Committed to Change
For days now we've been visiting slums and brothels. It is incredibly difficult to witness such crippling examples of human life. Sadly, India's impoverished population is only one example of a mass global issue that desperately needs to be addressed. Poverty, hunger, dehydration, AIDS, and death exist everywhere! Millions and millions of people are living each day of their lives simply trying to survive. I've done a lot of yoga, breathing, and praying in the attempt to stay present and non-reactive, but this morning I just feel like shit. So many emotions are arising within me, and I feel agitated and uncomfortable in my own skin. I know I need to be honest instead of repressing my feelings. I know that repressed emotions have a way of surfacing in reactive, thoughtless, or self-destructive ways, so it's important to give them a voice (they are living rent-free in my head anyway, as Ashley likes to say). So here's what's on my mind:
Today, I woke and felt anger and sadness toward a system that allows its people to live in continued squalor with no evidence of relief in sight (this feeling is not directed at India alone, this is a global reflection, as most countries in this world, including America, don't focus on helping the impoverished and sick). I feel a boiling rage toward a world that chooses to put its considerable money and energy into manifesting more violence rather than contributing to peace. When so many of our brothers and sisters are dying everyday unnoticed, unrecognized, alone in the streets they call home, I feel a deep shame because I know that we have turned our back on them.
I'm feeling frustrated by my own spiritual beliefs, and confusion towards the teachers who have provided me wisdom. They have taught me that we are all one, unified, and connected. I understand the law of Karma, and that all beings have their own individual lessons to learn. I get that these lessons are relevant to their unique journey and are ultimately between them and God. But I don't understand children exploited, raped, abandoned, and dying. I don't get why there are so many people starving when there is food plenty for everyone. I don't understand a governmental system that allows the AIDS crisis and poverty to continue running rampant when there are organizations in place willing to serve and educate, but can't get the necessary funding. I don't understand this same system that seems to find unlimited resources to fund man killing man. Perhaps I am not yet spiritually mature enough to separate myself from the "story" of these beings and their journey. Perhaps I am supposed to witness, with compassion and empathy, their souls' journeys, rather than their physical ones. Sorry. No can do. Try as I might to reconcile this spiritually, I don't understand when I see this level of ignorance and suffering.
I lay in bed this morning feeling helpless, confused, angry, and scared. As I meditate I and can hear my teachers in my head suggesting that maybe I'm being confronted with this to learn compassion, tolerance, and patience. I hear it, but I'm not buying it. I have compassion, but I cannot, will not, tolerate a social prejudice that allows death to overshadow life. I cannot tolerate a global ambivalence that perpetuates fear and greed having more power and influence over love. I have no patience for those of us who have the ability to make a difference, but not the willingness. This includes me. Have I done enough? Have I used my voice as well as I can? Have I really engaged myself?
I dare to demand in my prayers that God show me evidence of what true action looks like and what is necessary in order to create change!
As they often are, my prayers are answered fast and by unusual angels.
The Green Dot Program and Sanghamitra are perfect examples of how the participation of brave individuals can create a network of interpersonal and national change. It's these changes that can transform the limitations of a system and, therefore, potentially, an entire culture.
We are brought back to the main office of YouthAIDS Mumbai and led, once again, to the upper office. There are four Indian men, all peer educators and representatives for the IDU (Intravenous Drug Users) Initiative, waiting for us. They are here to share about their lives and this program. These men are all recovering drug addicts and committed to serving a population that are under-served and ostracized, and, therefore, are at a high risk for HIV/AIDS. To understand their place in the social chain, sex workers and homosexuals have more status, respect, and rights then IDUs.
As of 2004, 28 percent of IDUs in Mumbai are infected with HIV/AIDS. According to studies, only 35 percent of drug users utilize condoms and 27 percent share needles. IDUs do not have access to basic amenities like chemists and grocery shops, because of the ongoing and extreme stigmatization from pharmacists regarding this largely poor and often homeless population.
The Green Dot Program is a prevention effort that focuses on curtailing the spread of HIV/AIDS among IDUs by increasing safer injecting practices, providing education, guidance, and support, and utilizing VCT services for all of those in need, without prejudice or judgment.
The men in the room began sharing their stories with an internationally familiar greeting of "Hello, my name is . . . and I am an addict." These men are all dedicated members of Alcohol and Narcotics Anonymous and proudly practice the 12 steps in their lives. I immediately relaxed in this environment of familiarity.
Although I'm not a member of a 12-step program, I am familiar with the steps and intention of this incredible organization. AA and NA save lives. They offer hope and guidance to millions of people who suffer with the disease of drug- and alcohol-addiction. Since I have many people in my own life who struggle with addiction, I am sensitive to this program. I know that the 12 steps are the corner stone of their sobriety, so I was excited to listen to the men in this room because, although (without the help of an interpreter) I couldn't understand a word that they were saying, I knew we were speaking the same language.
Each man spoke candidly about the struggles he had overcome with drugs and alcohol and how he intended to serve and empower other addicts.
Mula shared shyly how as a young child, he was repeatedly raped by a female member of his family. This trauma, he explained, led to alcohol consumption. It became his “bridge” drug until he discovered Brown Sugar. Brown Sugar, I found out, the drug of choice for each man in the room, is a cheap and toxic form of heroin that is cut with ammonia, ash, and cow shit.
Sudheep shared that he was homeless when he was only a 9 year-old child--both of his parents had died of AIDS. He struggled to survive, living on the street, hustling and begging to feed himself and his brother. He said his life was lonely and often terrifying. He began using Brown Sugar at 13. At 21, he faced the on-going battle of sobriety after he had fallen off a moving train, losing his left arm and severely scarring his face.
The other two men came from educated, middle-class families, proving that drug addiction does not discriminate. They shared personal stories of familial abandonment, social humiliation, extreme self-hate, and the endless prayer for the salvation of death over the hell of addiction.
Each man spoke of the isolation and shame that their addictions caused them and their families. They also spoke of the unwavering gratitude they had for their recovery and the lives they now lead. Each man was committed to working with YouthAIDS as a peer educator in the Green Dot Initiative. They understood that educating, supporting, and being of service to other at-risk drug users was a necessary step in their own continued sobriety. I could see empathy in their eyes when they spoke of the other drug addicts they intended to serve, and I was glad that these men survived to tell their tales because I had no doubt that many lives would be saved as a result.