My education on heroin addiction really began only when I had finished writing last week’s cover story. The truth is that late Friday and then throughout Saturday I muscled through the material with numb determination, acting more as a medium than an author. When I finished, I felt depleted and somewhat depressed.
Only when messages of gratitude from former users, parents and friends began to pour onto my Facebook page on Wednesday did I start to understand how important it was for them that this story be told. Far from reluctance in talking about a painful personal experience, most of the addicts I spoke with profusely thanked me for the opportunity. Sources pleaded with me to speak with others — addicts, friends — and I simply ran out of time for interviews and writing before the deadline tolled.
The sense of urgency from all these people whose lives have been affected in various ways by addiction comes from a desire to educate the public, to bring awareness to the problem and, not least, to combat the stigma attached to addiction.
One former user in High Point, who has been clean for three months, wrote: “It is important to me that people understand that we didn’t set out to become addicts (most of us began like anyone else — with alcohol or a legal doctor’s prescription), and realized the danger we had stumbled into once it was all too late.”
The former user, who requested anonymity to protect her employment, told me that as an enlisted servicewoman she got addicted to pain pills following an injury in a military operation.
“I ended up getting kicked out for negligibly failing a urinalysis and was booted out with a fractured L4,” she wrote. “That pain pill addiction began immediately and turned into a heroin addiction within a month. It progressed so quickly that I was overdosing less than two months later. I didn’t believe I had a problem before… even after all that. The addict’s mind is a sick one. I was set up for failure, nearly dead and absolutely suicidal just a few months after my discharge.
“Through a hellish month in a rehab followed by regular attendance at Narcotics Anonymous, I began the journey of recovery,” she continued. “Just a few months after my release from rehab, I have a job that I love, I’m in school and I have a support network of fellow addicts from NA who do not judge me for my past actions — who understand and relate to all the things I have done, as well as what I am currently feeling. If I can get clean, work a program and experience recovery, then any addict can. Help is out there; we only have to ask.”
Even though I recognized on an intellectual level that addiction is a sickness, I’ve internalized a dangerous and misguided notion that this is a moral failing, and that addicts are degenerate and deviant persons who willfully flout responsibility.
People who use heroin or other drugs are not worthless. We shouldn’t give up on them and cast them aside.
Confronting my own internalized bias against addicts, I’m forced to acknowledge my near idolatry of Jerry Garcia, a guitarist, singer and songwriter who made an incalculable contribution to American music in the last century and died of a heart attack in rehab after a long struggle with heroin. I feel certain that Garcia’s addiction took a toll on the quality and creativity of his work over the last 20 years of his life, but he still managed make music of indescribable beauty. I have to acknowledge my hypocrisy in giving a pass to a famous artist, while judging the ordinary addicts that are my friends, neighbors and family members.
To reference an even more iconic artist, federal drug agents mercilessly hounded Billie Holiday, perhaps the greatest jazz singer of all time, as detailed in a fantastic essay by Johann Hari adapted for this month’s issue of In These Times from his book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was obsessed with black jazz musicians, in whose music he found “evidence of a recurrence of the primitive impulses that lurk in black people, waiting to emerge,” Hari writes. In contrast, he dealt with Judy Garland, a white entertainer who was addicted to heroin, by advising her to take longer vacations between movie shoots and writing to her studio to assure them that she didn’t have a drug problem at all.
Hari writes that when Holiday found out that friends in the jazz world were using the same drug, she pleaded with them to stop. This poignant passage should put to rest the notion that addiction is a moral failing:
“She kept trying to stop. She would get her friends to shut her away in their houses for days on end while she went through withdrawal. As she ran back to her dealers, she cursed herself as ‘No Guts Holiday.’”