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I first learned about drugs in school. I grew up in suburban Raleigh, North Carolina. Drugs were never extremely visible in my community and immediate family. Thus, my first exposure to drugs was in school. A woman came to my 7th grade health class to give a presentation on “illegal substances” and their effects. She flipped through slides of pictures of people using different types of drugs. People using LSD, heroin, or cocaine; people addicted to meth, prescription pills, PCP, or MDMA; people huffing paint or eating mushrooms or smoking weed. Face after face flashed on the screen as the woman listed the potential effects of using these drugs—addiction, paranoia, heart attacks, lung cancer, brain damage, skin sores, rotting teeth, hair loss.

The faces on the screen were gaunt and hollow and sickly. They looked like skeletons for whom life had already ended. Their pictures looked like mugshots. The woman spoke about these people as if they were dangerous criminals; as if their skin peeling off or their teeth falling out was a punishment for some crime they had committed. This presentation also lacked any discussion of the systemic factors contributing to drug use. Thus, I came away with the idea that drug users were largely in control of their situations, and that the decision to use drugs is as simple as just saying yes or no. When the presentation was over, I felt, as I was intended to feel, terrified. I was not scared of becoming addicted to drugs or even of the drugs themselves. I was scared of the people on the screen—the people who seemed to have lost their humanity in a pill or a needle or a pipe.

As I kept learning, particularly at Duke, I began to think about drugs in different ways. I learned about some of the societal factors contributing to drug use. I learned about drugs and poverty, drugs and HIV, drugs and sex trafficking, drugs and mental health. My once simple idea of drug use began to take on complexity. I realized that the decision to use drugs is not always as simple as just saying yes or no. Still, however, I was thinking about drugs on an extremely large scale. I wasn’t thinking about individual stories or lives.

This week at Larkin Street, I met and interacted with someone on meth for the first time. A client came in and sat down next to me and a couple other interns. When we asked him how he was doing, he replied with, “I’m really coming down right now.” After a few minutes of silence, he looked up and started talking. What he said completely caught me off guard. He talked about his mom and his family, his struggle with drug use and addiction. He talked about feeling overwhelmed by what he saw on the streets of his neighborhood: young children using drugs, fights and violence, extreme poverty. What startled me the most was the way he described what it feels like to come down after being high. He said, “It’s a crazy feeling: to be numb and then to have nerves again, to feel the pain rush into your body all at once.” After a while, he stopped talking and asked for something to eat. The cook brought him a bowl with four hard-boiled eggs, which he began to peel gently, methodically. I sat and watched him peel each egg, unable to look away.

This moment has really stuck with me. It completely challenged my idea of what drugs are and who drug users are. This young man didn’t look like any of the people in my middle school presentation. He was self-reflective and sensitive, his words reflecting a deep consciousness of himself and the world around him. The people in the presentation slides looked like they had lost their humanity, but this boy was speaking so clearly and poetically about some of the most human experiences—pain, love, loss, empathy, temptation. This client’s story echoed some of what I have learned at Duke, but it was so real, so human in a way that none of my lectures have been.

This moment taught me that there are things I cannot learn in a classroom. It is easy to feel like Duke is a place where I can learn anything. In some senses, it is. Duke has an abundance of both knowledge and resources to pursue it. There is so much I have learned at Duke and so much more I can learn there. This moment, however, showed me that there are some things I could not possibly learn in a classroom. It is one thing to listen to a lecture about homelessness or read an article about drug use in low-income communities. It is another thing entirely to actually meet homeless people using drugs in a low-income community, to watch the way they carry themselves, to listen to them speak about their own lives.

This moment reminded me how much I don’t know yet and how much I might never know. It taught me that the world does not always look the way I may have expected. Drug use may not look like a scary face in a mugshot, but like a boy with a sleepy smile sitting at a table, quietly peeling the shell of a hard-boiled egg in small, white pieces.