Why I Cringe When My Son Calls Himself a Junkie
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My son calls himself a junkie and I cringe. And why do I do that, when that is how he self identifies? Because he has internalized the stigma that we have assigned to his disease. Because the image that the term “junkie” conjures up is one of societal disgust—filth, danger, dishonesty, laziness, moral ineptitude. We tend to think of “junkies” with a sense of “otherness.” We tell ourselves that only happens in someone else’s family, that person must have come from a horrid background, etc. And yet despite my son’s gentle nature, and despite his battles at such a young age—battles that even a fully matured adult with a plethora of coping skills would be more than hard-pressed to face—where stereotypes abound, there is no denying that I am the mother of someone many would call a stereotypical "street junkie."
I recently read an article in the Herald News on the ‘new face’ of opiate addiction. It asserts that today’s opiate addicts no longer fit the typical, jobless, street junkie stereotype. Instead, this new ‘class’ of addicts include our cheerleaders, football captains and upstanding, successful professionals. It’s almost as if the idea of a junkie is even worse than addiction itself.
But who exactly is this “typical street junkie,” that we imagine? For one it is my son. Prior to his struggle with addiction and subsequent homelessness, he was your “average” suburban teenager, living in an “average” middle class home. But because my son suffers with addiction, and (like countless others) has slipped through the cracks of a severely fractured health care system and onto the streets, he is now labeled and written off.
My son now looks, and acts, and lives the stereotype of the "junkie on the street" and society disregards and reviles him as such. He even exclaimed, when he showed up high for drug court recently, "I'm sorry judge, but I'm a junkie, and this is just what junkies do". He has internalized that stigma, and sees himself as being just as worthless as society assumes him to be.
Unlike society, however, addiction does not discriminate. There is no caste system to junkie-hood. Where exactly do we think the "typical street junkie" comes from? When our ineffectual health care system, not to mention our society, continues to stigmatize, moralize and criminalize addiction, the system itself pushes people who are suffering from a chronic disease out into our streets and jails, where they become reviled as "junkies." Many of the people we see on our streets, dirty and disheveled, panhandling for their next fix have concerned families somewhere who are worried sick about them—families who are now living in poverty themselves after mortgaging their homes and spending their life savings desperately trying to obtain treatment which is more often than not inefficient and ineffective.
My son is a sweet, thoughtful young man. He loves to play guitar. He loves to make people laugh. My son is also a drug user who struggles with a disease which has had a devastating impact on his life, no thanks to our punitive, broken system which has utterly failed him at every turn. The system itself, our treatment facilities, jails and emergency rooms, perpetuate the stigma that leaves those facing a chronic disease marginalized and disempowered. And although almost every disease process includes behavioral components, the only disease in which this behavior is moralized and criminalized is addiction. Because there is an initial choice to use drugs, we wrap the entire disease process of addiction in a ribbon of personal choice, which is false and misleading. Doing so leaves no room for over a decade’s worth of research which clearly demonstrates the structural and functional brain changes of a chronic disease. The facts and research show that addiction is much more complicated than simple, individualistic ideas about willpower and choice.