How Drug Use Stigma Ruins Lives

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“Once an addict, always an addict.” This gem from the 12-step drug addiction recovery cult is one of the most harmful sentences to ever be wedged into our society, along with every other sentiment that mischaracterizes anyone who’s ever used drugs as a degenerate, selfish, walking disease. Families are being torn apart by the idea that someone who has struggled with addiction will always struggle with addiction. Families are being ruined by the misinformation that anyone who uses drugs ever is incompetent. My family is being ruined by drug use stigma. My life, my heart, and my soul are being torn apart by your blind miseducation.

I mean that, of course, as a general “you.” I don’t know who you actually are, you who are reading this. You could be the most enlightened person on this planet. You could be Shilo Jama, who runs the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance and has the most accurate views on drug use and addiction I’ve ever encountered. Or you could be someone who shares similar views. But “you” as a whole–society as a whole–are blind to the realities of drug addiction and drug use. Worse, society doesn’t care to fix it’s blindness.

Drug Use Doesn’t Mean Drug Addiction

One of the biggest lies we’ve been sold is that drug use means drug addiction. Not true. Just because someone uses drugs does not mean he is addicted. Yes, drug use can lead to drug addiction, but can and will are two very different outcomes.

Drug use looks like a person taking a drug and enjoying the effects for a while, then going about his life.

Drug addiction looks like a person taking a drug and enjoying the effects for a while, then beginning to get concerned about getting more of that drug, then beginning to freak out if she doesn’t get it, then taking the drug and not really enjoying the effects because she has a tolerance, then talking about what she’ll do once she gets sober, then beginning to get concerned about getting more of that drug (rinse and repeat indefinitely).

Drug use can be harmful–for example, intentionally taking a high dose of benzodiazepines and fentanyl with the intention of committing suicide is a harmful act of drug use. But drug use can also be okay. Most of us use drugs in some capacity. Whether that means caffeine, alcohol, marijuana, psilocybin mushrooms, methamphetamine, heroin, or whatever else. We all do it. And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re robbing banks or hurting babies. It just means you’re human.

Drug Addiction Doesn’t Have To Be For Life

Contrary to popular mythos, someone who becomes addicted to drugs doesn’t have to be addicted for the rest of her natural life. It is actually possible for someone who fixates on a substance every day to gradually distance herself from it and go whole days, weeks, months, even years without using or even thinking about that substance.

An even more contentious reality is that it’s actually possible for someone to have an addiction to a drug, get over it, and safely use other substances. Or even that same one! Yes, it’s not as common. Most people who develop an addiction to cocaine need to stay away from cocaine forever. But some people actually do develop the ability to use their drug of choice in moderation. Far more people develop the abilty to use “soft drugs” like marijuana or alcohol responsibly, even if the drug they were addicted to remains off the table.

A Relapse Does Not A Monster Make

Here’s another thing: Relapsing doesn’t make someone a bad person. I remember when I was still in Seattle and able to access evidence-based care, there was a young woman in my buprenorphine group who relapsed briefly. Some would even call it a slip. When she told us about it, she kept apologizing to us. I was so baffled by that. She hadn’t done anything wrong. She relapsed on a drug. That’s it. I can understand why she felt ashamed..It’s pretty common in recovery. But that does not mean there is anything wrong with her, or that she owed any of us an apology.

Not only does a relapse not mean someone is a horrible person, it also doesn’t automatically mean they are out-of-control and need supervision or monitoring. If someone has a long stretch of sobriety and then uses for one or two days, it is actually still more normal for that person to be sober than high. If she catches herself, she can actually return to the habit or sobriety that she had already established. That is, unless the people around her shame her, kick her out, impose crazy limitations on her, and make her life a living hell. That is more likely to push her back into dangerous, addictive use than the actual act of using for a day or two. Mark my words: If you treat someone who has a couple day slip like they are a scumbag, you are at fault for what happens next, not them.

Drug Addiction Often Stems From Mental Health Issues

This is a big issue in my life. Drug addiction often stems from an underlying mental health issue. For me, that’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which a recent study discovered is intimately linked with opioid addiction, specifically. That makes sense to me because before having PTSD, I never had addictive behaviors around opiates. So a big thank you to The Ex for that

Tangent aside, people who have mental health issues…um, have mental health issues. Taking drugs away isn’t going to fix them. In fact, for a while, it’s going to make them worse. When I was at the height of my heroin addiction, I worked as a telefundraiser, making bank off commissions. I supported my habit, my boyfriend’s habit, paid rent on a room, paid my taxes, and saved money to go to grad school. How did I do all that? Because the heroin masked my PTSD symptoms, allowing me to work and be around people.

I am not saying that I was the most awesome and rational human being during that time, but recovery has been hard. I’ve made really serious attempts on my life. I’ve blown up, cut off friendships, and gone through radical mood swings. Which is why I started therapy..and why I need to be in therapy, and will need to for a while. The abuse I’ve experienced was prolonged and extreme. And it’s continuing, with new abusers. Healing from that is hard. But just because I am moody or even erratic; just because I dissociate, or get depressed, or angry, or act “crazy” does not mean I’m on drugs.

So many people assume that if someone with a drug use or addiction history does something inexplicable, it means she’s using again. Not true. Maybe it just means she’s triggered. Maybe it means she needs a big fucking hug. Seriously. Stop judging people as awful just because of their addiction histories.

Drug Use Stigma Is Clouding Your Judgment

If you’re being cruel to people who use drugs–if you’re separating children from their mothers just because mom has emotions–if you think people who relapse one time deserve to die–if you support the way the Department of Children and Families treat people with addiction histories, then drug use stigma is clouding your judgment. Re-educate yourself.

2 thoughts on “How Drug Use Stigma Ruins Lives

  1. Have you guys ever tried using cannabis for medical purposes? I have been diagnosed with glaucoma for almost a year now and I’ve
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    • I don’t know too much about marijuana strains. That blogger there sounds much more knowledgeable than me. I’d recommend speaking with your local budtender, assuming you’re in a legal state or have a medical card.

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