This week I heard an interview of Tracey Helton Mitchell, a former heroin addict, on NPR. Mitchell has recently published a new book, The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin, about the 18 years of her life since she stopped using. During the course of the interview, Mitchell wonderfully and honestly criticized many of the popular tropes that surround drug addiction, especially the narratives of getting clean and recovering that the public tends to like to tell themselves.
Tropes of what it means to be an addict, and how one either avoids that fate or escapes it have long been a part of American popular culture. According to the film The House I Live In, drugs did not really become a major public health concern until the 1950s and 1960s, and then, with the crack epidemic in the 1980s, such worries exploded into a full-blown panic. (Driven in a large degree, as we well know, by racial anxieties.) I came of age in a time where such fears had long been normalized, and so I grew up with the mainstream narratives about drugs – almost all drug users, I believed, were addicts and, moreover, the narrative arc of drug addiction had a very clear pattern: innocent experimentation produced by peer pressure, leading almost immediately to hard core addiction, spiraling downwards into deeper layers of degradation until, one day, the addict hits the bottom, sees the light, and dedicates themselves to getting clean.
Publishers crafted stories like this and deliberately targeted their young audience; I distinctly remember reading Go Ask Alice, for example, a book that claimed to be the authentic diary of an addict but as I learned as an adult, was actually written by a psychologist. I also excelled in D.A.R.E. – which provided us with workbooks illustrated by the ever-so-cool cartoonists from The Simpsons, our instructor seemed eager to point out to us. In fact, I excelled so much I gave the keynote speech for our “graduation ceremony.” Needless to say, my very one-dimensional view of drug use has changed considerably since then.
For example, one of the tropes pounded into my head was the notion of “hitting bottom” – the point at which an addict encounters a tragedy, humiliation, or loss so great that finally, they realize that maybe they should stop dedicating their life to getting high. This is, of course, usually the end of the film, book, or even TV episode. During Mitchell’s interview, Terry Gross noted that from her memoirs, it seemed that she had many “bottoms,” from living on the street, doing sex work, and going to jail. Gross asked her about this concept, then, of hitting bottom. “I don’t believe in the concept of a bottom,” Mitchell replied. “One of the kind of myths of addiction is that you come to this incredible moment of clarity and you decide that you’re going to stop. Over the course of my using I had various moments of clarity, and I had various points where I wanted to stop, but they were not always congruent with my opportunities.” I liked this idea of needing to have the opportunity, as she put it, to quit – as she explained, she had made several attempts to quit before, but also had understood at various points that the conditions for doing so weren’t available, and therefore wouldn’t kid herself that quitting would come soon. And what ultimately made the difference was being reassured that the emotional support needed to do so would be available:
“I wasn’t completely ready, because all these different traumas had accumulated in my life, and I wasn’t prepared to deal with the emotional consequences of all these different things, and that’s what to me being off drugs meant, was that I would have to then figure out how I was going to fix all these things on my own. And it wasn’t until I got an idea that maybe other people would help me, you know talking to my mother, knowing that I would have some kind of emotional support, where I starting seeing you know maybe I don’t have to do this totally on my own.”
So it wasn’t an exceptional moment of humiliation, the death of a friend, or a quiet conversation with God that got her off of heroin – it was the support of people who loved her and, according to her blog, the fact that drugs no longer worked to distract her from her depression. And this, I think, says a lot about one of the possible impulses behind the drug addict motifs popular culture seems to reproduce: usually, salvation comes in some moment of personal awakening, an individual reckoning honestly with what they want for themselves. In short, it is something of a story of individualism, from hell and back, so to speak, but with only one person playing a key role in this eventual turnaround. Indeed the best that other people can do for addicts, it is usually suggested, is to insist that they cut them off completely until they are clean, refusing to be “enablers.” I am not an expert in drug addiction or recovery, but it seems highly probable to me that we prefer the story of personal salvation over social support in part because it gets the rest of us off the hook: addiction is not about the inadequacy of our social fabric or a chronic cultural loneliness, but the obstacles, challenges, and tests that face an individual seeker – an individual soul before God and God alone.
At least, contrast that idea with what Mitchell describes as the “opposite of addiction”: “If the opposite of addiction is connection, then addicts are people who use drugs are really seeking out, they need some kind of connection with people, and I would say that I’ve had a wide variety of bottoms, but I wasn’t ready to stop until I started to believe that there was a possibility that I actually could stop, and saw reasons for myself to stop.”
Considering the devastating consequences of the War on Drugs – which presents a punitive response to addiction as the best solution – one can only hope that brave voices like Mitchell’s become louder and louder in the public discussion of drug treatment and policy.
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