Love on the street

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My first introduction to Washington was truly grand. I was 13 years old. We flew into Newark, NJ, on PamAm from London, and took Amtrak down to DC’s Union Station. From there we made the short trip to my uncle’s palatial mansion in Takoma Park. My uncle was president of what was then Columbia Union College, and the white-pillared mansion came with the job. 

We stayed in that mansion for a month and a half, and almost every day I walked 30 minutes from the front door, crowned by the enormous two story high portico, down past the quaint old homes, by the cathedralesque Takoma Park Adventist Church, by what was then the General Conference headquarters to the Takoma Park Metro station. And from the station I was off to another day enjoying the magnificent museums and monuments of Washington, DC.

. . . love may be the most powerful antidote to drug addiction.

At the time, Takoma Park was, I suppose, the most Adventist place in the world. Not only was there a college and the Church’s global headquarters, but also a couple Adventist schools, a couple of the largest Adventist churches in the world, an Adventist hospital and a host of other related Adventist entities. TP was SDA central. 

Which made the story I was told even the more perplexing.

Across the street from the mansion, next to the entrance to the hospital, on the edge of the college campus, easy walking distance to the General Conference and around the corner from the schools, was a quaint, little, covered bus stop built of stone with a slate roof. One morning, the Adventist community awoke to find a young woman lying on the bus stop seat, her dirty blond hair spilling over the edge of the seat towards the ground.

Strange. 

But not unprecedented in this urban setting. 

When the girl didn’t move, someone investigated further. And what they found was shocking.

Sometime during the night, this young woman sheltering all alone in the bus shed, had died of a drug overdose.

Good Adventist homes were all around her. A hospital. Health leaders. Pastors. Elders. Deaconesses. Christian educators. Church members of every stripe.

Everyone you could ever hope to help you in distress.

But somehow life had slipped silently from her frail young body, with no one stopping until it was too late.

I thought of that story as I walked from Takoma Park station to Washington Adventist University recently. I haven’t walked that route since I was 13. While there’s been plenty of change, much remains the same. The old General Conference building looks just like it did, the shops and houses are largely as they were. And that classic old bus shelter? It’s still there as well. As pretty as ever. 

As I walked by, I thought of that young girl. I wonder who she was. I wonder what went wrong in her life. I wonder how her story would have been different if just one person had intervened before it was too late.

It’s not an academic question. Today the US is in midst of an opioid and synthetic drug crisis. Since 1999, the deaths from opioid overdoses has quadrupled in the United States. And in Washington DC, 911 operators now receive 10 times as many calls relating to synthetic drug overdoses than they do for heart attacks.1

Which begs the question—why?

For that, there may be an intriguingly unexpected answer.

A classic experiment demonstrating the power of drug addiction is the “rat in the cage with the coke.” The rat is given food, water, and cocaine. Often enough, the rat quickly becomes obsessed with the cocaine, to the point where it eventually overdoses.2

The lesson? Drugs are addictive. End of story. Right?

It turns out the story might be a lot more complex—and interesting—than that. Professor Bruce Alexander in Vancouver looked at the rat in the cage experiment and asked himself a question that led to an astounding finding.

He simply wondered whether putting a rat in a bare cage all alone with nothing to do impacted the outcome of the cocaine study? He decided to find out.

So he set to work building a rat paradise—with balls to play with, places to run and hide, tunnels and everything else that rats love. And instead of just putting one rat in the rat’s paradise, he put a few rat friends in together—after all, rats are social animals.

And then he gave the rats water. Food. And as much cocaine as they wanted.

And here is the odd thing: The rats in the rat’s paradise consumed a small fraction of the cocaine the rat in the solitary, bare cage did. And none of them died from overdoses. Many weren’t interested at all.

Alone, bored, isolated—cocaine obsession.

Friends, stimulated, community—no cocaine obsession.

And these results appear to translate quite well to humans.3

People who lack a healthy family, strong friendships, a supportive community tend to be much more susceptible to drug addiction than those who have all three. 

Which brings me back to why drug overdoses are increasing. And what to do about it. 

Warnings? Sure. Busts of traffickers? Absolutely. Expanding rehab options? Yes. 

But all of that, and much more, may be simply treating the symptoms. The disease? Is it a heartbreaking deficit of authentic love? 

That’s increasingly the conclusion of many experts who see that drug addiction isn’t primarily about decadent people searching for artificial thrills. It may not even primarily be a medical disorder. Maybe rates of drug addiction are primarily driven by how connected and supported we are. 

Put more succinctly, love may be the most powerful antidote to drug addiction.

Which brings me back to the dramatic rise in drug overdoses. 

A National Science Foundation’s study found, even as social media and internet dating sites have become an integrated part of modern life, even as anyone can find someone to hook up with at almost any time, even as we have more online friends than most of us ever could imagine, more Americans today feel lonely than ever before. 

Maybe the increase in opioid and synthetic drug overdoses is the inevitable result of the loneliness of our modern life?

Which all came to mind when I stumbled across an appalling scene around the corner from our temporary home on the slightly shabby end of Independence Avenue in Washington, DC. My wife Leisa and I were out for our evening walk. As we turned the corner, however, something was obviously very different. 

A man was sprawled out on one small front yard of one of the historic townhouses. 

“C’mon,” a woman said to him in a slurred voice, “get up!”

The man just lay on the grass motionless.

It was very unclear what was going on. Was the man handicapped? Was he having a seizure? Was this a medical emergency?

I looked from across the street for a minute. And then I called out to the woman, “Is your friend OK?”

The woman looked over at me and mumbled a response I couldn’t understand. She then turned back to the man and gave his limp right arm a pull as she sternly told him to stand.

His body flopped back to earth without so much as a flinch. 

I watched for a minute, and then crossed the road. Carefully. We’re in the middle of urban America. There are no rules here. And literally anything can happen.

“Is your friend disabled?” I asked the woman. 

“No, it ain’t that,” she replied.

“Is he sick?” 

“No, he just needs to get up and get home!”

I looked down at the man. He looked about 30 years old. His beard was trimmed. His clothes were neat. His face looked completely relaxed—like the life in it had wafted off. While his eyelids were open just a crack, the crack was not wide enough to see his pupils. For a minute I thought he was gone.

His friend gave another tug on his arm with all her might.

But his limp body just fell back to the grass with a thud. But as it did, I noticed that he was breathing—very shallowly, but still breathing.

“Do you know what the problem is?” I persisted.

“It’s a synthetic drug thing, you wouldn’t understand,” she replied dismissively.

“He’s obviously doing very poorly,” I replied, “I’ll call 911.”

The operator talked me through procedure. She was calm. Another synthetic drug overdose. Nothing to get excited about.  

Within a few minutes the sirens were rushing to the spot. Paramedics were leaning over the man. Cooly and professionally, they worked on just another DC overdose.

I waited a minute, and then moved on. 

Overdose treated. 

Drug abuser not. 

Because all that cures drug addiction is love. 

And love requires a lot more than a 911 call. 

Still, better a call and another chance for love given. Than silence. And another beautiful life lost.  

1. As reported by NBC News.

2. I’m thankful to Johann Hari for his piece, “The likely cause of addition has been discovered, and its not what you think,” where he summarises the study. 

3. Ibid. 


James Standish is an author, attorney and advocate who recently moved from Sydney, Australia, to Washington (US) with his family.