De-radicalizing Compassion

Courtney Peters

An interesting thing has happened since I began my journey in Harm Reduction: people have called me “compassionate” more than ever before. When I tell people what I do or what I am in school for, when I tell them that ten years from now I hope to see a completely new society for drug users, both active and nonactive, when I tell them that I’m on a mission to normalize harm reduction and make others understand that the word “recovery” can mean any step toward a healthier and happier self, I am met with such wide eyes and appreciation, I’m met with “you are such a compassionate person.”

And that, to me, is confusing. I don’t think that the assertion is necessarily wrong, I am a compassionate person. The dictionary.com definition for compassion is “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering,” and if that does not describe me, I don’t know what else does. I could even be considered compassionate to a fault. If you tried to light me on fire, I’d make sure you didn’t burn yourself with the match. So yes, I do have a deep sympathy for the misfortunate, and I do have a strong desire to alleviate any suffering. However, why is this highlighted by my work in harm reduction?

For as long as I can remember, I have been helping people and animals alike. I have been rescuing wild animals (much to my very patient mother’s dismay), I have been volunteering with soup kitchens, clothing drives, animal shelters, anything. And this was all considered very nice, but never earned the label of compassionate. It was just “she is just a nice girl,” so what is the difference now? Why, all of the sudden, am I the most heroic, compassionate person? The only logical reason I can surmise is that we call people “compassionate” for doing what we otherwise would not want to do.  Because, let’s be honest, not everyone likes the idea of helping active drug users. Harm reduction has become a seemingly hot topic in the wake of the opioid crisis, call it a last act, call it a wakeup call, call it desperation: it has never been trendier to volunteer for a syringe exchange or to handout Narcan. But that still doesn’t mean that every person wants to do it, everyone just wants to make sure someone is.

But the fact that my compassion is not contingent on someone else’s sobriety is troubling, at best. To perpetrate the narrative that active users are less deserving of humanity or “compassion” is it perpetuate the narrative that active users are less than people. In direct contrast to that, the people I meet on a daily basis through syringe exchange are, not surprisingly, the most humble, appreciative, normal people I have ever met. And even if they weren’t, why does it matter? I can assure you as a broke college student who has had a job in customer service for the last seven years, a large portion of my customers have not been humble, appreciative, or normal. In fact, I have been called some terrible things over a large popcorn.

It seems odd to me that I would be titled a good person when helping the best people I know. To be seen as, finally, a giving human being for deciding to do work that otherwise perhaps you would not want to do seems, in the context of harm reduction, to highlight perhaps the underlying issue that people don’t necessarily understand or want to understand drug users. If we’re being honest, working in harm reduction is the easiest job I have had. Nothing has ever come so natural to me and I have never doubted why I do this, it seems more challenging to me to imagine why someone would want to be a high school math teacher.

My entire mission from the beginning of this has been the break the notion that active drug users are anything except for worthy members of their society. Hardly anyone blinks an eye at the fact that I drink too much wine even if I have an 8am meeting, further more, since beginning my work I have met the hardest workers, the most consistent communicators, and the most understanding friends. My mental illness alone makes me more a liability than the people in my community: and that has nothing to do with a stigmatized or illicit substance. My job will be done with it is recognized that drug users are people, not problems. I will retire and rest easy when my community and coworkers are seen as the experts of their own health and their needs. Until then, do not consider me compassionate, consider me human.

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