A Year After I Quit Drugs, the Stigma Still Haunts Me

December 14, 2022

From the moment I began openly acknowledging my opioid use—often via self-deprecating jokes, at least to friends—people shamed me.

This is not surprising. We live in a culture where many people still believe that using illegal drugs—and sometimes even legal ones, like cigarettes—is utterly shameful. There is this assumption that if you use certain drugs, you cannot by definition be a good person. You must be a thief and a liar, not to mention prone to unprotected sex and riddled with untreated diseases (I’ve been accused of all this by doctors and others). This kind of vicious thinking saturates media depictions of drug users, as well as conversations and discourse in general.

Family members, and friends I admired greatly, told me, for example, that my drug use would inevitably lead me to become homeless. They insisted that I would never be capable of anything—ignoring all the art and writing I produced whilst I used (I didn’t allow my drug use to get in the way of my hobbies and passions, which is one reason I don’t consider it to have been an addiction).

I was unprepared for how much the stigmatization I’d suffered would continue to shape my interactions with the world.

One relative furiously yelled at me that he couldn’t believe a word I said, because my opioid use meant every word that came out of my mouth must be “bullshit.” It didn’t matter that I always did my best to be direct and honest. Indeed, I struggle to lie or keep things to myself, particularly when asked a direct question, perhaps due to my autism.

The vile, dehumanizing stereotype of the junkie is so intensely ingrained that even people who loved me couldn’t see past it. No matter my actions or how carefully I managed my drug use, they reduced me to some hopeless cliche from a lurid Lifetime movie.

This all left me, as you can imagine, with pessimism and mistrust as constant companions. In 2021, as I have described in Filter, I phased illicit drug use out of my life. I expected this decision to have costs as well as benefits. But I was unprepared for how much the stigmatization I’d suffered would continue to shape my interactions with the world.

I had seen all too clearly, for one thing, that my place in my family, as well as elsewhere, was dependent on whether I conformed to other people’s idea of normal and right. That’s no great revelation, for sure—conformity under threat of shunning is a human social mechanism even in supposedly tolerant or enlightened circles.

But the brutality of how I discovered that love was conditional—that even striving to meet other imposed standards, like working hard and achieving things, would not protect me from the withdrawal of affection and support—continues to reverberate as I move forward in my life.

Coming out as trans, for instance, was made even more difficult by my terror that my family would once again decide I didn’t deserve to belong. I knew that they considered being gender diverse, like drug use, more than a little scandalous.

Since family members had so regularly thrown out my naloxone and other harm reduction supplies, I did not tell them I was going on hormones until after I’d begun the medication, because I feared they’d take it from me.

Thankfully, they didn’t do this. To my surprise—even while instructing me to keep my transition from my beloved, now-deceased (Catholic) grandfather—they’ve actually picked up my meds for me at the pharmacy, and helped me find coupons back when insurance refused to cover my testosterone. It has gone about as well as I could realistically have expected.

Whenever I set foot in a doctor’s office, I might as well be in an interrogation cell for the way it makes me feel.

But my fear has yet to subside. I still do not trust them with much information regarding my health, something that certainly frustrates them, but that is wholly rooted in their reactions to my drug use. 

My relationship with medical practitioners has remained similarly damaged, due to the cruel ways in which I’ve been treated by doctors. I was once thrown out of the office by a family doctor I’d been seeing for years, because someone told him I “had a little problem with opioids,” and he assumed I was high (I wasn’t). And since quitting drugs, I have retained intense anxiety about disclosing anything in medical settings.

I long ago developed the habit of seeking doctors unconnected with hospitals where my file still lists “drug abuse.” I have continued to avoid mentioning my history, for fear that practitioners will deny me the medications and surgeries I need to transition, and thus survive. And whenever I set foot in a doctor’s office, I might as well be in an interrogation cell for the way it makes me feel.

The fact that I’m white, educated and privileged has certainly helped me here, because nobody assumes that I used those kinds of drugs if they haven’t heard otherwise. I don’t know if I could have concealed my history if I were Black or poor. I’ve still found it hard. But the relative leniency I’m afforded makes me boil with rage at the unjust way in which others are treated.

When I first got to my university in Rome, where I study archeology, I lived in fear that someone would google me and find out about my history. Moving across the Atlantic to a faraway country so beloved by my grandfather, who’d spoken often in his last year of visiting once again, felt like a rebirth—a kind of bittersweet return to dreary kingly life after my five or so years as a junkie-poet Prince Hal. I was utterly terrified that this hope, this new chance at a peaceful and unremarkable existence, would be stolen from me the moment someone learned about my drug use.

Although I’d been told again and again that I would never achieve anything so long as I used opioids, I couldn’t shake the idea that quitting wasn’t actually enough. After all, I’m still essentially the same person as I was when I used, albeit more anxious and prone to mutism. If, back then, I wasn’t good enough to deserve or achieve anything, as so many people told me, then what had changed, really? 

On an emotional level, I’m still fearful that I’ll never be good enough. To compensate, I try much too hard.

Years of being insulted, degraded and treated as worthless have left me continuing to suspect that it was justified. Sure, on an intellectual level I know it was purely because I used the wrong sort of drugs. But on an emotional level, I’m still fearful that I’ll never be good enough.

To compensate, I try much too hard. I attempt to read up to 40 lines of Latin prose per day, and hate myself when I don’t. I’m taking six courses for credit and multiple others, including intermediate Latin and Italian (I was also taking beginner’s ancient Greek, but became so mixed up and exhausted that I had to drop the class). I’ve kind of constructed my identity around being as good as humanly possible at a dead language, perhaps because this is precisely the sort of thing that impresses people like my family.

Outside of my studies I hardly socialize, aside from email correspondences with Latinists and other studious types in faraway places. Perhaps foolishly, I am almost structuring my life around being the opposite of the character I was long assumed to be.

This pressure is exhausting. At times, I don’t know how to relax. I worry that if my grades drop, people will assume I’m using again, which I fear will prevent me from achieving the academic career I dream of. When I was in an abusive relationship in high school, my grades began to slip from As and Bs to Cs and worse, because in my despair I didn’t see the point of effort. My teachers accused me then of being “on drugs,” although I didn’t use opioids until I’d graduated and, at that time, hadn’t even tried alcohol, nicotine or cannabis.

I’m still afraid of such accusations. Nobody with knowledge of my past would believe me if I insisted that I wasn’t using. And some weeks ago a relative did accuse me of being high because of how languid I sounded on a phone call, presumably due to exhaustion. The stigma continues to haunt me.

If we hear for years that we’re subhuman or worse, our internalized shame may long outlive our relationships with drugs.

Slowly, though, I’m beginning to learn that my intense, obsessive study habits and lack of personal life are not wholly necessary. Even my teachers tell me to take breaks and go easy on myself, with one sternly warning me not to read or write any Latin over fall break.

And slowly, too, I have begun working up the confidence to disclose my history of drug use to friends who didn’t know, and to new acquaintances. Thankfully, nobody blinks. Some of my classmates even have a history of benzo, opioid or meth use themselves. Most drink or smoke.

Their acceptance is starting to teach me that I’m not some repulsive, unloveable outsider. It’s not enough to soothe my fears entirely. But I’m getting there. I’m slowly growing more confident. And in some ways, perhaps the strife and stress of those years has made me more resilient. If I can survive that, grad school probably won’t be too hard.

I understand why people dehumanize and degrade people who use drugs. They’ve been told that so-called “tough love” will compel us to quit. Many truly believe what they say, as well.

What they don’t see is that people who use drugs can and do achieve great things. But if we’re told that we can’t, we may come to believe it. And if we hear for years that we’re subhuman or worse, our internalized shame may long outlive our relationships with drugs.



Photograph of the Colosseum by Ank Kumar via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

M.L. Lanzillotta

M.L. is a writer from the Washington, DC metro area. He's the author of a number of novels. In his spare time he paints, dances, directs, acts, cooks and embroiders.

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