Pubdate: Fri, 25 Aug 2017
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2017 The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Doug Kelly
Page: S2


Abstinence is seen as the key to sobriety, but the closer you look at
those struggling, the clearer you see the real problem is pain

Recently, a reporter asked me a question regarding First Nations'
perspectives on abstinence and harm reduction as they relate to the
public-health overdose emergency. I am still thinking about that
question, as it is only recently that my own mind has changed on this

When we attempt to "confront" family members, friends or loved ones
who are struggling with alcohol or substances, our all-too-human
approach can be to call for, plead and beg for abstinence. In that
moment, we believe we see the problem and a resolution clearly, in
black-and-white terms. We see the substance, the drug of choice or
alcohol, as the problem, and we see abstinence as the solution.

The longer you stand and walk with your loved one who is struggling
with substance-use issues, the more you begin to see and understand
that the underlying cause is not the substance - it is pain. This pain
often comes from untreated and unresolved trauma. Too often, the
suffering adult or teen experienced this trauma as a child. It is too
difficult to carry the pain and, yet, just as difficult to let go of
it. To cope, they seek relief from that historical pain by

As we begin to support our suffering loved one - we offer help,
support and love. This help, support and love is well-intended, but it
may come with conditions. Sometimes, this help, support and love may
only be offered as a reward for abstinence. This strategy might help
our loved ones through detox and treatment, but for many people, it is
not sustainable or effective at supporting change.

Unless our loved ones heal their unresolved trauma and grief, they
will continue to suffer pain. With that pain remaining, the periods of
sobriety and drug-free living often become shorter and shorter. Our
abstinence-reward plans rarely work.

At this point, feelings of helplessness and anger may come and we
question even our small decisions. Am I enabling? Am I doing enough?

As we come to terms with the fact that our black-and-white resolution
of abstinence does not work, we may realize that we have taken steps
that enable our loved ones to continue with drinking or drugging. It
is a hard truth to confront, that our approach may have failed
miserably. It is a hard truth to accept, that our conditional love
helped enable our loved ones to hurt themselves.

At this point, many of us may give up on our loved ones, thinking we
have done our best. With failure, we decide to quit on them. Instead
of giving up on our black-and-white resolution of abstinence and
looking for a different approach, we give up on our loved ones.

As I hit that wall, that I now recognize as the result of conditional
love, I cried hard and long. My loved one is my loved one and always
will be. I cannot save my loved one. I cannot take away that childhood
trauma. I cannot undo what my loved one experienced. This work must be
carried out by my loved one. The best that I can do is to prevent the
next generation of my loved ones from experiencing that same trauma.
Perhaps, most tragically, conditional love was preventing me from
enjoying time with my loved one, preventing me from experiencing their
gifts, from sharing my love as openly as I should.

Abstinence has been only one step along my own healing journey; and I
emphasize "only one step." Stopping drinking at 34 didn't immediately
result in healing. Sure, it provided respite so that I could look at
my life. But my true healing journey began six weeks after I stopped
drinking. My healing really began with the hard work of addressing the
compounded grief and loss. That work kept me from returning to
alcohol. Healing takes as long as it takes.

For me, harm reduction is akin to unconditional love. We do not want
our loved ones to harm themselves, but we know that we cannot resolve
their historical trauma for them. We can only be there for them when
they are ready to take steps on their own healing journeys.
Unconditional love is not easy - it is exceptionally difficult. Until
I learn another way, I will do my best to express unconditional love
to my family, friends and loved ones.

- --------------------------------------------------------------

Doug Kelly is the Chair of the First Nations Health Council and is the 
Tribal Chief and President of the Stolo Tribal Council
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MAP posted-by: Matt