In May 2019 Louise Vincent, executive director of the Urban Survivors Union, urged privileged drug users to “come out” in an article for Filter. Many people who use highly stigmatized drugs will be only too aware of why this is desirable.
Decades of propaganda have spread the notion that we can’t be caring or honest. Employees who fail drug tests are fired. Parents who use drugs have their children taken away. People of color who use drugs are killed. And our drug policies willfully ignore evidence-based harm reduction practices that would stem the longstanding, growing crisis of drug-related deaths.
As Dr. Carl Hart, a researcher and advocate who has been open about his own drug use, noted in a speech related in Vincent’s article, we can’t expect the most marginalized drug users, who already suffer the worst harms relating to health and criminalization, to debunk dangerous stereotypes at their own risk. If more privileged, white drug users were open about their use in the context of their functional, successful lives, things would change. But even among this group, few dare—apart from former drug users, safely in abstinence-based recovery—for fear of consequences that are still very real.
One result of this is that most drug use, most of which is not problematic, remains hidden. But through contact with emergency rooms, treatment facilities, law enforcement or mortuaries—all amplified and sensationalized by media—the most chaotic or harmful forms of drug use are highly visible. This distorts the public perception of the wide spectrum of drug use, reinforcing societal stigma and the drug-policy status quo.
I figured that being totally honest about my drug use might help others who were struggling.
But when I began talking, writing, tweeting and vlogging about my heroin use a couple of years ago, I’d never heard of any of these arguments. I just hated lying. Also, I figured that being totally honest about my drug use might help others who were struggling—including functional drug users who might feel agonizingly alone, as I had.
I figured, as well, that defying stereotypes by working for my drug money and always telling the truth would make it harder for people to shun or mock me, and others like me. I wanted to be living proof that drug users can be good, caring, moral, responsible people. Thankfully, my close friends believed me. Others weren’t so kind.
On YouTube, my vlogs about my heroin use slowly gained hundreds of views. While that’s nothing by internet standards, it was enough that I soon had a handful of regular commenters and a great many haters. Some accused me of glorifying drug use. Others merely called me names.
One person accused me of inventing my drug use to get attention, and posted comments all over my videos claiming I needed psychiatric help. They only left me alone when I made a video in which I pointed out that the track marks on my arms and hands would be pretty hard to fake.
That wasn’t the worst part. I had the hardest time with comments that said things like, “Are you whoring yet?” Those hurt the most, because they made me feel guilty about the sex work I had done, including selling photos, stripping and going on paid dates. I didn’t want to lie about it, but I felt like I was hurting other women who use drugs by playing into the stereotype that we all engage in sex work. (In fact, I began selling photos long before I began using—and partly because I found it liberating and empowering, contrary to the sex-work stereotype of financial desperation.)
It’s an isolating experience. So many strangers who don’t know me at all have absurdly strong opinions about me.
Publicly representing a severely marginalized, criminalized group put a lot of pressure on me. I had wanted to be honest about myself, not to claim that I represented anyone else’s experience. But I still felt like I had to seem a certain way. I thought I couldn’t publicly admit it when I contracted an infection through injecting, for example, because I was afraid it would both discredit me and contribute to mistreatment of others.
In another challenge, strangers would write me, asking for help in navigating their own relationships with drugs—help I didn’t always feel equipped to provide.
I felt almost totally alone, because I didn’t know anyone else who was as young as me (I was 19 when I began vlogging), a woman and in a similar situation. The other “out” drug users I knew were all much older, and most were men. It’s a very isolating experience. I mean, I barely even know who I am, yet so many strangers who don’t know me at all already have absurdly strong opinions about me.
The worst thing that happened in connection with my being open about my drug use in my general life was in a work situation, when an older man in a position of power harassed me, exploited me and ultimately sexually assaulted me. He used the offer of giving me drugs (fake drugs, it turned out) to manipulate me, and demeaned me as a “junkie,” among other things. I am certain that knowing I was a drug user made him feel empowered to do those things to me. When I tried to tell HR about what had happened, they refused to believe me—because, I’m sure, I was a known, “out” drug user.
Despite everything, I still felt that I was doing the right thing by being open. And that contributed to my writing an article for Filter—published the same month as Louise Vicent’s piece—about my choice to continue using heroin.
After that was published, I received many comments that were similarly hostile or dismissive to those I’d grown used to on YouTube. But I received many positive messages and comments too, and those have helped me to feel supported.
Wonderfully, some people said my honesty helped them to go from hating drug users to empathizing with them.
Many of these messages have been DMs from people I’ve never met. Some just tell me that they now feel less alone as fellow drug users. Occasionally, people whose loved ones are experiencing addiction have told me that my writing helped to increase their understanding of drug-related issues. Most wonderfully of all, some people have even said that my honesty helped them to go from hating drug users to empathizing with them.
I’ve also made a few friends thanks to my writing, including other writers who are open about their own drug use. I’m glad we met, and potential collaborations have arisen. Two film students separately asked me to work with them—both are drug users, and both are interested in creating more honest portrayals of functional drug use than the usual fare.
These people’s support and interest has given me hope. Perhaps our generation will end the drug war… or at least, work to reduce stigma by portraying functional use accurately and compassionately. And maybe I haven’t totally ruined my chances of having a career.
Throughout my time of being “out,” my dearest friends have all been okay with my use—even though the vast majority of them don’t use drugs themselves. They have offered kindness and support on both emotional and practical levels. Renting me a room. Calmly talking with me, without the judgment and anger I have received from my own family, when I was going through a crisis. Buying band-aids when I self-harmed. Not complaining when I detoxed at their house, even though I groaned and sobbed in pain late at night. In all these ways, they saved me from despair.
Being an “out” functional heroin user is not fun or pleasant. But I don’t regret writing that article or making my YouTube channel. Every random stranger who DM’ed me, saying they felt so much less alone, has made it worth it. As has the kindness of all the people who refused to abandon me.
I am not one of the most marginalized drug users, but neither am I one of the most privileged. If I can do it, many others can, too. And the more of us there are, the easier it will get.