”

      Whether or not you agree, does that make where I’m coming from a little clearer?

      UPDATE: Let me put it another way. If people don’t recognize that the experience is completely different, they are more likely to believe that they are different when trying to understand why they don’t share the same fate as the addict. They will fill in the blank with character, social/cultural capital, etc.

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