Poppy power: Reflections on the final focus group

Participants in today's group favored opium which is derived from poppies
and smoked or brewed in tea. Photo credit.
Six cities. Eight focus groups. Conversation with more than 70 recovering drug addicts. It's been quite a semester for me working on a project to understand how various cultural groups approach medication-assisted treatment for substance abuse. 

Today I'm quietly pecking away on my laptop at Seattle/Tacoma airport, watching the first vestiges of Spring embrace the Pacific Northwest. It's been a long week. Monday I spent packing and cleaning in Phoenix. Tuesday the Corolla-mobile moved me home to Sacramento. Wednesday, I passed an overdue smog inspection and met an internet friend in the flesh. Thursday, I flew to Seattle for my last of eight focus groups. Today, I learned that poppies can kill you.

In the last 8 weeks, my travels have taken me to New York, L.A., Oahu, Chicago, and Oklahoma City. I've met recovering heroin and LSD and amphetamine and prescription drug addicts. I've spent time in methadone clinics. I've learned various dosing types. I've observed five different facilitators try their hand at leading group interviews with unruly but well-meaning and sometimes, half-asleep participants. And I've remembered that humanity comes in all shapes and sizes and colors and ages.

From this last group, I learned several important lessons:

1. You can never be too prepared. In the last seven focus groups, I've dealt with participants falling asleep, flirting, bringing disruptive children, leaving early and displaying open hostility. I thought I'd seen it all and had developed enough flexibility to take interruptions in stride. Unlike previous groups, however, today's participants were all part of the same tight-knit Asian community and not one person spoke English. Leading a group interview is tough enough when everyone has a common tongue. Today I watched participants stare blankly at the English-only information sheets we brought and the facilitator struggle as he relayed our questions to the translator who shared them with participants and then translated the answers back for us. I felt like an ass for not considering the immense language barriers that might be present beforehand, but I was relieved to see that the participants were still eager to share their feelings and experiences with us.

2. Addiction is pervasive, not picky. It can hit any culture, any age group, any socio-economic class. Today I spent time talking with elderly addicts and I have to admit, it never occurred me that grandmas and grandpas might deal so severely with addiction. (As I learned, this group favored opium over heroin or street drugs which likely contributed to longevity.)

3. Being seen is important. At the end of the group, several participants wished blessings for us for taking time to meet them and listen. It got me to thinking about my friend Tim's work with homeless youth and how we in mainstream society choose not to see certain people. How often do we avoid eye contact with "unseemly" individuals? Pretend we can't see suffering on the streets? Walk past those needing help? Until working on this project, I'd never spent much time learning about addiction or recovery. I've been astounded how participants at every group have thanked us for meeting with them, grateful for a chance to be seen. I've felt like a fraud, making sure to explain that I'm not a humanitarian per se, but rather a researcher (albeit one with humanitarian goals). Now, I feel convicted to see people, to do something. After meeting more than 70 recovering addicts--old, young, black, white, brown, mothers, fathers, sisters, daughters, sons, retired, working, unemployed, homeless--I can't ignore the hurting any more. I just wish I had more time and a helluva lot more money to help!

Until then, I will keep at my research things hoping to change the world that way.


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