Wednesday, 24 September 2008


“He does not need opium. He has the gift of reverie.” - Anais Nin

In my job I often have to interact with many representatives of the health system, both on an individual as well as at an institutional level. Hospitals, clinics, practitioners, professional bodies, government organisations, politicians, officials can all be included in a day’s work. Today I had a meeting with the manager of a unit of one of our major hospitals here in Melbourne. The unit was an acute detoxification centre, which provides services for drug-dependent adults and children. After our meeting I was taken on an inspection tour of the facilities and met a few of the inmates.

Nowhere else perhaps does one experience such a feeling of acute dismay and consternation as when one sees people with drug problems in a setting where they need acute intervention to save their life. Especially so when these people are young. One individual stood out and I shall remember the look on her face for a long time. It was a young girl of 13 or 14 years, sitting on the couch of the common room, her legs curled up and held tightly by her enfolding arms. Her face as beautiful as a Botticelli Venus but her eyes vacant and distant as if they had already beheld death. Her youth in years belied most certainly the breadth of her experiences in the cruel world of the night and the gang-ridden streets. The innocence that should still have been hers was usurped by a life lived prematurely and an awareness of the terrors of life that many other people would never experience. The vacant stare, the indifference, the remoteness, the denial painted on that beautiful young face was devoid of hope and the surroundings did little to inspire confidence in the long-term success of detox program.

If one works in such an area, one learns detachment very quickly. When one is surrounded by disease, distress, misery, death, hopelessness, one must remain strong and rather remote in order to be able to help the ones that need one’s efficient intervention. A detached, professional manner, however, doesn’t imply an underlying insensitivity or lack of sympathy or pity. The young Venus of the detox centre affected my thoughts for the rest of the day and stimulated these lines:

The Botticelli Venus

Which wind blows sweet, spice-scented air
To play with your golden curls?
What spring flowers lend their pastel colours
To tint your rosy cheeks?
What melodies will sound so that they
Give you tones with which you speak?
What paradise will bestow its setting
So you can walk in bliss in your meanderings?

The crystalline white powder concealling
A million colours, sweet scents, rich tastes
In its deceptive insipidness;
The whirling smoke of the false-friend herb,
The few clear drops of death injected
In an unwary but receptive vein.

What lends your face the serenity of such euphoria?
What secret vision gives your eyes such burning brilliance?
Which rare delight loosens your limbs in such languor?
What stunning imagery empties your mind
Of all gloom and only sunny thoughts allows?
Which friend, companion, helpmate is at work
To aid your every step and counter each adversity,
Negating all of life’s vicissitudes?

The glass of sparkling spirit promising
A welcoming oblivion;
The magic, problem-solving pill,
Delivering every delight;
The overdose that wipes clean every slate
And ends what should have been but a beginning…

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