My parents aren’t exactly known for being calm. In fact my mother, who has mental health concerns, will lose her temper if the tupperware isn’t on the right shelf. If someone criticizes her, she accuses them of bullying or abuse.
That’s why I didn’t tell her about my heroin use for nearly six months. I began using around my 18th birthday in spring 2017, and finally told her that fall. I knew she’d be furious—maybe even violent. Still, I couldn’t keep something like that a secret forever.
I was too frightened to tell her myself. So I told the nurse practitioner instead. Even when I asked her not to, she would always repeat everything to my mother. Of course my mother was enraged, and swiftly made an appointment with my psychiatrist.
Both she and the shrink, believing that all drug use is addiction, insisted that I enter rehab as soon as possible. When I explained that my use hadn’t caused me any problems and I could stop whenever I wanted, they ignored me. To them, my careful reasoning was just drug-addled “justifying.”
In fact, everyone I talked to believed that I needed to quit and “get help.” On some level I began to agree with them. After all, how could all the adults in my life be wrong in the same way?
I only went to the rehab for about two days. After that my father became convinced I was “having too much fun”—which never made sense to me, considering that I hated it and had trouble taking all the AA-based nonsense seriously—and forced me to quit.
About a year later, I started using again to deal with a bout of depression. I’d been sexually assaulted. When my parents found out, they attempted to stop me by refusing to let me leave the house without supervision and banning all my friends from visiting. This only made me feel powerless and pushed around, like a pinball protagonist. The worsened depression that resulted eventually led me to move away… and to begin using again. I didn’t know how else to cope. Before I left home, I was on the verge of killing myself. I couldn’t handle how alone I was or how strict they were being.
My family decided that I couldn’t be trusted to look after myself. For a few months they considered establishing a conservatorship—something usually reserved for people who are severely impaired by old age or mental illness. Luckily, this absurd plan never actually went anywhere.
I’ve often imagined what it would have been like if my parents had responded with kindness and understanding.
But it shouldn’t have surprised me. My father is a well-off Catholic Republican who attended military school and grew up on drug-war propaganda. To this day, he still believes that only “poor people” take illicit drugs (and generally blames them for their lot in life). I’m also slightly afraid of him; when angry, he occasionally uses his terrifying “drill sergeant” voice.
Though he, like virtually all my adult relatives, considers wine to be a part of his culture (we’re of Italo-Albanian or Arbëreshë blood), the use of illegal drugs disgusts and horrifies him. For years he warned me never to smoke weed, fearing I’d lose all my intelligence and ambition. To this day I’m still afraid to try the stuff—even though a number of my friends smoke or use edibles for various reasons. He never mentioned heroin, though, which made it slightly easier for me to take it.
My drug use, to be clear, wasn’t a problem, for me or for others. I hadn’t hurt anyone or stolen anything. When I injected I always used new, sterile equipment. I always used testing strips or reagents to check for fentanyl and other adulterants. As a result, I never once overdosed or became ill. The pros of using—for me, it mitigated my depression and insomnia—outweighed the cons. Plus, I made enough money from freelance writing and odd jobs (from stripping to busking to cashiering) to look after myself.
I’ve often imagined what it would have been like if my parents had responded with kindness and understanding, rather than anger and attempts at control. Because their reaction actually brought about the opposite of what they wished. The scolding, insults and nastiness only made me feel worse… and when I feel awful I’m more likely to use more.
Like the family of Sebastian from Brideshead Revisited, their controlling attempts to cure me of my drug use only made me more hopeless and likely to indulge. A habit that began because of an abusive relationship slowly became a way for me to deal with all kinds of pain and suffering.
Shaming people just won’t stop them from taking drugs, as the US government has failed to learn in the past half-century. It’ll only make it harder for them to trust you.
How Things Could Have Gone Better
If you’d like to actually help your loved one who uses drugs, start by asking them what they need. Listen to what they have to say. Support them. Take non-judgemental steps to help keep them safe. Keep naloxone on hand if they use opioids—and, in the current fentanyl-adulterated era, if they use other drugs. Avoid using stigmatizing language. And don’t assume that their use is problematic, especially if you haven’t got any evidence.
Drugs, like children, are an emotive topic. But it’s important to take a breath and not let your emotions control you. Instead of getting angry, my parents should’ve looked at the situation logically, as I tried to encourage them to do.
First, I was voluntarily telling them about my heroin use because I felt it was something they ought to know—they didn’t find out because I overdosed or was having some kind of crisis. That ought to have shown them that I wanted to be open with them, to include them in what was really happening in my life—the feelings and circumstances that had brought me to use heroin in the first place.
Children don’t have to be totally honest with their parents. Many of my friends snuck out to attend parties or go on dates. Yet I didn’t. I tried to keep everything above board, to keep my parents from worrying. I didn’t even try dating or drug use until I was 18, to make things less stressful for my parents. But they took all this for granted.
On a wider level, the evidence would have shown them that drug use isn’t inherently problematic. That’s why drug tests mean so little. Most people consume substances at some point. The majority aren’t suffering from addiction. If a person is able to study, work, maintain relationships and pay their bills, they don’t necessarily need help.
My parents wouldn’t accept this, and ended up sending me to rehab over and over again. It was an absurd waste of money.
AA, which they also pressured me to attend, didn’t help either. I wasn’t ever powerless over my use. Quite the contrary. When I wanted to, I could cut back or stop without much effort. The meetings only succeeded in irritating and offending me. I spent most of my time there getting into theological or philosophical arguments with people out of frustration.
However hard it seems, you should always let the person themselves decide what treatment, if any, they want to undergo.
Of course, even if I had been suffering from addiction, it still wouldn’t have done much good. Twelve-step programs have been estimated to work for only 5-8 percent of people. The associated unscientific belief system and stigmatizing language are incredibly harmful. Nobody should be forced to identify as an “addict” forever. Addiction isn’t a lifelong brain disease, and avoiding all drugs forever won’t cure anything. In the right circumstances and with help if they want it, most people can regain control over their use and return to moderation. While many find these groups comforting, they’re not a solution—and the harms often outweigh the benefits.
Forcing someone into treatment—even the best-evidenced kind—is always counterproductive and unjustifiable. However hard it seems, you should always let the person themselves decide what treatment, if any, they want to undergo.
I tried explaining all this to my parents, but they refused to listen. They always assumed I was lying or manipulating them. They subscribed—especially my father—to the widespread belief that drug users never tell the truth.
While it is true that some people who use drugs lie about their use sometimes, that’s a rational behavior. We live in a world that treats drug users as subhuman. People who use drugs don’t lie because they’re incapable of honesty, thanks to the magical properties of addiction or the drugs themselves—they do so to avoid social or legal consequences. You too would lie, I’m certain, to avoid being horrifically mistreated.
But I really can’t stand lying. Because of my Asperger’s syndrome I have an almost pathological aversion to falseness and often over-share to avoid “lies of omission.” I try to always tell the truth, even when doing so might hurt me. My parents ought to have known this, given the information I volunteered about my heroin use. Yet they were blinded by stereotypes and propaganda.
Invasions of Privacy and Broken Trust
While I was still living with them, they also began searching my purses and bedroom. Whenever they found needles or naloxone, they’d throw ‘em away. The same went for drugs themselves.
While I can understand, to a degree, why they’d do this, it didn’t help me. If my parents actually wanted to keep me safe, they would have ensured I always had sterile supplies and never used alone.
Plus, the new lack of privacy made me feel violated. I felt as if I couldn’t trust my own family because of how they treated me. The humiliating searches traumatized me. I’ve become absurdly protective of my bedroom ever since. Even now, I panic whenever someone opens the door. I can’t stand to let anyone come inside.
As if this weren’t distressing enough, for a while Dad was convinced that I must be stealing electronics to “fund my habit.” Why would I steal when I could just use the money I’d earned? I’ve never had much of a tolerance, so don’t need to afford large quantities of drugs. I alternate between using and not. Contrary to the stereotype, most people who use drugs pay for them by working.
Like the searches, drug tests hurt more than they help. They also fail to tell the testers (my parents) anything useful. Sometimes I tested positive for drugs I’d never taken, such as marajuana. Occasionally I’d test negative when I wasn’t, or positive for heroin during one of my bouts of abstinence.
But the sheer unreliability of drug tests isn’t their only flaw. Drug test results, even if accurate, mean very little because drug use and drug addiction are totally different. If my parents really wanted to see if I had a drug problem, they should’ve looked at my ability to function.
The dos—listen, love, support, obtain practical safety tools, help to the extent it’s welcome—are so easily summarized, if hard to follow.
Testing someone is also inherently invasive. By imposing testing, you’re basically saying that you don’t trust the person, further eroding any mutual respect. The humiliation of being forced to piss in a cup by my furious mother—as if the status of my urine said anything about my value as a human being or my ability to function—still bothers me today. By forcibly drug testing me, my parents made it even harder for me to trust them and failed to learn anything useful. Just don’t do it.
It seems that my recommendations are more of a list of don’ts than dos, because the dos—listen, love, support, obtain practical safety tools, help to the extent it’s welcome—are so easily summarized, if hard to follow.
But here’s a final don’t: You shouldn’t ever make someone detox. Doing so won’t help them. In fact, by lowering a person’s tolerance, quitting increases their risk of fatally overdosing when they resume use, as most will.
Recovery, if that’s what’s needed, isn’t about how many days someone’s been abstinent. It’s not about being able to pass drug tests or avoiding all substances. That’s a dangerous myth. Instead, it’s about whether a person is living a positive, fulfilling life.
When I’m not using heroin, I’m often too depressed to work or study. I can’t get anything done. Sometimes I won’t eat for days. When I’m using, on the other hand, I’m perfectly functional. I consider quitting to be a step backwards because of how useless I become. Safe supply, therefore—and hard as it is to obtain in this time and country—is probably the best option for me.
Of course, everyone’s different. Some quit and are happy to do so. Others do best when they’re able to take substances in moderation, perhaps using for a weekend here or there. Medications like methadone or buprenorphine also help many.
When it comes to chaotic or dysfunctional substance use, the drugs themselves aren’t the problem. Eliminating, say, heroin or alcohol from a person’s life won’t “cure” them. Substances serve a purpose, and problematic drug use is best understood as a coping strategy.
Understanding what drugs do for someone can help you figure out how to help them—if they need and want help. Encouraging them to address whatever issues they’re trying to solve in a safer, healthier manner makes far more sense than an abstinence über alles approach that only exacerbates and fails to fix what might really be wrong.
Photo via NeedPix/Public Domain