I have an exquisitely wonderful friend, Lily.*
She is missing.
I would like to tell you about Lily. She, like all of us on this earth, is special, and today I want to share her with you. I think we (me, you, that guy walking down the street) make flash judgements, dismissals about people all the time.
When we know a little more about the inside of that person, what makes them smile, what their laugh sounds like, who they love, they are harder to dismiss.
Lily used to be a nurse. She was an amazing nurse—she had compassion beyond belief. She was the kind of nurse that cares—and cares a little bit more. She has a capacity for accepting people, good and bad, like no one else I’ve met.
Lily used to own a home.
Lily taught me, personally, how to be honest. How honesty was a gift, both to myself and others, and by baring the deep dark parts of my soul, my mistakes, my shames—I would find freedom. She has been the biggest supporter of my sobriety, of my writing—and gave me permission to write about her.
She has always been of the hope that her painful experiences will be used to help others.
She loves to read. I, quite possibly, had never met anyone who could relate to me about my passion for books until I met her. She is hilarious. You know how once in a blue moon, you randomly meet someone who “gets” you—who’s sense of humour is as off the wall and weird as yours, and when you see something hilarious in life and point it out to them, they too laugh in an almost-peed-my-pants-there kind of way? (Keep those people, hang on to them for the rest of your life). She is that person to me.
Lily is beautiful. Inside and out. Stunning, in fact. And she is lost.
If I spent ten more pages exploring the many facets of Lily, I wouldn’t have touched a pinkie-toe’s-length of her glory.
She’s done this before. She has problems. Like many of the homesless people on the streets in Vancouver, Lily suffers from mental illness and addiction issues that she is struggling to get control of. . Lily has people that love her. Many of us. A mad flurry of texts and phone calls go out as we try to track her down. A hospital, if we are lucky. Somewhere maybe, she will stay put. She doesn’t seem to have any hope. She hasn’t found, as Albert Camus so eloquently put it, the “invincible summer” insider her.
I had vowed to take a break from sharing my words on the topics of addiction and mental illness. My life now encompasses so much more than my addiction—I live a life that is full and rich by any measure. Today, though, I find myself drawn back to this sad place.
We all have words to say on the importance of compassion for all, for animals, on finding our inner peace. Sometimes, with all our talk, we still ignore the struggling poor, dismiss the addicts, the shaky fellow looking for his next fix, the girl curled up on a street corner, having clearly peed her pants.
Lily was last seen staying in a shelter on East Hastings.
(Note: For those who don’t know, the downtown eastside of Vancouver is easily considered the most dangerous place in Canada and is rife with homeless people, addicts and mentally ill. It is a deeply sad and treacherous place.)
Well-known physician Gabor Mate worked as a doctor on Hastings for years and published a book called “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts”—referring to the inhabitants of the Hungry Ghost Realm in the Buddhist Wheel of Life. These inhabitants are described by Mate as “creatures with scrawny necks, small mouths, emaciated limbs, and large, bloated bellies. This is the domain of addiction, where we constantly seek something outside ourselves to curb an insatiable yearning for relief or fulfillment – desire.”
Who among us has not felt that ache to fill the void inside us?
As winter approaches, I feel blessed to see decorations come out, look forward to family gatherings, long awaited hugs, delicious meals, fireplaces to cozy up to. As I write and worry of Lily, I am thinking of all those on Hastings. In the downtown of your city. Mental illness and addiction don’t discriminate. Lily is a bright, well-educated, talented, beautiful woman, and she is out there.
People go missing on Hastings all the time.
That lady you just walked by? She once held her new-born son and gazed at him like he was a treasure beyond kingdoms.
That woman asleep against a wall? She used to run her own accounting business.
Over there, that couple with the dog? They’re only 15. These people are dismissed, ignored. The hunt for the missing ones—often ignored, dismissed. Addicts and mentally ill people can be hard to find.
It makes sense that we avoid these people, in a way—after all, they could be us. If we get close enough to know these individuals, to hear their stories, to touch them—we may just have to acknowledge how similar to ourselves they are.
They got unlucky. They got sick. They made a bad choice, and another.
But they are no less than us.
Let’s take just a moment longer to consider the folks that suffer on these cold nights and offer a hand up. A scarf. A cup of hot chocolate. A conversation. A blanket. A smile.
My heart goes out to the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver this season. To the missing. To the lost. May some of them find their way home.
“What is addiction, really? It is a sign, a signal, a symptom of distress. It is a language that tells us about a plight that must be understood.” ~ Alice Miller, Breaking Down the Wall of Silence
*Any names or identifying characteristics have been changed.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Keeley Milne
Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: kris krüg at Flickr