Overcoming addiction is one of the hardest obstacles there is, yet we are told to sweep it under the rug and pretend like it never happened. I don’t think most people realize or talk about the greatness of character and will it takes to recover from addiction. That’s because all society focuses on is the original sin. The mistake. The stigma. This is true for all addictions, but it is especially true for heroin, which is what I want to talk about. The heroin stigma is out of control. It is a major issue that needs to be addressed. As a recovering heroin addict with over four years sober, I want to give you my perspective on the heroin stigma and the damage that it does.
The heroin stigma affects both sides, those who are using and those in recovery. Those who are using aren’t getting help, and those in recovery are forced to hide their amazing feat. The stigma creates this veil, where nobody really addresses it as a topic. Maybe if we praised recovering addicts more, and showed more compassion to those still in active addiction, more people would try to get sober.
The scariest part of addiction, is that it tries to stay hidden. Think about it. The reason many people get hooked is because no one talks about the monstrosity of it. I mean sure, in elementary school we had D.A.R.E and in high school they showed us a video or two in health class, but that’s about it. The only thing about it that seems to spread word is the stigma, which is ironic, considering the stigma is what hides it.
People are scared to even say the word heroin. It’s too “taboo”. I’ve heard girls whisper about a girl using and say “yeah, she was on “H”. Like it was Voldemort. Yet people talk about meth and cocaine almost as openly as weed or alcohol.
Some mothers are afraid that their young children or even teenage children will hear or see the word “heroin” out of fear that if they hear the name, maybe that will lead them to using it! “Oh no!, now my kids know what heroin is because someone said the word! Now they are in danger!” The real danger is when they don’t know what it is and it sneaks up on them like some mysterious new social experience. You raise them telling them “don’t talk to strangers”, never worrying that they will only hear “talking to strangers is cool.” No – kids always say “my mom said not to talk to strangers.” Besides, many kids are using it regardless. Not what you wanted to hear? I’m sorry but the death rates are climbing every single day. It is spreading like wildfire and if we don’t acknowledge it how are we ever going to stop it?
We grow up openly talking about “don’t put your hand on the stove honey” or “make sure to buckle your seat belt ” or “look both ways before crossing the street.” Those phrases are used so commonly that everyone thinks of them as common sense, as a logical known fact. But that’s precisely because we talk about them so much. If we mentioned to our child only once to buckle their seat belt, do you think it would still be the automatic instinct it is now? Or would it be something people did occasionally when they happened to remember?
I think people just assume that it is a logical known fact to not use heroin. The thing is, even people who think of this as a known fact end up using. Why? Because the topic is avoided enough to be forgotten, or to remain mysterious enough to sneak itself in. I for one always grew up thinking, I’m going to drink, but I will NEVER do heroin! I mean, you’re drinking, you’re smoking weed, you see your friends doing a line of molly and one day someone puts a line of heroin in front of you and you think “why not, I’m super depressed, could be fun?” In that brief moment you forget everything you knew about heroin, because essentially you never really knew anything about it. Just that it was “bad.” But when you only associate it as “bad” – that’s not strong enough to stop you. I mean, a person who is about to cheat on their spouse has been told that it’s bad – but does that mean it doesn’t happen? Nope! If people were told that thousands of people were dying a year from cheating on their spouse, do you think they would think twice about doing it? Most definitely.
When we don’t emphasize something enough, when we don’t teach about something or talk about something enough, it becomes less of a known fact and more of a mystery. It becomes some kind of abstract thought like oh yeah – heroin = bad. But other than that, it is never spoken about, because of the stigma.
I wonder if we were constantly talking about heroin and how many people are dying from it, then would people think twice before falling into that hole? I really think some would. For every kid that thinks twice, that is potentially a chain of 100 people that could be saved. Most heroin addicts started by hanging out with someone already using. Usually it’s someone you like and trust. To go back to the “crossing the street” analogy, when you are standing with your friend and you see him or her starting to cross the street, do you feel the need to look both ways? Not always. You just assume they wouldn’t be crossing the street if a car were coming because you don’t think of them as a crazy unintelligent person, so you cross the street right behind them. But what if your friend was lucky enough to miss the car but it hit you? You don’t just wake up one day and say “let me search Craigslist for my local heroin dealer, I think I’ll take up that hobby today.” No, for every person using, there is a potential chain of people to follow. This explains the four thousand percent increase in heroin deaths talked about in the video mentioned below.
You may say “Well it is already talked about the kids have been warned.” Have they though? Where are the tv shows that show the awful reality of it? Breaking Bad addresses it briefly, but that’s the only one I can think of. Where are the news broadcasts of the overdoses? Oh wait, there aren’t any because the police, the very people who are supposed to protect us, sweep it under the rug. Where are the dinner table conversations where a kid opens up to their family about how someone at school died from heroin? There aren’t any, because of the stigma and “controversy.” A kid may say at dinner “I’m really upset, a guy I knew at school died today in a car accident.” They are less likely to say that when the cause of death is heroin, because they are terrified of their parents knowing they knew a heroin addict. And if they did, the parent would most likely say something like “My goodness, how can someone do something like that? I’m glad we raised you kids better than that.” As if a good upbringing is the key to stopping it. Riiiiiight. The real controversy is that PEOPLE ARE DYING! I know 10 people who have died from heroin, and that’s just me personally!
Think about it this way, let’s take a common known danger – such as, I don’t know – diving in the shallow end of a pool (ok, I realize if you are a professional swimmer, that’s not a danger, but for everyone else it is).Your entire life, every time you go to a pool you are reminded. There are signs. There are lifeguards telling you repeatedly “no diving in the shallow end” looking out to make sure no one is diving in the shallow end. Parents are watching their kids at the pool to make sure they aren’t diving in the shallow end. Now let’s put that example in heroin’s shoes. Say you grew up knowing about the fact that diving in the shallow end was dangerous, but no one ever talked about it. There were no signs, no lifeguards, no parents watching. It was only a little known fact that no one talked about. And say one day your at the pool and all your friends are diving in the shallow end. You see this and you think to yourself “Well, I’ve been around the pool for a while, I’m a pretty good swimmer, I’ve done a few other pool activities that I was told not to do and I was fine, my friends are diving, and they seem like they are really enjoying it. Maybe I’ll just dive once. After all, I have been feeling pretty down and I could use some enjoyment. And you know, I’ve never heard of anyone dying from diving in the shallow end. I think I’ll try it..”
The thing about heroin is, you can get physically addicted the first time that you try it, and even if you don’t, the way that it makes you feel will lead you to try it again, and again. You never think you are addicted, until one day you are. One day you wake up sick and suddenly it’s not a choice anymore. It’s a chore, an obligation. You may think “well, why not just deal with the sickness and be done if it’s so bad.” Think of the sickest you’ve ever been in your life, what did you do? You did everything in your power to feel better. And if you didn’t feel better from your own methods, you go to the doctor, because you will do whatever it takes to not feel that way. Now multiply that level of sickness by 100. And take the doctor out of the picture because that would require exposing the secret and a lifetime of shame. What would you do then?
Speaking of shame, the heroin stigma brings the worst kind of shame. Think about this. Do people who drink alcohol out at a club or smoke cigarettes typically feel shame? No, not usually. That’s because they are socially accepted. People who do heroin feel a deeper kind of shame than you could ever deem imaginable. People might say “Well, the reason there is so much shame associated with heroin is because it is that dangerous!” Bullshit. Are people embarrassed to talk about cliff diving? Are people embarrassed to talk about driving over 100 miles per hour? And it’s not just the addicts who feel shame. The friends and family of an addict may see warning signs, and completely ignore them because subconsciously, they don’t want to dare think that someone they love would ever do such a thing. It’s crazy what you can justify based on what you want to see. In my experience, if you have a feeling something is wrong, it probably is.
The thing about shame is, it pushes you further down instead of bringing you out. Though this seems counter-intuitive, it’s true. Many people might say “well they should feel shame for using heroin, and hopefully that shame will make them change their ways and want to be a better person.” It doesn’t work like that. Not for addicts. The more shame you feel, the more you hide. The more you hide, the more you push people away. The more you push people away, the less people you have around to help you. Of course there are people who will fight for you no matter what, but these are also the people who you want to hide it from the most, because you care what they think, and this society is telling you that if they know, they will disown you from the shame.
The only people you don’t feel shame around at this point, are the other addicts around you, so you end up sticking to those people, who are also on a destructive path, and together you make the path even more destructive.
If you are reading this and you are in active addiction – you should know that whoever you think is going to disown you, whoever you think is going to abandon you for it – loves you and only wants to help. I say this because I was once an addict, and the reason I didn’t get help sooner is because I was scared my friends and my family would disown me, because of the stigma.
It actually angers me, the stigma. Like sure it’s ok to talk about soccer moms using pain pills, but talk about a teen shooting up dope and the room falls silent and just abandons them entirely and pretends like its either not true, or like those people are no longer worthy of anything. All forms of addiction are dangerous. But say the word heroin and suddenly everyone gets an image in their mind of “oh heroin users, those junkies you see on the side of the road with raggedy clothes and a needle in their arm.” The majority of people using heroin do not fit that stereotype at all. They are well dressed, intelligent people with a good upbringing.
If someone had cancer or diabetes, people rush to their aid, and no one feels ashamed to ask for help. You might say “well they are victims, heroin addicts chose to ruin their life.” First of all, that viewpoint is entirely unacceptable because we all make mistakes, every single day, we just like to judge which mistakes are acceptable and which ones aren’t. Secondly, even when the cancer patients have lung cancer due to making the CHOICE to smoke their whole life, people still come to help them and talk about it openly. There is just this horrible stigma associated with heroin.
On dates when guys ask why I don’t drink, there were a few times where I opened up about what I went through. They freaked out and never called me again. Do you know why? STIGMA – they probably envisioned me looking dirty with torn clothing laying on the side of the road with a needle in my arm, got grossed out, and ran. When the truth is I snorted it in a bathroom in normal clothes, just like they do with cocaine on a typical Friday night. So while they are snorting cocaine and I am completely sober no alcohol or anything, they sit there and judge me. It’s ridiculous.
Another contributing factor to heroin addicts not getting help is that because of the stigma, they get a defeatist attitude. They think “well I’ve already ruined my life, I’ll never get a job, everyone will judge me, everyone will always see me this way.” Without hope, what is there? I believe that if we break the stigma and let people know that it’s ok and that their life can get much better, maybe more people would get help.
I believe the key contributing factor that can help addicts see this is to hear from addicts who conquered it and now lead an amazing life. People like myself. This is talked about all the time in meetings, but what about the people who don’t make it to a meeting? Who don’t make it to treatment to hear about it? Out in the “real world” everyone is terrified to mention it. So the stigma stays, and addicts continue to feel hopeless.
I have over 4 years sober and so many blessings and great things have come into my life, and I am a better person than I have ever been before. But even when you used to use – you are still perceived negatively by some. This has to change. And I think it will the more we talk about it and the less forbidden this stigma becomes. The strength that it took for me to overcome something like that, and to give up common social hobbies such as drinking and smoking weed, makes me more unstoppable than ever before. If you are in active addiction – don’t try to get clean on your own! Ask for help! Because once you get the help and change your life, you too can develop a special kind of strength that comes from enduring and overcoming something like this.
It’s hard as hell, yes, but when you get to the other side your life will turn out amazing, just like it was always meant to be, and then you can help others. Because I can guarantee there is something in your story, in your experience that will change the life of another struggling addict.
The more people talk about it, the more other people will feel comfortable talking about it, the more people feel comfortable talking about it, the more awareness it will spread and the more the stigma will be broken and lives will be changed, and more importantly, kept!
The irony of it all, is that after I wrote this article I almost didn’t post it. I thought maybe if people read this I will lose all credibility over an emotionally vulnerable period in my past where I made a bad decision. But then I realized – if I do that, I would be giving in to the stigma, which is precisely what I am encouraging people NOT to do! See, that’s how insane the stigma is, it’s so strong that even I let it affect me whilst writing about breaking it! Crazy!
The video in the link below is a story covered by 11 Alive News. It’s raw and intense and I highly advise everyone to watch it! I grew up in this area and the prevalence of it is unreal, but, like they say in the video, the only people who seem to know about it are the addicts themselves, who hide out of shame, and the police who arrest them, who claim to know nothing. The moms of addicts who had their life taken from them know as well, but unfortunately they knew too late. The reason only addicts know, is because the only way a person will let you know they are using is if they see that you are too, because they are the only people they don’t feel shame around.
So start talking people! Don’t be afraid! If someone judges you for talking about it then they aren’t someone you want to have in your life, and they are only contributing to the growing shame and destruction. I think a partial contributor to the stigma is that we allow the judgement of others to keep us quiet. I had to overcome my very own fear of that in the last 30 minutes. Will you overcome yours?
#sobermovement #sobrietyissexy #recovery #nomorestigma #speakup