There’s this look people get when I tell them I’m a heroin addict. The stigma of addiction, it’s a blank, panicked stare. As though I’d delivered some fatal news. It’s Stage Four, I may as well say. We don’t know how long I’ve got left.
Because when I say I’m an alcoholic and a heroin addict, what they think I mean is that I’m dying. That I have this illness, this deadly illness that is actually killing one person in this country every four minutes, one person who has no idea what they’re in for, and that I am doomed, with a mark on me. The word addiction is not a disorder, to them. It’s a death sentence. It is shorthand for tragedy.
People in recovery aren’t feeding the stigma of addiction. It comes from people who don’t understand addiction.
Never mind that I’ve been sober and in recovery for more than 10 years. That doesn’t matter, to the people who don’t know how this disease really works. They expect me to be ashamed of myself. To them, addiction is code for Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, grunge, needles, misery. They assume that I shot up. I must have stolen and lied, to pay for my habit. I must be a criminal. Maybe I am morally infirm as well.
I will say this: my addiction has guaranteed me a life that is never going to be boring.
I started drinking when I was 13, swallowing what was left in the wine glasses after dinner. I drank alone, because I was rarely invited to parties. I was sensitive to the cool, dark river than ran just under the surface of my life, its purple currents always tugging at me, urging me to take the plunge. When I finally did, I was relieved at what drugs and alcohol did for me. Suddenly, my life made sense. Everything clicked into place — I knew who I was. I dove into my drug use, not looking back at the shore until I was far beyond reach.
I didn’t realize how deep my addiction was until I tried to stop using. The first time, I lasted a couple of days, and then relapsed. That night, head bobbing, sick, I sat on the porch smoking a cigarette. I was crying. I hadn’t meant to use, and I didn’t want to be high. I lowered its burning cherry to my knee and brushed its burning tip to my skin. The pain seared through my leg, but I continued. My hand was steady. Negative reinforcement. That will make me not do this again. I still have a perfectly round scar on the spot where I finally extinguished it.
I took a week off after that, and then overdosed in my bedroom. I remember lying there, the rolled up dollar bill and trace of powder on the mirror by my bed. My eyes were glued to the clock. The red minute hand agitated across its face, shivering each time it clicked into place. Tick. Tick. I wanted to be conscious, but my heartbeat slowed, and slowed, and the muscle in my chest felt as though it was being buried under a pile of stones. I remember the moment that it stopped beating.
I must be dead, I thought. I waited.
When I came to, the first thing I heard was the sound of beating wings, as though an angel stood in each corner of the room. It was the sound of my heart, spontaneously beginning to beat again. I was soaked in sweat and vomit. My face was streaked with blood, thin, iron poor blood as pink as a rabbit’s nose. I had a pulse. Erratic. I rolled onto my side. This time, I was going to stop. I knew I was lucky to be alive. I knew that what I’d just experienced was a miracle, a one-time act of mercy. The cheap substance cut into the dope I’d snorted chased around my nervous system, making my muscles spasm. I was thirsty. My eyes hurt. I stayed where I was, promising whatever God had spared me that I was finally going to clean up my act.
It wasn’t that easy. I kept using. Was I a tragic figure? I liked to think so. I was too thin, pale, and erratic. I saw myself as an artiste, the kind of person who dies with a trunk full of unpublished stories and is discovered as their generation’s great genius. In reality, I wrote massive quantities of trash. I was talented but undisciplined. And young, too. I was 23 when I got sober, which felt like years too late.
Leaving my addiction behind was not easy. Life without drugs and alcohol was, at first, even harder than life getting loaded every day. It seemed like every movie, song, and short story somehow glorified the misery of heroin or alcohol abuse. I was tired of reading work by drunk, entitled writers; I was tired of celebrity obituaries that listed the deadly cocktail the autopsy found in their blood. I was tired of the loud gay bars, the screaming girls taking shots, the way that alcohol was weirdly everywhere. I just wanted to live my life. I didn’t need anyone to tell me who I was.
There is a stigma attached to addiction which can be deadly. But it’s not my stigma — I stopped carrying that shame and embarrassment around years ago, if I ever felt it at all. I experience this stigma when I share my identity with people who aren’t addicts, who don’t know someone in recovery, or who hold onto the idea that people like me are somehow second class citizens.
It’s not my stigma. It’s yours. And your ignorance and fear is a much greater risk to me than a relapse. Your problem with addiction is much more likely to kill me than my problem with it. It’s time to change the story about substance use disorder, and that doesn’t necessarily start with me. It starts with the story you’re telling yourself about me.
Less than 10% of people like me end up asking for treatment, or medical help of any kind, for their substance problems. Less than 10%. That’s not because we don’t want help. It’s because, in this culture, merely admitting that you need help means wearing a scarlet A on your chest for the rest of your life. A is for Addict. A is for Alcoholic. People like me often barely survive this disease, only to be treated to a lifetime of unequal treatment, unkindness, prejudice, and discrimination.
If I am honest about my addiction, I could lose my job, my home, and custody of my child. I could be denied medical care. I could be treated like a criminal, even though I haven’t broken any laws. If these things happen to me, the stigma surrounding my illness means I’ll be told that I deserve to be treated this way. After all, I’m an addict. All my problems must be of my own making.
If that’s the case, why come out at all? I’m not exaggerating when I say that we’d rather die. It’s common for people like me to struggle to get sober. We might share our secret with one or two trusted friends, or in a closed Facebook group. Instead of asking for help, we stay as isolated as we were when we were using. We’re vulnerable. We’re alone. If we pick up again, it’s as though that brief period of sobriety never happened. Maybe the people who knew are disappointed — but so what? Everyone else still thinks we’re losers. We go back to being exactly what you told us we were.
The only thing I can do to change your misconceptions about me is keep showing up, and showing myself. My addiction is something I cope with, daily. I make my choices with this in mind. I know I’m in remission: I’m not cured. I do what I can to make sure I stay healthy.
Do I look like a ticking time bomb? I do not. I look healthy, whole, and strong, because I am. I’m a good citizen. I’m not a criminal, a bad parent, a lazy tenant, or an irresponsible employee. I vote. I pay my taxes. I don’t start shit. You can’t say that about a lot of people, whether they’re in recovery or not. Some of the worst people I know have no mental health issues of any kind.
I’ve stopped listening to people who tell me to be quiet about my illness. What’s the point of being ashamed about something that is part of me? I can’t change the color of my eyes or the shade of my skin, and I can’t magically make my addiction disappear. Even after a long period of recovery, I’m still a person who has this disorder. I may as well be living with diabetes, HIV, cancer, asthma, multiple sclerosis, or any other chronic, relapsing illness. Yet, I’m not treated with the same dignity and compassion as people who cope with those diseases. Why?
If you wouldn’t shame me for my sexuality, race, gender, class, level of education, or faith, then don’t shame me for my addiction, either.
Addiction is neither a curse, nor a blessing. It is simply a fact for me. I don’t take my recovery for granted. I do what I need to do to ensure that it’s there when I wake up tomorrow morning.
The fact is, I died in my bedroom years ago. I’m convinced that everything I’ve experienced since then, including getting sober and learning to stay that way, is the afterlife. If this is Heaven, it’s a weird one, but then — I’m a weird person.
Or maybe you are the weirdo, in your obstinate belief that something is wrong with me and that I am less equal or deserving than you.
Nothing is wrong with me except your story about me. The next time I say, I’m a heroin addict, please try to listen without flinching. Look at me instead. Do you see me? Or do your fears erase me, turn me into a junkie?
If we’re going to heal this stigma, I don’t need to know what you think of me. I need you to know what I think of me. I want you to see what I see when I look at myself. I see a person. An interesting one. Not sick, and not stigmatized. Not even needing your pity. Just surviving — and lucky, to be telling my own story instead of being part of yours.
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