Grand Chief Doug Kelly is chair of the First Nations Health Council and is the Tribal Chief and President of the Sto:lo Tribal Council.
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 subject.
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 self-medicating.
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.