If a rat in a cage is given the choice of water or water laced with heroin or cocaine, it will virtually always become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more, until it kills itself.
But that’s because it is a lonely rat in a cage.
Conduct the same experiment using a different cage that is “rat heaven.” Have tunnels and lots of other rats to play with or have sex, and anything else a rat could want. Rats in that environment were found to never use the drugged water compulsively, and they never overdosed.
That experiment, done by SFU professor Bruce Alexander, was used to illustrate how people can begin to understand strategies for beating drug addiction, and was part of a presentation by Mark Goheen, a Fraser Health clinical specialist in mental health and substance use services, who spoke Thursday night at the ACT in Maple Ridge.
Understanding Mental Health and Addictions was the third in the four-part Community Dialogue on Homelessness Speaker Series offered by city hall at the ACT on Thursday evening.
Goheen was part of a panel of four experts in the field of addiction.
All four promoted the message that there is a strong correlation between addiction and people becoming disconnected from important human relationships.
“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection,” Goheen said, quoting a film he presented.
He said there are too many people in society who do not have a sense of belonging.
“The healing power of relationships,” he said, is the key to getting homeless people off the streets.
“It is impossible to recover one’s life, or recover one’s dignity or value in this world without relationships.”
Each of the speakers presented his or her viewpoints, then answered questions from people in the audience, or those who watched a livestream broadcast and texted their queries.
Most of the questions were directed to Rob Thiessen, the plain-talking managing director of Tri-Cities-based Hope for Freedom Society. His organization was the first in B.C. funded by the provincial government to do outreach work with homeless people in a 2006 pilot project.
“They won’t admit to this publicly, but in private, they made the statement that they believe that some of the policies that have been put in place by the welfare ministry of this province had actually begun to make an impact on homelessness,” he said. “In fact, increased homelessness.
“They saved a whack of dough, and they thought they should throw some money back into it, to see if there was something they could do about it.”
He said the three mayors the society worked with had a difficult time accepting the homeless counts, and believed “they’re all from the Downtown Eastside.”
His team “built files on everybody” on the streets, and knew them by name. The count was 176. The team know knew where all the homeless people grew up, got their education, their age and other data.
“We discovered 74 per cent of the people who were homeless in the Tri-Cities were from the Tri-Cities,” he said. “Myths started to shatter.”
The next year, his group led a church-based effort to feed and house homeless in the Tri-Cities.
“Blue-haired church ladies fed these people, and began to relate to them,” he said, and they were as personal as they could be. In the end, he added, members of the community without church affiliation began to volunteer.
“When we had a shelter running, our average was we would move 10 people per month off the street,” he said. “When the shelter wasn’t running, the best we could do was two or three per month.”
In 2008, the official homeless count in Tri-Cities was 215, and by 2011, it was under 50, he said.
Hope for Freedom opened a facility in Maple Ridge in May of 2015, and works with 25 male clients seeking long-term recovery.
A member of the audience observed that Hope for Freedom is based on a 12-step program and abstinence, but Thiessen promotes RainCity, which is low-barrier.
“Isn’t that a conflict?” she asked.
“No. We have too much in common,” said Thiessen. “Out here in Maple Ridge, we work with Alouette Addictions – lots of differences – but there’s too many things we have in common that we can’t afford to sit in our ideological corners and not get out and work together.”
Another audience member asked whether addicts who are forced into treatment, against their will, are often successful.
“Or do they need to build a relationship first?”
Grigg said mandated treatment is an important civil rights issue, but the research says that the “jail or treatment” decision can be a turning point in an addict’s life. Research shows the relationship with the person the addict is working with is important. It doesn’t have to be “warm and fuzzy,” he said, but must restore motivation.
“If you bring people into contact, that’s a great start,” said Grigg.
Thiessen added that some people who had been mandated by courts to go into treatment got clean even though they did not intend to when they started.
“They catch recovery while they’re there,” he said.
“The best thing you can do is hug them and love them, until they can love themselves.”
Heather Tumold is a recovering addict who now works with RainCity Housing as a support worker. She shared the story of how she ran away from home in the Okanagan, first tried crystal meth at the age of 12, and by the age of 17 was an IV drug user who lived on the Downtown Eastside. She turned to crime to support her habit, and was homeless and street entrenched.
“I didn’t know any other way of life,” she said. “That eight block radius of the Downtown Eastside was my only comfort zone.”
She met her partner, who had been on the DTES for 15 years, and they determined to “better” themselves. After she got pregnant, she did she get clean, through Narcotics Anonymous and a 12-step program.
“I worked very hard for my sobriety,” she said, and now has a three-year-old boy.
Tumold was asked what she would do if her son became an addict – would she compel him to go to a rehabilitation clinic?
She said she would be more empathetic, and understand he had to be ready, not enable him, and be consistent in his life.
“Personally, I’ve been forced by the justice system, and other people, and I tried to do it for somebody else, at one point, and it didn’t work.”
“I was ready when I was ready, and that was it.”
She added that it would also be important to keep him safe, with the plague of overdose deaths in the province, and tell him to get a Narcan kit.
“You can’t recover if you’re dead.”
The last night of the speaker series will be Nov. 9 on the topic of housing solutions.