Drugs

Why I Cringe When My Son Calls Himself a Junkie

He sees himself as being as worthless as society assumes him to be.

Photo Credit: Kamira / Shutterstock.com

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. 

We don’t criminalize or refuse treatment to people whose diseases, such as diabetes, asthma, cancer and heart disease are created or exacerbated by behavioral components such as dietary and lifestyle choices.  Despite the fact that choice and behaviors contribute to these diseases, rather than stigmatizing these patients, we run 5k’s and race for a cure.  Although the rates of relapse (and medication compliance) are similar for diabetes, hypertension, asthma and addiction, only those suffering from addiction are fired from treatment when it occurs.  Rather than seeing relapse as part of the disease process and bringing patients directly back into the fold of treatment, rehab centers address these patients’ “failures” with discharge paperwork and sympathetic pleas to family members to keep strong boundaries, to allow the addict to face the consequences of his own behavior, and to fervently hope and pray that he will find his “bottom” before he ends up either dead or in jail. 

And later, it is these same people we see tormented by addiction and living on our streets, dirty and unkempt, searching for that elusive “bottom” in dumpsters, alleys, and beds made of concrete sidewalks.  Our response to this?  We self-righteously blame them even further.  We scornfully refer to them as “street junkies,” and complain that they are crowding our streets and draining our resources.  It is us, not those suffering from addiction, who have created this horrible stereotype.  The mental associations that are evoked by terms such as “junkie,” “druggie,” “dope-head,” and “addict” are constructs which society uses to avoid facing the painful reality of addiction. The stigma of addiction, which we have created, is our way of rationalizing our collective shame of dehumanizing and marginalizing an entire population of people who are suffering and dying at an alarming rate from a disease which we fear and misunderstand.

When the larger society, who lives outside of this nightmare of addiction, begins to become as furious with the junkie stereotype as those of us who are effected, then we'll know we've made some progress toward dismantling the stigma of this chronic disease and putting a human face to those who are suffering.

We can argue about language until we are tongue tied, speechless and disempowered, and we often do.  But the real work of confronting stigma lies in educating people, dispelling myths and calling out the behaviors and attitudes of inhumanity, bigotry and hatred.  Use the language that helps you feel most supportive of your loved ones.  Never dream of disdainfully calling my son a junkie in my presence or expect a mother’s wrath.  But also know that, like thousands of other parents across our country who are living this nightmare, I too, am a mother of a 'junkie' and I love my son with my whole heart.

Ellen Sousares is a pseudonym for an overdose prevention and harm reduction advocate, a registered nurse, and mother to a son who struggles with heroin addiction.