An introductory talk for my project involving fellow homeless people.
Part One: The Cage and the Playground.
Well, first I was in the Shelter. And what I got was Pills & Prayer.
You know the routine: if you’re anxious, or have anything wrong with you, they give you some pills. And if you take too many pills, or smoke pot, or drink a little, they tell you that you are an addict, and you should find your Higher Power, and pray. And if you pray too much, or to a Higher Power that's too much different than William G. Wilson's superego, or talk about mysticism … well, you’re cray-cray and should be taking some more pills. And so on.
And in the House, we had meetings. [Redacted] would flash his grillz, and lay down the law, and talk about whatever crimes were being committed and threaten dire repercussions, and we’d dish on each other on what assholes everyone else was, and that was that. Mostly the crime was that people were using the NA/AA meeting as a chance to hang out after hours and drink coffee and schmooze. Since I was using that time to a) catch up on my reading assignments, b) enjoy the pleasures of The Swamp, my personal homello/playpen, and/or c) get a few extra zzz’s, I thought this was kind of redundant.
And then, I got into Scattered Sites, and got a whole place to myself, and...
I thought: “Hot DAMN! I’m going to have an apartment! I’m going to be able to get up when I can, and sleep when I want to, and eat and have a bed and a kitchen table…”
“And we’ve got a Tenant’s Group….”
Now, this is how I thought of a Tenant’s Group: In a shelter, you don’t have much of a life. What life you have is dictated to you: you get home at such and such a time, you eat, sleep, and go to the showers, and mostly, you don’t have to worry about things like budgeting food, buying appropriate clothing…heck, if you’re in a day program, you don’t have to think at all!
So, I figured that this would be the kind of thing we’d talk about at a Tenant’s group. What you need to set up housekeeping: how many sheets, how many towels, how many pots and pans and cutlery. How to plan and cook and eat healthy meals given SNAP. Clothes, selecting them, buying them, cleaning them. Getting furniture that makes your flat look less like a dorm and more like somewhere you’re going to spend the rest of your life. Getting back on your feet. Getting free of institutions, and making a real life.
So I asked them "What do you DO at these meetings?" thinking that it would be a good place to exchange notes on how to keep an apartment, housekeeping, general stuff, and I was told, "Well last month we had a speaker."
"Who spoke about what?"
"Recovery." Now this sounded like Pills & Prayer, and I was confident I didn't need more of that, so I asked.
"And what are you going to do the next time we get together?"
"Oh, we were thinking it could be a carnival theme, you know, with games? And a cookout."
Well, yeah, it was Memorial Day weekend, and truth to tell, it looked like every charity in town was giving hot dogs and hamburgers for the needy that weekend, and I really didn't need any more hot dogs. So I decided that it just wasn't for me. So I went on for another six months and asked again what they were up to.
"Oh, arts and crafts. And we had Tenant’s Rights bingo."
And I said, “That’s exciting! Are we going to form a collective and sell our works on the Net? But this bingo thing…do they think we’re kids?"
And I got a nice note, which told me that many Tenants were drug-dependent, and that an hour spent doing anything other than dosing was a major victory for them, blah, blah, blah, and I’ve printed it out, right here. We've found that gaming things is good to keep peoples' interest...blahblah...(In other words, yes, you are stupid children.)... The content of each meeting is set by individual caseworkers, who are each teaching what they think is best…in other words, you're going to have to look elsewhere for guidance, and well, we’re just going to keep on keeping on, thankyouverymuch. Meanwhile, we think it would be important for you if you considered joining a homeless persons' group, whether this one or a day program....
Now I can appreciate that there are people out there who will say that recovery and/or therapy comes first, last, and always with homeless, or near homeless people. Encouraging dependance on institutions and group activity isn't warehousing people, it's more like safely confining an animal in a zoo, as opposed to letting them stray in the wild, where there are predators and poachers and natural hazards as well. They’re not smart like you, teleny. They don’t have your strong will. They just…can’t. And there are laws that you have to teach recovery (Which is a cock-and-bull story, it’s just that that’s where the grant money is.) And you, yourself, have certainly read studies as to how it always works for those who work the program. (Another cock and bull, again, it works about as well as not doing anything at all.) And, teleny, don’t you think it would be good if some people, who may not have heard of the program, could be so educated? It saves lives! (Cock! Bull!)
So I was out of luck.
Well, life in a cage may be safe, but it's not, as researchers have found, altogether healthy, for man nor beast. I'm sure you've heard of those experiments where they put an IV needle into a rat, put him into a cage, and let him have drugs (specifically morphine) on call, and the rat stopped eating and drinking water, and it died. Here’s a picture.
When this experiment was run, everyone nodded: after all, this is how drug policy has been run for over a century. Give people access to addictive drugs, and they’ll use them. Inevitably, use turns to excess, excess turns to dependence, and dependence leads to death.
But is this really fair? One researcher examined the evidence. Not everyone who’s been given painkillers in the hospital comes out addicted — most people would much rather be back at work than lying on the sofa staring at their feet. What if the rats that were given morphine were actually not being given optimal lives, but were being slowly tortured to death, through monotonous food, isolation, lack of exercise, constant light and lack of stimulation. What if a rat were given a chance to live in a more natural setting?
And so they gave rats a chance to live in a rat playground, with plenty of things to play with, bedding to nest in, a variety of foods, and other rats around. They could run around on the little wheel for exercise, hide in boxes or cans, investigate smells and changes in their environment. Instead of a plain grey wall, there was a mural of grass and trees against a blue sky. They called it Rat Park. Half the rats got to live in the park. The other half got to live in cages.
The first thing they found out is that, without the IV drips, it took a great deal of persuading to get the rats to take the morphine, which they gave them in gravity bottles just like their water. Rats like sugar, and dislike anything bitter, which morphine, like every other opiate, just is. So they had to give it to them in sugar syrup. To make sure that there wasn’t any peer pressure, they put the water and the morphine gravity bottles side-by-side in a little alcove so the rats couldn’t see what the other rats were having. (More on this later.) Soon both groups were using the morphine bottles, with one interesting difference: the Park rats were using them hardly at all, and the cage rats were slurping it down as fast as their little throats could drink it.
Statistically speaking, the rats in the cages used twenty times more morphine than park rats. Even when they switched half the cage rats with the park rats, the park rats took more dope when they were in the cages. They put junkie rats in the park, and they may have shivered and sniffled a lot, but they cut back their drug use in order to play and live and love in Rat Park. Three female rats who’d been in cages died of dehydration since they’d come to associate the gravity bottle with morphine. You can almost hear them sigh "No more, no way. I’ve had enough. Let me die happy."
Think about this for awhile.
Rats don’t have Higher Powers. They don’t have meetings, and they don’t write journals. They don’t go to rat coffee houses where they read angsty rat poetry about living in a rat’s nest. They don’t take moral inventories, make amends, or try to persuade other rats to quit. They don’t set up rat rehab and they don’t have rat counselors. The park rats weren't some breed of saintly super-rats that were any more or less sensitive or spiritual or different than any other rats. The cage rats weren't some kind of grandiose, puffed-up prideful rat (as far as we know) whose self-will ran riot. The cage-turned-park rats simply wanted to quit, and some wanted to quit more than life itself. What was telling them to quit, was the need for survival. What was telling them to use was a harsh, unnatural environment. And there’s something else.
Think about your average single urban apartment. It has a couch, which answers for a bed, a seat, a shared seat for guests, if you have any. Which faces a TV, which is seldom, if ever off. Between the two is a coffee table, which does duty for a table on which to eat meals and hold the ashtray. There’s a kitchen, which has a microwave and a refrigerator, filled with textureless and flavorless frozen and ready-to-eat meals. A bathroom, that makes little effort towards anything but mere function. Somewhere, there is a pile of clothing. The window shades are completely down, 24/7, and if you have A/C, you never open a window, winter or summer. You don’t know your neighbors, and cringe at the idea that they might know anything about you. The only people you associate with are people who are just like you.
Sounds awfully like living in a cage to me.
Tell me, would you really like to come home to a cage every night?
Or to a playground? Or a park?
How about coming home to a place that it’s a joy to live in, where you can play and relax and even work on projects, that’s clean and open and fresh? Someplace you’re proud to show off to your friends, that energizes and inspires you to look forward to tomorrow?
Well, the way towards living in a park is to live mindfully, and the ways to do that are called life skills. I'd like to try to have a SIG to explore these skills, and I've broken the subject down into nine parts, as you can see in the handout. We're going to be working from some of the best experts I can find, and trying to find people who can lecture, and even do field trips.
At which time I can hear your objections:
I don’t have the money.
I don’t have the time.
I don’t have the energy to keep house.
I grew up in a place like that, it’s not all that bad.
I am resisting your white, middle-class culture and substituting my own.
None of my friends live any other way, they’d be jealous.
Neighbors? They’re all crazies and thieves! I need a dog, a gun….
Listen, it would be all OK if I could just get my head on straight. Call me in six months, I think I could deal with this if…
You don’t need to tell me it's been rough. I dealt with living with a crack whore, a guy on benzos, and several junkies, who all stole from me, and could only think about getting more money out of me, all at once. Also, I had a kinked small intestine, and was trying to take care of a pregnant cat. I beat crack, antidepressants, pot, opiates, and I don’t smoke. Sure, I’m fat. I'm also autistic. Big deal. So, you want to talk about your problems? Fine. But if you want to make your life better, and not just the same way, sign up and we’ll try to make a go at it.
We are not clients. We are students. We’ve been schooled by life, and we’re studying living. Our aim is not to stay where we are, but to graduate to autonomy and freedom, and the more you learn, the more freedom and fun you can have. As one of my mentors, Q, of the Star Trek Universe, once said,”It’s not safe out here! It’s wondrous…with pleasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross…but it’s not for the timid!”
Fasten your seat belts, please. We’re in for a wild ride. Are you in?
Are you in?
Are you in?