All life studies of people’s drug use show that most people who develop addictions—a small minority of drug users—move past their addictions on their own over time, usually without total abstinence. People everywhere have experiences to share of such natural, developmental recovery; just try asking people you know, for example about past smoking.
How is it possible that we so rarely seem to hear these stories, certainly at the level of public debate?
Propaganda from vested interests in the US recovery industry is one factor. The political demonization of drugs in order to attack certain groups of people who use them is another. But a third is that natural recovery is so normal, we don’t think anything about it.
For instance, more 20-somethings get into problems with drugs (and other addiction involvements) than do 50-somethings—who have more life experience, and often, more life responsibilities than their younger counterparts. Everyone knows and accepts this. Yet we too rarely ask what these 50-somethings’ lives looked like when they were younger.
People whose lives have evolved in this way, typically with an element of finding purpose, often don’t feel the need to tell a public story about it. It’s just something that happened—part of their prologue. But a fear of offending received wisdom, of setting the “wrong” example by showing that drug addictions are usually temporary, also informs this reticence. Offering a holistic, nuanced view about drugs and addiction is a risky thing to do in public, socially and legally.
In contrast, the US-rooted recovery movement encourages—indeed, admonishes—people who previously experienced addiction to refer to themselves as being “in recovery,” and to make that the continuing focus of their identity.
Celebrities constantly share narratives about the lows of their addictions and the revelation of their abstinence-based recovery identities, and are widely praised for doing so. That’s not to say that they are necessarily being dishonest about their own experiences; just that telling stories that cast drugs in the worst light is encouraged in our culture.
The drugs-are-bad narrative—to which the notion of addiction as a permanent state of being is central—deflects attention from real culprits
Strong pressures therefore amplify one kind of recovery narrative while suppressing another. Among countless manifestations, consider host of Armchair Expert Dax Shepard’s recent drug addiction and recovery story. Or Nic Sheff’s Tweak, about his tumultuous relationship with meth, as one example of a host of recovery memoirs. Or the way that Kurt Anderson once theorized in New York magazine that George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and other failures were due, in part, to his side-stepping AA in his recovery from alcohol addiction.
Stories of this kind often share some false assumptions: Drugs are bad; they hijack the brain chemistry of people who use them; and once people become addicted, their only hope is to practice a recovery program forever to keep their addiction “at bay.” Such myths sustain the lucrative, ineffective US rehab racket.
Clearly, resisting efforts to exaggerate drug harms does not mean we should ignore them—nobody thinks that. People do suffer and do lose their lives around excessive, compulsive or chaotic drug use. But the likelihood of harmful or fatal substance use is driven by societal pressures and injustices—and by drug policies that foster stigmatization, adulteration and other risk factors.
The drugs-are-bad narrative—to which the notion of addiction as a permanent state of being is central—deflects attention from real culprits.
Luckily, some thought-leaders make a point of pushing back. Among them is Dr. Carl Hart, the Columbia University psychology professor. Hart attacks our culture’s misinformation campaign in his books High Price, and now Drug Use For Grown-Ups. (recently excerpted in Filter).
Hart accepts, of course, that addiction occurs (one chapter of Grown Ups is titled “Addiction is not a Brain Disease”). But his primary focus is taking on the anti-drug propaganda that so many of us have consumed since birth. His simple message is, “drugs aren’t the problem.” That is, drugs, by themselves, don’t cause distress as we’ve been conditioned to believe (think “crack epidemic” and “opioid epidemic”). Instead, policies and attitudes create the bulk of harms.
Hart consumes drugs—including heroin and cocaine—intentionally and for the betterment of his life, while taking care of his adult responsibilities, as his new book describes. He hopes that his honesty about his own drug use, along with his messaging about drugs’ potential benefits, will help steer our society towards the understanding and honesty that might save lives.
Asked what others can do to help, Hart told Filter, “Get out of the closet. Just get out of the closet and be responsible. When people who respect you see that you use drugs, it may conflict with their view of what a drug user looks like. Just doing that will be so helpful.”
Highlighting natural recovery fits this mission. Here are two examples of people whose complex journeys reflect the silent majority who recover on their own.
Keri Ballweber, who’s in her late 30s, consumes cannabis regularly in a way that benefits her. Likewise, her occasional use of psychedelics such as psilocybin, LSD and ketamine is always positive. She also uses cocaine once or twice a year with friends: again a positive experience, conducted in a way that avoids harms.
Keri, who is the director of peer advocacy for an Illinois-based harm reduction organization called Point to Point Kane County, says that she thrives on her mature identity—including, but obviously not limited to, her healthy relationship with psychoactive substances—and would never let anything interrupt her good life and purposeful career. But according to our standard model of addiction and recovery, this shouldn’t be possible—especially because Keri once had a problematic relationship with heroin.
“My heroin use was more of a tightrope walk but I’ve been using harm reduction strategies since before I knew there was a word for it,” she told Filter. “Once I discovered buprenorphine when I was 22 in 2005, I was able to maintain a relatively stable life.” After that, “I never used heroin more than a couple days in a row, pretty much since 2005.”
Keri says she turned to buprenorphine as a safer and reliable alternative to her drug-of-choice—one she could obtain without fear of a poisoned drug supply—not because she was a diseased person who needed medication. She also recognizes that heroin brought her some positives, as well as negatives. “There have even been times that I felt I was using heroin in a therapeutic way,” she said. “My partner and I would get high and be able to calmly and lovingly talk about painful topics in our relationship that when not intoxicated would devolve into fights.”
“I think most of the pain I experienced with my heroin use was directly related to the feelings of shame, stigma and rejection I felt.”
Since that period of her life, Keri has become a mother. She fears that her son might be taken from her if she were ever caught using heroin. One of the few times she used heroin as a parent, she used with a friend. When the friend’s partner found out that they’d used together, he threatened to call child welfare and tell them that Keri was using in front of her baby. It’s a classic example of how the harms of drug policy transcend those of drugs themselves (with which they are often, wrongly, conflated).
“It doesn’t matter that my son was with a grandparent when I was high,” Keri explained. “The second I failed a drug test, child protective services would be able to snatch him away. To be honest, I think most of the pain I experienced with my heroin use was directly related to the feelings of shame, stigma and rejection I felt, simply because of the types of drugs I was consuming.”
For all of these reasons, Keri now uses methadone, legally, instead of heroin. This works for her, and she feels fortunate to have thereby side-stepped the stigma and risk produced by misguided societal attitudes.
But she wants to emphasize that not everybody has that opportunity. “I recognize that a big part of how I’ve been able to exist like this is because I’m a white woman in the suburbs and have no police record. My privilege has meant that I’ve been able to be shielded from many injustices of the drug war.”
Keri Ballweber’s experience with drugs busts all manner of myths. She uses drugs, including illicit ones, responsibly. She does so despite having had a problematic relationship with drugs in the past—one that was significantly caused and exacerbated by societal attitudes, rather than the inherent properties of drugs. And she moved beyond that problematic relationship without entering or maintaining an abstinence-based recovery program.
Aurora*, a transgender woman in her early 50s, has a complicated relationship with cocaine. “Cocaine simultaneously ruined and saved my life,” she told Filter.
Aurora says she went through childhood and adolescence constantly feeling that something was terribly wrong—she didn’t feel like or want to be a man. But growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s in New York, gender identity was a taboo subject, and she was left without support.
“I was so depressed and confused and scared, and many times I was suicidal,” she told Filter. “I didn’t see any reason to live for such a long time and the older I got and the harder I tried to suppress my feelings—by expressing myself with a purpose to be the strongest opposite of anything feminine—the stronger my self-loathing and self-hatred and self-destructive behavior became. Then I discovered cocaine.”
Aurora says that cocaine helped her to remove the fear and inhibitions that kept her from accepting her authentic self. Discovering the drug in early adulthood was a boon.
Unfortunately, she then came to rely on the drug to produce those confident and positive experiences—so much that she became obsessed with cocaine, she says, and developed a problematic relationship with it.
The recovery-movement hegemony would at this point have urged that Aurora check herself into a treatment program and join a 12-step fellowship. But her basis for using cocaine—even obsessively—was complicated. Although she became enmeshed in the drug as a perceived solution to problems it could never solve, she still credits her use as a stepping-stone toward a healthier, positive self-image. “Even though cocaine nearly ended my life, it also became a new beginning.”
Gradually, Aurora found herself able to overcome the destructive side of her drug use on her own. Over the next few years, while she continued to use cocaine, she found herself no longer needing it in order to feel comfortable as herself. She started talk therapy and hormone therapy in order to address some issues and embrace her gender identity. She eventually decided to stop using cocaine. Then, last year, she had gender affirmation surgery.
Aurora therefore sees her drug use, despite some significant road-bumps, as a major factor in her self-actualization process. As she embraced her identity, helped by cocaine, she was able to develop other beneficial areas of her life, such as her skilled career and volunteer harm reduction work. And when she experienced those cocaine-related challenges, rather than joining a recovery program or surrendering to a higher power, she instead found a way to preserve the benefits of drug use while sorting out some unwanted consequences.
“I’m certain I would have taken my life had I not learned to love myself through cocaine.”
Aurora’s story is a real one, however, not a fairytale (unlike how recovery stories are often presented). Following her surgery, she experienced some life-threatening health complications. Those are now behind her, but she says she’s still struggling to adapt to the changes to her body. “I’ve actually felt less like a woman than I ever have,” she said, “and so I’ve recently found myself using [cocaine] again.”
Some recovery advocates would instantly pronounce, “relapse!” But Aurora doesn’t see it that way, and says that her obsessive past relationship with cocaine has not resurfaced. Recalling how cocaine previously helped her to become more confident and self-aware, she says it helps her now as well. “I haven’t had a single sexual thought or tingle since my surgery. I don’t feel giddy about my femininity anymore. But a big hit of freebase and I’m humming pretty well.”
Aurora now also enjoys a robust social network and employment that is meaningful to her—life benefits that she says largely remained dormant while she was struggling to resolve issues around her gender identity, but which now serve to protect her from addictive involvements.
It’s always possible that people’s relationships with drugs will produce negative experiences, but that’s a risk that Aurora feels she can assess realistically—after all, it’s something she’s dealt with in the past. Right now, she finds her cocaine use, once again, to be life-preserving. “I’m certain I would have taken my life had I not learned to love myself through cocaine.”
Aurora’s story, like Keri’s, reflects a level of nuance and personal agency rarely found in recovery narratives in mainstream media. Yet the developmental process at the heart of each story is at root typical, as epidemiological studies show.
While people’s life parabolas and chance encounters vary all over the map, most people outgrow addiction. They do so because of values, purpose, relationships, responsibilities and ideas about themselves that addiction does not remove. This is such welcome news. But it’s news that is habitually withheld from the public, continuing a deadly feedback loop.
The author and Stanton Peele conduct a weekly podcast, “Sundays with Stories,” where they highlight (with Dr. Carl Hart in one recent episode) stories that don’t replicate standard “Temperance Tales.”
*Name changed to protect privacy.