I shot heroin for the first time because I wanted to write poetry about it. I’m cringing just writing that sentence. It reeks of privilege and naivety and hubris. It’s so fucking dumb.
Of course, I was also traumatized. At age 22, I was already smoking heroin to help forget the past four years of physical and sexual abuse. I was enamored with the way heroin blunted my senses enough to let me think about my past without trying to kill myself, or to not think about my past at all if I didn’t want to. I was in love with the way it let me love again—romantically, sexually and platonically. Heroin allowed me to re-access the basic graces of humanity that most people take for granted.
I was using heroin as a balm, as a love spell, as a party drug—but I picked up the needle because I wanted to write a damn poem. I thought, somehow, that my poetry would save me. I thought the award-winning poet and playwright—the future-famous writer I saw myself as—was too good for addiction. I really did.
And yeah, my ridiculously overblown ego was certainly a major player in forming that absurd notion—but without the dangerous, pervasive stigma that colors our collective image of people who use drugs intravenously, it never would have gained purchase on reality.
“It’s definitely an interesting psychological process that evolves over time in terms of people’s sense of how [their] drug use relates to their identity or sense of self,” says Kimberly Sue, the medical director of the Harm Reduction Coalition. “People really associate injecting with crossing some kind of moral line.”
It was that moral line which I avoided for years of drug use before developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I could chug down as much cough syrup and liquor as I wanted, slip LSD tabs under my tongue every day for a month, and chase that month with weeks and weeks of ‘shrooming—and still I was, in my mind, better than the “junkies.”
I didn’t use needles. I might have smoked enough meth to make myself believe I was God, but I didn’t use needles.
“The message I received is that drugs are bad and people who use drugs are making a bad choice. And that translated to thinking people who use drugs are bad.”
When my life began to crumble in the aftermath of being abused, it was that same moral line I sought to cross. I craved transgression—in fact, my opening poetic effort was titled “Upon Transgression of the Vein.” Of course, my pompous little poem never grew beyond that, because no matter how much I believed myself too good for an addiction to heroin, I wasn’t.
“Growing up during the ramped-up War on Drugs, the message I received from society is that drugs are bad and people who use drugs are making a bad choice. And that translated to thinking people who use drugs are bad people,” says Brooke Feldman, a social worker, Filter contributor and founder of the philanthropy consulting firm Sparking Solutions.
Like me, Feldman struggled with her own opioid addiction when she was younger. For Feldman, lessons snagged off the DARE campaign taught her that addiction was a choice. If you didn’t make the choice to “Just Say No” to addiction, then something was wrong with you, deep within your character.
Like so many of us who were exposed to this logic that pervaded the ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000s, Feldman had a hard time identifying herself as vulnerable to addiction before it was far too late.
“’As long as you make good choices, you’ll be fine.’ That was the messaging I was indoctrinated into,” Feldman recalls. “I very much felt for a long time that if I wanted to stop, I would.”
Two Caricatures of People With Addiction
In today’s “opioid epidemic,” that caricature has two faces. The first is, as Reaves describes it, “Blake from the suburbs who hurt his shoulder playing lacrosse and then got prescribed opioids by his doctor and got hooked.”
That caricature is at least sympathetic, though misleadingly portrayed as typical (it isn’t). But as the Cuban-American daughter of a single mom, who didn’t play enough sports to get sports injuries and adored drugs far too much to pretend that level of innocence, I knew I wasn’t a Blake or Blaine from the suburbs.
But I didn’t see myself in the other, far more sinister and damaging caricature, either.
Growing up in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, where Kurt Cobain reportedly used to cop, I was inundated with examples of that other “junkie” caricature.
Heroin addiction, visible all around me, meant homelessness and black leather jackets with frayed punk-band patches and lighter caps clipped onto the sleeves. It meant you spent your time drooping over a cardboard sign out front of Dick’s Drive Through, begging change “for a milkshake” and cussing into the pavement when too many pedestrians ignored you.
I liked the junkie-punks. Some of them were my friends, and those who weren’t still symbolized the anarchistic, grungy Seattle that was already being swept away by the tide of the tech industry by the time I picked up a rig. But I still thought I was not one of them.
Once I had internalized the same caricature that I’d previously applied to others, it greatly delayed my seeking out treatment.
I might have had problems and liked drugs, but I was also college-educated. I was a published writer. I had my own apartment. A credit card that I made payments on. I was a little edgy, sure, but I wasn’t a loser. I was a person with promise.
It wasn’t until two years later, when I was selling pages of poetry on the side of the road—mostly old pieces drafted during undergrad, which sometimes won me $20 and a sympathetic half-smile—for hits of dope that I realized hopes and dreams don’t safeguard anyone against addiction. And that everyone with an addiction has promise, too.
By that time, I was shooting daily and approaching my fourth overdose. When I realized what I’d become, all I could think was how hateful I was. And once I had internalized the same caricature that I’d previously applied to others, it greatly delayed my seeking out any kind of formal treatment.
“Stigma is super-harmful because it further isolates people who are already isolated because of use, so they are less likely to reach out for care,” says Justine Waldman, director of medical services for the REACH Project, a harm reduction-centered treatment practice in Ithaca, New York.
She describes my exact experience. Between not believing I needed it, and then crossing into the realm of not believing I deserved it, my addiction went untreated for five years longer than it ever should have.
Stigma kept me from seeing myself as truly vulnerable, because it kept me from seeing those already in the throes of a use disorder as fully human. When I developed an opioid use disorder, I didn’t see myself as fully human either.
“We don’t want to wait for that person to be kicked out of school or their life is in the gutter to help them,” says Reaves, a sentiment I wish someone had shared with my twenty-something self. “We want to get them help right away.”