As I walked into the grocery store this weekend, I came upon a group of women gathered around a woman who lay on the ground. She was mumbling and shaking a little. It didn’t look good.
I’ve seen two people have seizures, and witnessed a few other emergencies. I don’t like this, seeing someone at an awful, if not the worst, moment in their life. But, at the same time, I’ve been helped out of some dark corners, am trained to respond to emergencies and can’t or don't walk away. In the pain, in the confusion, in the reptile-brain, or stupor—there is a human in there, hoping and trying to be better than the presenting symptoms.
One lady had her phone out and was calling for an ambulance. I crouched down to talk to the woman on the ground. She didn’t seem to hear me, or notice that I was there. I didn’t want to touch her, not knowing if she’d seized or was going to get violent out of hallucinations or fear or nausea.
A plastic bag lay near her on the ground, with a Pepsi bottle poking out. Water, of course, would have been better, but I pulled the bottle out and offered it to the woman. She tried to drink and flailing, missed her mouth completely and sloshed the soda into her hair, before falling back to the ground and mumbling about being in pain and needing to get to a psych hospital.
Five of us stood and knelt in a ring around her, shielding her as much as we could to save a little dignity. Another woman arrived, announcing she was a nurse, and stepped right in, finding a paper bag for a pillow, rubbing the downed woman’s back, calling her “sweetheart” and promising that help was on the way. With her other hand, she dug into the plastic bag and pulled out a mostly empty bottle of gin.
I was impressed that the tenor of our ad hoc response team didn’t change. There was no talk of how she’d brought this on herself, no blame, just steady empathy at how awful a situation it must be, how sad it would be to be so incapacitated by an addiction, how frightening it would be to live a life that leaves you semi-conscious in the care of strangers.
The ambulance arrived and we dispersed. The nurse talked to the ambulance, the woman with the phone left, another lady went home to nurse her baby after raising her eyebrow at me and saying: “interesting that only women stopped, eh?”
Not quite true—one homeless-seeming man stopped to tell us how to get to the nearest shelter, and what time to get there by—but maybe women are more empathetically responsive, or just more apt to go to the grocery store that day.
I had started off my errands that afternoon feeling the slight traces of smug that come with biking to the grocery store. That morning, I’d finally and proudly bolted carrier baskets to my bike and so felt like a capable one-woman station wagon loading up with organic milk and beets and kale and yogurt.
I am trying to, one choice at a time, break from my participation in our cultural addiction to fossil fuels.
To see someone, laid so clearly low by addiction and tenacious demons, humbled me—how lucky I am to have these choices to make, to be free from biochemical imbalances and aggressive psychological turmoil—but also reinforced my thinking of climate change in terms of a chemical addiction.
I am not the only to think this. I watched Bill McKibben’s uplifting and clarifying sermon “God’s Taunt” and heard of his experiences in that church with addicts and sheltering the homeless. (Take the 20 minutes and watch the whole thing.) He points out how little difference there is between a drug addict needing their fix and the fossil fuel industry’s addiction to profits, regardless of the harm their disease causes others, causes the planet we all live and the society that touches us all.
I’ll go one step farther to say I believe that we normal folk are also dangerous and sad addicts. Examine our fossil fuel dependent lifestyle, our lashing out at anyone who suggests perhaps we are killing ourselves, destroying our lives and the lives of our loved ones, with this insatiable hunger, this miserable selfishness, and so on. Certainly, those who profit from this destruction are horrible—but they are predatory drug dealers, we are the addicts. They need censure, we need help.
Addiction scares me. The loss of being able to be fully independent, to make choices based on what the demons demand, not on the best intentions of our hearts. But, having lived in a terrible pattern for so long, we do not know anything else and to leave the security—even the sad and toxic security of addiction—is enormously hard to contemplate, to undertake.
It sounds familiar. I think of the patterns of normal life in America. We are indoctrinated with “needs,” with expectation of what to do, what we should do, how we should live, what a good life and success look like. There are a lot of Joneses to keep up with, veneers and structures to maintain, and we are—as per The Lorax—bent always on biggering and biggering. To grow, to expand, we require more resources, we need more electricity for all the new technologies we need, we need bigger cars and houses, we need more plastic devices filled with precious metals mined in horrific conditions, we need to go everywhere—farther, faster, frequently—at the drop of a hat. I could go on, but you know the limits that you are reaching for which you find silly, superfluous.
And yet, we all keep on, drinking the Kool-Aid, building up our tolerance of this lifestyle until we are so stepped in oil so far that, should we wade no more, returning were so tedious as to go over, to borrow from Macbeth in his bloody, deadly quest for security and satisfaction.
I think that’s how we view this sometimes. That, basically, we and our beautiful earth are beyond salvage, so what is the point of trying to change our life now? We’re in too deep to get back out, so may just ride through with the status quo until the nearing end. The planet is heating up, the land is eroding, the weather is terrifyingly erratic, the seas are rising, homelands are disappearing, species are going extinct, and so, we’ve lost, so let’s just make ourselves comfortable and go resignedly into this good-enough-for-gloomy-addicts night.
I will not go this way.
I will not go this way.
The most recent IPCC report about climate change, I think, puts us humans pretty squarely on the ground with the lady outside the grocery store—we are almost overcome by our addictions and seem to teeter on the brink of unhappy self-destruction.
And so, what do we do? The self-depreciating thing to do here is to say that I don’t know. That I am as overwhelmed and addicted as the next person. And parts of that are true. But there are things that I do know we can do, the things that are working for me in trying to make mental and physical breaks with the substances and systems that seek to shape my life. These may not be right choices for you, but it'd be cruel to not share my budding solutions for how to live clean. Namely, pare down to what you truly need in your life—own only what is useful and/or beautiful to you. Reshuffle your life priorities so you can spend the most time on the parts of your life that bring the greatest joy, satisfaction, and sense of happy efficacy. Develop an allergic reaction to bullshit. Enjoy your paid work, but do not let it rule your life, lest you come to resent your passion. Be kind. Open your eyes to what is possible, and do not resent what is, even as you work to bring what is possible to life. Trying to do and doing these things brings me joy, allows me to be hopeful about the future of the world, to forge merrily into the bleak facts and imagine something better.
There is so much more, so many more ways to beat this addiction. We humans are extraordinary at pulling together in times of crisis. This is a crisis. Pull. We are better than our addictions and our demons, but we must help each other get out of this pattern, solve this problem we know in our bones we have.