'Taking in All the Pain of What They Witness'

04/29/2015 09:29 am ET | Updated Jun 29, 2015
Drugs Over Dinner

Actor, director and social activist Danny Glover is no stranger to the drug problem: His family of origin was directly affected by it. "All three of my brothers had issues with substance use," he told me in an interview to help launch the Drugs Over Dinner initiative. "One of my brothers had gone to Vietnam. He was in the Tet Offensive at 19 years old in 1968, and he never recovered from that."

A human being suffers and turns to drugs to soothe his torment: Such is what I, too, witnessed as an addiction physician. In all my years working with a population of hard-core drug-addicted people in Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside, I did not meet a single female patient who had not been sexually abused, not a single male who had not endured some trauma early in life. Often the trauma was overt, occasionally it took the form of more subtle emotional loss, but it was always there in the background.

The pain may become too much to bear. "The drugs become a way of medicating yourself," Glover remarks. "And sometimes people witness something on our behalf so we others don't have to see it. They take in all the pain of what they witness. That's how it may have been with my brother. I always thought that out of all of us children, he was the most remarkable, the most beautiful soul, the most sensitive one."

It is the "beautiful souls," the sensitive ones, who are most tormented in our society. "Look what some of the greatest artists of the 20th century had to go through," Danny Glover points out, "the troubles Billie Holiday was subjected to. Or Louis Armstrong: He often made the statement that he had to smoke marijuana every day just to be able to endure life in the United States." For many, he says, drugs become a way of "coping with the contradictions of racism and the exploitation, a way of soothing yourself."

Glover, who as a young man worked in community development and whose parents were active in the civil rights movement, is keenly aware of the social and political dimensions of drug use and drug-war politics. He watched what he calls the dismantling of the communities he was close to "because of crack cocaine and the climate of mistrust created by that." He echoes Michelle Alexander's searing indictment of the drug war as it plays out in America's black communities (in her book, "The New Jim Crow"). "The whole history," he says, "has been of a tendency to demonize the victim.

"And that continues. It's really part and parcel of the system itself. Black people have been demonized for being lazy or for being uneducable, or whatever... This demonization is a way of re-subjugating them or controlling them, of diminishing their expectations of themselves in some way."

In my own country of Canada, I have seen the same dynamic inflicted upon our aboriginal First Nations peoples, who make up 4 percent of the population but 30 percent of the jail population: the results of historical trauma and state-inflicted abuse that drives them to drug use, and of racist policies that keep them stuck in abject suffering.

Thus substance use and addiction have broad social dimensions and cannot be reduced to the unfortunate "choices" or "diseases" of individuals. They are societal phenomena that appear when many people in a culture experience what my friend the psychologist Bruce Alexander calls dislocation, the loss of belonging, connection and meaning that are essential to a fulfilled human life. Such dislocation, though it burdens minority populations especially, knows no racial or class boundaries.

The system we live in, I hear Glover suggest, creates a lot of pain for people, a lot of dysfunction, a lot of distress. They turn to drugs and then they get punished for it. "And with that viewpoint," he says, "comes an understanding and also tolerance for people's suffering and, more than anything else, embracing that suffering in a spirit of generosity and acceptance. That doesn't happen in this country, you know. We are afraid...

"The systems around us, whether it is the educational system or the stress that people go through in their lives to survive and to make ends meet... all those things play a role. Some are fortunate to find other ways to accommodate the pain. Consumption is an addiction itself. Consumption is a way in which you mute the pain. I know people who have plenty of resources by which they are able to subvert the pain or divert the pain: by consuming, buying unnecessarily. So there are different ways."

Addiction, whether to drugs or other behaviors, Glover says, is always a compensation for the sense of being devalued as a human being. "That's basically it. Feeling alienated within the system: a system that demeans people, marginalizes them, exploits them, and creates a situation in which our value depends only on our capacity to consume."

The chief reason we condemn drug users so vehemently may be simply that we do not wish to see our similarities to them. We want to perceive our own forms of self-soothing as somehow morally superior, or we just do not want to recognize how much our entire way of life resembles the frantic search for relief of the user. I define addiction as any behavior that, for the short term, we crave or find relief and pleasure in, but we are unable to give up despite the negative consequences incurred in the long term. By that standard, how many of us are not addicted?

"Our narrative of substance use and addiction," says Glover, "is not constructed around love." Here he includes the dominant narratives popularized by his own film industry in Hollywood. "It's a narrative constructed around fear. It's not a narrative constructed around embracing people.

"We need to find a way of finding the commonality of our experience, of having empathy for people."

Gabor Maté M.D. is the author of In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction, and is on the advisory board for Drugs Over Dinner.

This post is part of a series in a partnership between The Huffington Post and Drugs Over Dinner in conjunction with the launch of the latter's new website, DOD provides the tools and the inspiration to gather those that you care about, to break bread, and have a compassionate conversation about the role of drugs in our culture. To see all the posts in the series, read here.


Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.