comments_image Comments

Kindness, Not Punishment, Helps Drug Users Quit

We need to treat addiction like we treat other health problems precipitated by poor choices.

Photo Credit: Stephane Bidouze / Shutterstock.com


Cat Nelson* took her first shot of heroin when she was 13 years old. By 17, she was using drugs regularly. By 20, she was in and out of rehab, trying to get clean. Today she is 28. She has legal problems. She has been homeless. She does sex work to support her habit. She has hepatitis C. And she still uses drugs.

She wants to stop.

Cat’s story is all too common, especially as addiction to opiates such as pain pills and heroin continues to skyrocket all over the country. Kids are starting young, getting hooked and spending years trying to get clean. Some will succeed. Some will not. All will be left with emotional and physical scars. But for many, the stigma of drug use, of being crushed under society’s collective judgment and condemnation, is worse than anything.

“When you are a drug user, society tells you that you are worth nothing,” says Cat, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. “It makes it harder to get help because you are so afraid of judgment and rejection.”

Worse for Women

For female drug users, the stigma can be particularly acute. There are fewer treatment options available for women. Women are more likely than men to be asked for sex in exchange for drugs. Women with children are often condemned as bad mothers and under the constant threat that their children will be taken away.

Verna Gaines, a former drug user from Atlanta, Georgia who is now 20 years clean, did lose her children during the 12 years she struggled with crack addiction. “Women with children are stigmatized worse than anybody,” she says. “When I was using drugs I was terrified to ask for help because I thought if I told someone, I would lose my kids.”

Tracey Helton, a former drug user from San Francisco, says that even when she was buying her own drugs, other dealers or users often expected or demanded sex. She started using drugs at 17 years old after getting her wisdom teeth pulled. From popping doctor-prescribed opiates she went to street drugs and eventually to the street itself. She spent eight years trying to stay high so she wouldn’t feel sick, before a residential treatment program helped her stop. Now 16 years clean, a happy mother with three children, Helton is a far cry from the tomboyish 25-year-old heroin user featured in the documentary,  Black Tar Heroin: Dark End of the Street. But the stigma of drug use still haunts her, as she writes in her  blog about parenting and recovery: “I was so depressed at the time, sleeping in an alley. I just stayed like that for days crusted in my own blood. No one tried to help me. No one cared.”

Killing Addiction with Kindness

Gaines and Helton lived for many years in what most people would call rock bottom before they recovered. They grappled with homelessness, prison, disease, loss of children, and loss of dignity. Yet what helped them climb out of it was not punishment, but kindness.

Verna Gaines recalls reaching out for help one night after selling her last possession, her car, for drugs. “I was walking down the street looking for crack and crying hysterically,” she says. “I called a 1-800 hotline and they talked to me for hours. They were actually nice to me. Then I called my mom at 3am. ‘I’m on my way,’ she said. I went to the hospital, and then to NA meetings and with my family supporting me, I got clean.”

Most people understand that constantly berating a person who is overweight can lead to psychological trauma that causes compulsive behaviors like overeating. Yet we think if we could just remind drug users one more time how weak and selfish they are, if we could inflict just a little more pain, they will stop. In reality, such tactics usually have the opposite effect.

See more stories tagged with: