What if we could save millions of lives?

Imagine there was a way to save millions of lives. To dramatically reduce violent crime rates. To wipe out an entire criminal industry. To rebuild communities, and reconnect people with the world. Who wouldn’t be up for that? Who could possibly stand up and say “No, I’d rather see people raped, murdered, and robbed. I’d rather see lives destroyed and whole communities living in fear.” Imagine there was a solution to all of that.

There is. It’s known. It’s been tested. It’s understood. It’s called drug legalization.

“But no,” we scream, recoiling in fear. “Drugs are dangerous. Drugs kill. Druggies will do anything for a fix. Drugs are catastrophically addictive.”

This is what the vast majority of us believe, and we don’t question the science. Which is why I was shocked to read “Chasing the Scream”, by Johann Hari. It was the first time I ever heard of the Rat Park experiments by Bruce Alexander. These experiments showed, with startling clarity, that drugs are indeed addictive to rats, if you keep rats in isolation, without any other source of stimulation. In solitary, deadingly dull confinement, rats will choose heroin over water.

But it turns out that if you keep rats in company, with things to do and plenty of food and water, rats don’t get addicted. In fact they choose not to take heroin at all, even after being forced to take it for weeks at a time – when you stop forcing them and put them back into happy, healthy surroundings, they stop taking heroin almost immediately.

This is stunning stuff that turns our understanding of drugs on its head. So it must be amazing new research, surely? Amazing yes, but new, no. This research was conducted in the 1970s. Published in 1980, and more or less buried ever since.  The results were so far outside the established dogma that funding was cut almost immediately.

In England in the 1980s and 90s, heroin was available in some areas on prescription. Crime rates fell. Addicts began to lead stable, productive lives, and many even came off heroin – all because heroin was more easily available than before. In fact in those areas total drug use went down, largely because users didn’t need to push drugs in order to be able to afford their own drugs.

According to Chasing the Scream, Dr John Marks, who prescribed heroin to his addicted patients, “expected that the news of these results would spur people across the country, and across the world, to do the same. Who would turn down a policy that saves the lives of drug users, and leads to less drug use, and causes dealers to gradually disperse?”

Instead, a conservative government shut the program down, death and crime rates shot back up, and England was back to square 1 in the drug war.

The shocking essence of the book is that it’s our increasing lack of connection that drives our relationship with psychoactive substances of all kinds. Our desperate drive for stuff fails to fill the void, and drugs, including alcohol, ease the pain. Increasing connection by providing support, care, and a place in society, decreases addiction reliably and consistently. And our war on drugs is guaranteed to sever the very relationships we need to strengthen if we’re to beat drugs.

When outcomes are measured consistently and you combine harm to users with harm to others, our easily available legal drug, alcohol, is one of the most dangerous drugs we have. Far worse than marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and even LSD. Most of the catastrophic harm that we know drugs cause is actually a direct result of prohibition rather than the drugs themselves. I won’t convince anyone of that in one short blog, but I urge you to go and read the book for yourself. Also check out Bruce Alexander’s work on the Rat Park.

Research and practical experience has shown time and again that we can win the war on drugs simply by ceasing to fight it. The monstrous enemy we believe drugs to be is entirely a construct of our political system. It bears no resemblance to objective reality. And yet here in Australia we seem unable to allow even medicinal use of cannabis.

In a sense this revelation ties in with our attitude to climate change. We have a problem that is of catastrophic proportions. The science is in. We know how to fix it. But our politicians aren’t listening to the science. They are hostage to the fearful monsters in their own heads. But the more we talk about it, the more we question the things we used to know were true, the more chance there is that the world will finally become a more compassionate and rational place.

So go read Chasing the Scream. And next time the conversation turns to drugs, drop some facts into the conversation. Who knows what you might accomplish?


Where’s your village?

“Year 12 farewell assembly. The tradition is they walk up the middle stairs while staff form a kind of honour guard. One student was hanging back and I wasn’t sure why. Then his friend arrived who has a knee injury and can’t handle stairs. He was waiting for her, and he piggy backed her all the way up. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my school!”

On average my facebook posts probably gather 5 likes each. Even the cute pictures of sugar gliders get maybe 10 or so likes. But this post, by the end of a single day, had 44 likes. This story resonates. People go “awww! That’s beautiful!” There is something about people looking out for each other, going a little further to help each other out, and quietly being there for each other, that speaks directly to our hearts.

Do you know why? I think it’s because we know it’s missing from our lives most of the time. In general we live incredibly isolated lives. It’s not that we don’t have friends – most of us do. But we don’t see them every day. We don’t necessarily notice if we don’t speak to them for a few weeks running.  Huge upheavals can happen in their lives without us ever knowing, even though we love them very much.

I don’t believe we do any less, care any less, or love any less. We have friends, we have work, we have busy, busy lives. But what we really don’t have, most of us, is community. Many of my closest friends live 10, 20, or even thousands of kilometers away. We are pretty good at keeping in touch. We call. We email. We facebook. But we don’t live next door. We don’t always notice the pauses in the conversation that might mean something has gone badly wrong, because we are all so busy that pauses happen all the time. Packed into those pauses might be the death of a parent, an episode of depression, even an ambulance trip to the emergency room, and we might never even know.

If you ever find yourself stuck in the middle of the sea
I’ll sail the world to find you
If you ever find yourself lost in the dark and you can’t see
I’ll be the light to guide you

Find out what we’re made of
When we are called to help our friends in need
You can count on me like 1, 2, 3
I’ll be there
And I know when I need it
I can count on you like 4, 3, 2
You’ll be there
‘Cause that’s what friends are supposed to do, oh yeah

Count on me – Bruno Mars.

We don’t know our neighbours beyond a cordial chat when we happen to be getting into our cars at the same time. We certainly don’t drop by to borrow the proverbial cup of sugar. We don’t walk to school and get to know all the families on the way. We don’t shop at the local shops and know the shopkeepers’ children. We live in huge cities and commute from one side to the other for work. We shop at massive shopping centers surrounded by strangers.

George Monbiot argues that this is killing us. In our busy striving for individualism and wealth, we are losing contact with the very things that bring us the deepest satisfaction and contentment. I’m really lucky, I find many of these things at my school, with both staff and students. There is a sense of community there, beautifully exemplified by the piggy back, that fills a vast hole in my life. I can’t imagine leaving, and it breaks my heart a little each time we say goodbye to the next crop of year 12s.

But not everyone can work or study at my school. Not everyone will find their community in their workplace. And whoever we are, however introverted, however independent, we need community. We need that sense of people looking out for us, and that meaning and fulfillment that comes from looking out for others.

I think what we’ve failed to recognise is that friends are not the same as community. Community is, of necessity, a local thing. If you start to feel depressed and can’t bring yourself to call anyone, people who see you every day might notice and have the chance to help. But if your friends are all remote, they’re not likely to notice until the time between phone calls becomes obvious, which could be weeks, or even months. If you break your leg, have a sick child, or a sick parent, and you don’t call for help, community has the chance to notice because of the change in your routine.

The problem is that our cities are built in ways that actively discourage community. Our houses are getting bigger and our fences higher. Our local shopping strips are dying, to be replaced by huge, impersonal shopping centers miles away that we have to drive to. Our public transport, which at least allows us to walk through our neighbourhood on the way to and from our very remote jobs, is slow, erratic, and expensive. Everything about our town planning encourages us out of our neighbourhoods, into our cars, and away from any potential community we might otherwise build.

And the trouble is I think it takes a community to fix it.


“Studies have shown that inducing fear about the way things are, without simultaneously giving people a sense of purpose, can actually suppress their immune system – it will make them unwell.”

John-Paul Flintoff in “How to Change the World

Climate Change is a perfect storm of this kind of fear – it feels too large for us to have any impact, so it is depressing and demoralising.  But imagine if you rode to work a few times a week, or started walking to the local shops rather than driving. And imagine if that small act inspired one or two other people to try the same. And they inspired others. Suddenly you could have exponential growth in people using feet rather than cars – huge change, not just in your own network, but spreading out into the world. All from the example you set by changing your habits in a public, visible way.

In “How to Change the World,” the School of Life‘s John-Paul Flintoff points out that our every action, or inaction, does change the world. He argues convincingly that those of us who are no Gandhi or Martin Luther King nonetheless have an impact with everything we do. Sometimes we make things seem possible by showing that they can be done. Sometimes we teach people things, whether we meant to or not. Sometimes we inadvertently show people what not to do.

Perhaps, rather than being pure threat, climate change is an opportunity. Perhaps some of those things we need to do to tackle climate change – use less fossil fuels, grow more of our own food, learn ways of living more sustainably – are actually opportunities to build local communities?

I have noticed that walking to the local shops leads to lots of small conversations with local people – those tending their gardens, or checking their mail, or even getting in and out of their cars. When you are speeding through a neighbourhood doing 50kph in a big metal box, not only are conversations with people on the footpath impossible, you are most unlikely even to catch someone’s eye. On my bike, I have got to know the runner near my kids’ school. The guy who spends a lot of time in his driveway, working on his car. The gardener around the corner. The girl with a skateboard down the road. A couple of teenage boys at the local high school who like the look of our box bike. And countless others.

I don’t necessarily know their names, but they are tangible connections in an increasingly disconnected world.

One of my long held gripes with my suburban lifestyle is the lack of community. So often we step from our houses directly into our garages and then into our cars, sacrificing any opportunity to feel connected to our neighbourhood. We pick up the kids from school by driving up to the gate (or as close as we can get) and honking the horn. We are too busy and too stressed to arrange playdates for our kids, and when we do we frequently drop the kids and run, taking the opportunity to be busy, busy, busy – terribly productive, and terribly disconnected.

Perhaps this, too, is an opportunity. Perhaps I’m not the only person seeking a local community. Perhaps I’m not the only person worried about climate change and trying to live more sustainably. Perhaps I can find ways to build my own local network. Perhaps you can, too.

Someone else’s bad day

A few days ago I was buying gelato for my girls. The lady who served us seemed a touch impatient and gruff to me, but my 10 year old whispered to me “She’s really nice, and she’s pretty, too.” As the waitress handed me my change, I decided to pass this verdict on.

“Apparently the official assessment is that you’re really nice, and you’re pretty too.” The waitress blushed, and then smiled happily, thanked us and rushed off. I think she was a little embarrassed and startled – it seemed to me as though she was at the tired end of the day, and this compliment came out of the blue. As we walked off I looked back to see that she was grinning to herself as she wiped the benches.

I’ve been trying to teach my girls to see the other side of any situation. My 10 year old, especially, tends to take things extremely personally, and it’s a useful exercise to think about reasons why people say or do things that have nothing to do with us. We have a lot of conversations that run:

Miss 10: “But Mum, she bumped into me and didn’t even say sorry.”

Me: “Well, can you think of any reason she might have been distracted? Could she have been upset about something else?

Miss 10: “Um… well… I think maybe she had a fight with her best friend.”

Me: “So how might she have been feeling?”

Miss 10: “ooohhhh…the poor thing…”

And suddenly it’s not Miss 10’s fight any more. Now she’s feeling empathy rather than angst.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this and trying to apply it in my life as well. That driver who cut me off in traffic? Maybe he was rushing to his sick child’s hospital bed. The woman who shouted at me as she drove too close when I was riding my bike? Maybe she had just lost her job. The guy who pushed in front of me in the line? Maybe he has spent all day caring for his aggressive father who has dementia. The kid who didn’t give up her seat on the bus to an elderly lady? Maybe her home life is a nightmare and she is so used to escaping into her own head that she doesn’t see the people around her. The co-worker who is making your life miserable? Maybe her Mum is dying of cancer.

And praise will come to those whose kindness
leaves you without debt
and bends the shape of things to come
that haven’t happened yet.
Faster than Light, Neil Finn

We rarely know what’s going on in the lives of the people around us, especially the ones we encounter briefly at the shops or on the road. I love the expression “live each day as if it’s your last”, but I reckon it could use some work. Maybe it’s more important to “Treat everyone you meet as though they’re having a really bad day.”

What if instead of leaning on the horn and giving that rude driver the finger, we could take a deep breath and think “well, maybe the poor sod is having a really rough day,” or “I’m glad my day hasn’t been so sucky that I’m taking it out on the people around me.” Leaning on the horn and shouting, justified though it might be, could be the trigger that pushes him from “bad day” to  complete meltdown. We all have days where we’re too close to the edge, and not proud of our own behaviour. It’s much easier to judge someone else’s behaviour than to excuse it, but maybe it would make us feel better to think about the back story – what could have made someone behave that way?

What if, instead of reacting to the anger, we passed on all the compliments we think but rarely say? “I love that dress.” “I’m really impressed with the way you handled that situation.” “You look great in that suit,” “You did a really good job today,” or just “That coffee you made me was awesome.”

Maybe we can go from making those bad days worse to spreading a few more smiles. And the great thing about a smile is that it’s contagious.

Strike it lucky

I’m a teacher in the Victorian Public Education system, and I’m going on strike on Thursday.

Why would I do that?

Sure, Ted Bailieu promised to make us the best paid teachers in Australia at the last election. He is now comprehensively breaking that promise – but I only became a teacher last year, and I almost halved my salary to do so. I don’t care about the money.

What matters to me is that yet again, education is being undervalued. Sold off for parts. We are being told that if we are to get pay rises that are less than inflation, less than the cost of living, we must offset them with “productivity gains”. In Ted’s eyes, this means more contact hours. Yet I have a teaching load of 0.47 (less than half) because I am part time, and I am working myself to the limits of my endurance, and I still don’t have time to do the job properly.

How do I get more “productive” by spending more time teaching, when I don’t have time to do the preparation and marking that I should be doing, without spending countless hours at night and on weekends marking and preparing?

And don’t talk to me about the school holidays. That’s when I catch up on the marking and prep I didn’t have time to do during term. Friends of mine are leaving teaching in droves – happily giving up the school holidays in order to have a life the rest of the time.

The truth is that teaching is all consuming. And I am passionate about what I do – I wouldn’t have become a teacher otherwise. But half way through my second year and I am almost burnt out. Along comes Ted Bailieu, with an unmistakable message that education isn’t valuable, my skills aren’t worth rewarding, and I am not working hard enough.

I am incredibly fortunate to work with an amazingly talented, passionate and impressive group of young people. My colleagues amaze me every day with their talent, dedication and enthusiasm for what they do. I love my job, I love my workplace, I love my colleagues, and I adore my students. But I want a government that believes that education matters. I want a government that is willing to invest in the future of our children. And I want a government that keeps its promises. It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask.

That’s why I’m striking on Thursday.

Just being there

I recently read this powerful piece on getting through depression. Seema Duggal writes eloquently of the power of support – of her need for friends to simply be there by her side while she struggled with her illness.

” It may have been my journey, but I needed people in my ring, cheering me on as I took the punches.”

Some people suffer more than their share of trauma in life. It is exhausting to care for someone like that – there are times when simply being an observer of that kind of life can feel like too much effort. I know I have sometimes felt that way about others – and I suspect that people have often felt it about me.

We have crazy, hectic lives. We tend not to know our neighbours, or even have time to hang out in the school yard meeting other parents. We fly by the school, horn screaming, slowing down just enough for the kids to leap in before we hurtle around the corner. Or the kids go to before and afterschool care, and there aren’t any other families around at pickup time.

With extra-curricular activities, both for kids and adults, the weekends are too full for play dates or coffee. It’s all we can do to keep the wheels of life turning before we crash, exhausted into bed. We have no time or energy to expend on supporting others.

I doubt that many of us would choose to setup our lives that way, or be up front about saying that we just can’t be there for anyone else. But there is probably more truth to the description than any of us are really comfortable admitting.

Supporting people going through trauma, especially anti-social trauma like depression, is hard work. Although it doesn’t necessarily take much physical effort – regular phone calls or extra hugs aren’t so hard to provide – the emotional effort can be huge. Yet the curious thing is that supporting others can actually be a way of supporting ourselves.It can make us feel connected and needed. That sense of community, of being there for each other, and knowing that there are people around you who will catch you when you fall, is increasingly absent, especially in city life.

hugging wombats

As an atheist, there is much about organised religion that I dislike, yet its power to bring people together and create communities is something that our secular society seems to have thrown out with the bath water. I don’t believe that religion is correlated with caring – there are good, caring people within and without religion all over the world. What organised religion provides is a structure around which community is easily created.

We are all quick to express our horror when tales emerge of someone dying, alone and forgotten, and not being discovered for weeks or months on end. We condemn the society that allows that to happen. Yet we are all complicit in maintaining exactly that sort of society, as we hurtle through our busy lives.

I don’t know what the answer is for society as a whole. I suspect it will take a radical lifestyle shift to change things, and whether that is even possible is more than I know. On a personal level, though, there is more we can all do to reach out to the people around us. To make time for phone calls and coffee. To ask for help when we need it – no easy task – and to step up when the people we care about are struggling.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by someone else’s trauma, and be paralysed into doing nothing. Sometimes that first step of reaching out can feel like jumping off a cliff – risking rejection, or being seen as interfering – but the rewards can be incredible. Some of the greatest friendships in my life have arisen from the fire and ashes of the worst times. Sometimes I have reached out to others, and sometimes they have reached out to me. Either way the bonds forged will last a lifetime.

Who have you reached out to lately?

Getting in touch

“You touch me down
Down to my soul”

I recently overheard an experienced educator advising a teacher-in-training that she should never touch a student, for any reason. Just to be legally safe. I was horrified. Fortunately, further research showed that the situation is not quite so dire. The Victorian Institute of Teaching, for example, suggests that touching to “comfort, guide or acknowledge the student” is appropriate.

I find it interesting, however, that the default advice was “just don’t do it – it’s not safe.” It didn’t come as quite the surprise it might have, either, because several times I have touched students on the shoulder in class, and they have almost flinched from the contact – they clearly find it strange and unusual. On Thursday I bumped into a student accidentally, and his friends were jokingly advising him to sue for assault. This is the climate we have created for ourselves – where touch is unusual, unexpected, alarming, and possibly culpable.

There are acres of research studies proving the benefits of touch. Premature babies used to be carefully sequestered in sealed humidicribs, only touched via rubber gloves and medical appliances, until some bright spark discovered something that many parents instinctively know – babies need to be touched. Desperately ill babies improved dramatically with kangaroo care, where babies are held skin to skin with their parents. Kangaroo care increases survival rates, lowers rates of infection, as well as reducing serious illnesses. It also reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Touch therapy, in the form of massage, has been shown to decrease pain, increase mood, and increase the body’s cancer-fighting cells (natural killer cells and lymphocytes) in women with breast cancer.  In other studies it has been shown to improve immune response and lower stress and blood pressure in healthy adults.

We need touch. We are social, tactile beings who reinforce our relationships and our very health by physically connecting with each other. True, there are times and ways of touching that are inappropriate, but in avoiding touch altogether we do more than throw the baby out with the bathwater – we’re actively wounding ourselves, and our society.

“You wake me up speaking dreams of dawn
I reach and touch the fine lines time has born
For all the world I wouldn’t change my place
Your mixed up tears falling on my face

You touch me down
You touch me down
Down to my soul
Down to my soul” —  Paul Kelly

I am a very tactile person, and I’ve long been aware of the importance of touch in my life. I am huggy with my friends, and have been known to seek (or even beg for) hugs when under stress. Yet despite my awareness of the power of touch, I find it difficult to bridge that gap with new people, where rules are not yet established. It’s always difficult to ask for that first hug. Worse, though, is the situation for men, who may never ask – especially in the workplace – for fear of being guilty of sexual harassment.

We seem to have allowed ourselves to become terrified of touch. We keep our distance from each other on public transport. We refrain from anything more than a handshake in the workplace. We keep ourselves tightly to ourselves. Yet children instinctively understand the importance of touch, and they seek it often, particularly under stress. They fly like homing birds to their parents, and fling themselves into our arms – and it makes everything better.  To quote a Baby Blues cartoon: “500 years of medicine and they still haven’t topped the hug.”

We train kids out of touch, just as we are training our society out of it. And we are immeasurably poorer, and demonstrably sicker, as a result. Feeling a little under the weather? Reach out and touch somebody.