What I Learned Living in a Filipino Slum for Six Years: Our Toxic Relationship With Drugs

einstein*Names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.

James* is two years old. Or three. No-one’s quite sure. Like many kids in the area he doesn’t know how old he is. While most of us will celebrate our birthdays every year as a milestone, a way to look back at the year and make plans for the next, James doesn’t know what a birthday is. Many kids here don’t.

James is scrawny and stunted. He’s about the same height as a typical one year old. Most of the time, though, he’s running around the streets by himself. He emerges from a tiny shack made of wood, no bigger than the smallest room of a ‘normal’ house, where his entire family sleep. He wears a t-shirt that’s too big for him, nothing else. And that’s if he’s wearing anything at all. He’s often just completely naked and dirty and wandering around.

His slightly rounded cheeks betray a stick-thin figure, the result of chronic malnourishment. His physical condition pales in comparison to the mental malnourishment that comes from this combination of poor nutrition, poor hygiene, and constant negative attention creating an awful environment for James… and others. He learns every day that the only way to get attention – something every child desperately needs and craves – is to break something, to hurt someone, to do something wrong. He learns from day one, that bad is good.

No-one around him thinks this is unusual. They know that his parents have to work, scavenging through piles of someone else’s trash so that they can eat a meal that day. A meal of rice with fish sauce, soy sauce, or if they’re lucky a piece of meat they found int he trash discarded by someone at a restaurant or out of date from the supermarket. Everyone knows why James is dirty, naked, and wandering around the street by himself. They know why the other kids are too.

So what do we do about a problem like James? What happens to him and the thousands of kids like him? There are answers… it just takes a lot of learning to get there.

Lesson One: Understanding the Environment of Poverty, it’s as Toxic as the Trash

One study about Payatas, the home of the largest dumpsite in the Philippines and what Payatas is mostly known for, measured the human development index in the area (Regalario, 2002). The human development index is a rough measure of overall development, it includes life expectancy, education, and income per capita. With a score of 0.4179, if Payatas was a country it would rank 180 out of 189 in the world. It is one of the largest and poorest slums in the Philippines and you can expect that many slums here have similar conditions. Meanwhile the Philippines nationally scored 0.74 back then. It is now ranked 115th in the world, an average score labelled as ‘medium development’.

A child born just a few kilometres away from a Filipino slum will be in the Middle Class of the world. They will have enough food, enough shelter, enough education… not great, but they will have enough. Their worries will be about what their friends think are cool – not if they will eat that day. Their childhood will be spent with toys, games, and trips – not spent by the time they’re 4 years old. Their time will be spent doing things which collects trash to be thrown away – not spent scavenging through that trash to find something to sell, recycle, or even eat.

And yet just because of the environment James was born in, that’s what awaits him.

this is where your trash goes 2.1.pngLiving in poverty is stressful. If you haven’t truly lived through poverty you cannot understand how that feels. That includes me. One study found that the stress of living in poverty is the equivalent of losing 13 IQ points. For a better measure that’s the difference between you as a normal person and you if you became a chronic alcoholic, or if you went all night without sleeping. The feeling of having pulled an all-nighter is something we can relate to. So imagine living every day feeling like that. Remember the last time you pulled an all-nighter. Remember the feeling of being overwhelmingly tired but needing to finish something – whether it was for school, for work, or anything else. Remember how easily you were annoyed, frustrated, or just wanted to give up. Remember how difficult it was to think straight and how easily you snapped. Remember the food you craved and ate. And now imagine that this is how you feel for the rest of your life. Double your workload, go through the day as if you haven’t slept, and do it all while being looked down on and insulted by the rest of society, and you have a small glimpse of what living in poverty is like.

In positive psychology (check out one of my favourite TED talks by Shawn Achor for an intro to the Happiness Advantage), the Losada Line shows that for any positive environment to grow there must be 3 positive experiences for every 1 negative experience. Minimum. Anything below this line becomes a toxic environment; whether in business, school, or the home. Among other things, and based on other factors of course, it isn’t a supportive environment any more and a negative mindset takes root. So here’s the crucial point: if you were in their situation you would almost certainly make the same decisions. It’s not their place in the world, it’s not their station in life, it’s what they are like when forced to live in this environment. It’s toxic. And like anything toxic it doesn’t discriminate. Whoever is there will be affected by the toxic environment, anyone breathing the toxic air is affected. Right now, that’s James.

What will happen to James? It’s a fairly simple question to answer as for the vast majority of people born in this situation he will most likely follow in his parents’ footsteps: becoming addicted to drugs, burnout, and if he lives to mature adulthood restart the cycle with his own kids.

Lesson Two: What Determines Who Becomes an Addict and Who Doesn’t Isn’t About Drugs, it’s About Their Environment

People take drugs for many different reasons. Most drug users, however, are casual users, whether that’s alcohol, cigarettes, or ‘harder’ drugs. What separates those who can handle their drink or the casual smoker to the alcoholic or chain smoker is often why they drink or smoke. Street kids often sniff glue, for example, because it dulls hunger pangs and other senses for a time, allowing them to escape their reality. A big part of addiction is how addicts feel they need the drug, and that need usually comes from a need to escape their environment, whether that’s hunger, loneliness, or a lack of purpose.

rat park.jpgAnother study sums this up rather well. Rats were placed in Skinner Boxes to study their reaction to drugs (left). Rats could press a lever to have the drug under study injected into their system. They did this so often most of the rats overdosed and died. It was hailed as conclusive evidence of the addictive nature and dangers of drugs.

Soon after, though, it became clear that wasn’t the whole picture. Other researchers figured that a lonely, tiny cage where you could barely move was not a particularly nice environment. The researchers instead made a better environment, Rat Park, where rats could run around, eat well, and interact with other rats. There they found the rats didn’t take to drugs. And when they placed the previously addicted rates in rat park, they showed withdrawal symptoms and gradually weaned themselves off.

Sound a bit ridiculous? That’s for rats, right? People are very different. But there is a kind of natural experiment for this too. During the Vietnam War nearly 20% of US soldiers in Vietnam became heroin addicts. It’s not difficult to figure out why people under the stress of war would resort to drugs to escape.

So the USA was naturally worried about what would happen when literally thousands of heroin addicts returned to the USA? For the most part, though, nothing happened. 95% of those addicted in Vietnam effectively stopped taking heroin overnight. Again because the drug isn’t the problem, the environment is. When the environment changed, when their stress and the cause of their fear, anxiety, and most of their problems disappeared, so did their need for heroin. You can read more about that here.

Most of all I would recommend this great TED talk about the whole issue. It sculpts together the problem with how we think about drugs and addiction, how the ‘War on Drugs’ has only made things worse in the long-run.

Here Johann Hari shares the example of Portugal. Being ‘tough on drugs’ led to a situation where year after year politicians got tougher and tougher, meted out harsher sentences and punishments, and yet the problem only got bigger – until 1% of the entire population became addicts. Portugal took a radical shift in policy and legalised drugs, shifting the huge amounts of money spent on policing and imprisoning drug offenders to development, rehabilitation, and support mechanisms.

drug deaths.jpgThe rate of overdoses, violent crime, and HIV rates dropped very quickly and the country saved a lot of money because of it. The USA has similar findings after the legalisation of marijuana: better health outcomes and fiscal savings. But a key point to the solution of Portugal’s drug problem wasn’t just about decriminalisation. It also included a guaranteed minimum wage and other measures which improved the quality of life. They had to improve the human development index of those areas.

Addiction is a symptom of a desperate and basic need in the lives of addicts that has not been fulfilled. That could be human connection, food, meaning, or other physical or mental needs. Fighting the symptom alone will never solve the issue. Tackling the issue of drugs means understanding the cause of addiction, and the need that hasn’t been fulfilled and tackling that. Only by doing this can we hope to solve the issue of drugs, and related social problems.

For more on the example of Portugal (and others) who decreased the need for drugs and therefore the addiction, deaths, and other social problems associated with drugs read here.

No Man is an Island…

If 95% of US soldiers addicted to heroin stopped using practically overnight when they returned to the USA, we have to endeavour not to put each addict through the emotional turmoil of what feels like war to them, but rather to improve their environments around them so they no longer feel as if they are in one. We cannot blame and punish the addict as much of our current system does, things will predictably get worse this way. Solving the problem of drugs in our society doesn’t mean fighting the drug itself, it means fighting the social problems we have made that leads to addiction; the stresses, the hunger, the lack of basic needs which leads to drug use. It means understanding and fighting the cause, not covering it up by locking up the symptom.

The good news is that it’s possible to solve these problems with compassion and understanding; that it’s more effective, and even cheaper! Throwing a person in jail year after year is far more expensive than solving the social problems in communities that lead to drug use. Not just because of the costs of housing the inmate, but because of the social costs on the family and community they have been taken from. Solving these issues does require empathy, effort to understand and research, and commitment to keep at it. It’s certainly easier to lock people up and forget about them then to do that… and that’s the real crime here. We have been lazy as a society, and it’s costing us all. 

We can learn what makes kids like James tick and why they will end up making the choices they do. It will take effort, patience, and understanding – but by helping kids like James at a young age, we can prevent the next generation of addicts, criminals, and save ourselves a whole bunch of money and aggravation later down the line in the process.

Meanwhile, we’ll see James next week…**


**James now regularly comes to the Fairplay Center, a safe space where he can play, bathe, rest, and learn. He is part of the community and while he is still a long way from anything resembling a normal childhood, like many of the children we work with at the Fairplay for All Foundation, his situation is improving. It takes baby steps…

You can support the development and education of kids like James at the Fairplay Center by getting in touch with us at ffafoundation@gmail.com

Kids from Payatas in our Kinder group, learning emotional intelligence




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