My substance use started off in my early youth, a young age, and continued until around the end of my youth and early adulthood. So, it’s safe to say that I got clean at a young age too, which is great, but left me with a lot to learn. But, that doesn’t take away from the fact that I did some really terrible things during my active addiction. Some of those things that I did, specifically a name-calling judgmental attitude, were because I felt that I didn’t know any better, while my parents would argue that they raised me differently than that. And they did! So why would I feel it okay to scream profanities or hurt others by putting a label they may never forget. God forgive me! I pray I've never caused someone to hurt themselves; suicide sucks!
I remember myself and being what I thought was a free spirited youth. Life at that age was the typical rebellion stage of smoking some pot, drinking some liquor, and having the occasional cigarette while driving around the “trashier” parts of my hometown. I'd be in the backseat of the car while trying to keep the liquor bottle low as the cops strolled by, screaming, "Fuck the police!" Thank God I've never gotten a ticket or hurt someone with my neanderthal attitude… not to mention the drinking and driving!
Strolling up into what we called "da hood" our judgement was already at its peak with my friends throwing pop bottles at homeless people! We’d hit the heartland of Detroit and roll down our windows so people could explicitly hear our slander… “Junkie!” they'd scream to the old man lying on the side of the curb begging for change. I never thought he could have been a veteran who'd fought for my right to be an upright idiot! Or when we'd scream, “Whore!” to the woman sticking her leg out along Woodward Avenue hoping to provide that extra set of diapers for her child. Is stigmatizing the world a part of this disease? I could see the hurt I was putting out into the world, and it was disgusting!
My friends and I didn’t know what we were saying, we were so young. But is that an excuse? Heck! We made games out of the barrage of garbage spewing from our mouth! We dared and continued to dare each other to get out of the car and picking apart the crowd of downers after yelling such terms. And I bet you're asking, "Who in their right mind would do this? Aren't you going to get your ass kicked?" And our response would be, "Ass kicked by some butt plug? PSH!"
Sometimes the terms would become even more racially or gender driven, it just depended on the part of town or simply what we were calling each other, too. While I can remember being coined a "fag" for fun... But we thought that these words were fun for most of us, until you hit tough times and really had to take a good look at yourself, years into my heroin addiction struggling to not sell myself for drugs and realizing the word fag held a completely different meaning, nor should've been said by some ignorance driven, drunken, high! But, I'll ask it again, "Did I know any better?" or how do we raise that awareness that will make situations like these to never arise?
There would be times that we’d be in the middle of the forest smoking some dope and would look at each other when someone wasn’t taking “enough,” or on the other hand, when someone "killed it!" You’d get the urge to call them a dope fiend and hope that they’d reciprocate with the words, “Shut the fuck up, queer!” just because it was a sign of respect towards one another. Oh the irony, right? I can't believe the audacity we had pretending the bong was a dick, or that it was cool to not remember my own name and instead be lulled to sleep with my friends writing "fiend" on my arms and forehead with permanent marker! My mom would ask what was written there, and I'd say "nothing," when it was my eventual downfall into a branded lifestyle that I myself have now created. I was my own worst stigma, but again… "Did I know any better or was I too addicted to care?"
That wasn’t enough, though. Heck! We’d make circle jerk jokes just to see how “gay” each other could get before getting weirded out and having to call “it quits.” Or when my friends would walk in public with Marijuana on their shirts, and every time they got a funky look it turned into two middle fingers up! "What a kind gentleman" was the opposite of the remarks we were getting, while totally being labeled as abusers and lost souls, not just someone amidst a pure humanly struggle!
To us, during our active addiction, it was all a joke of how far would could push each other’s boundaries, while everything offensive was left off to a game or youthful indiscretion. Plus, if we were using, unbeknownst to the consequences, being called an addict, or whore, were good things to us… it just meant that we could handle a lot or were getting the most tail. I never knew that I'd grow up to be looked at as the "faces of meth" whenever I use the word addict now at six years clean. I'm healthy, but only as healthy as "they" want to see me until we can end the stigma! I never knew that when I’d sober up I was actually my own worst enemy and horrible version of a future stigmatized person! You could say it's all in the mentality, but, we do know that no one can live an active addiction forever. There are three outcomes if we don't choose recovery, but by the time I get there, I've already dug the ditch six feet deep!
You never think of the consequences of words like these when you’re using. And in all reality, it’s not the parent calling their kid a junkie, because they don’t even have a clue what we, the kids or other persons using, are doing! It’s me, myself, and I calling myself a junkie just so I can fit in and be a part of a clique that would eventually kill me or have me end up in prison. But trying to belong to something so derogatory would mean that I, the substance user, was creating the stigma. I was my own worst stigma until the day I chose to fight against it. I am trying to undo a lifetime's worth of ditch digging, but it's a process. Remember, "Progress not perfection!"
So eventually, then, when I found recovery it became the most uncool thing to be known as “an addict,” or “that addict.” And I don’t really have an explanation as to why I was doing it. Like I thought, youthful indiscretions. But youthful ignorance may be a reason, but it's never a solution. And that's why awareness at a young age is one of the most crucial parts to this recovery movement!
So, maybe the social norm of addiction is to perpetuate the stigma itself, until you do finally know better. I guess they really do mean, “You don’t know until ya know.”
If anything goes to show from coming to this realization, it’s that I really didn’t know that I was my own worst enemy and creator of demons known as stigma. While, secondly, the people who are making the stigma worse are the substance users themselves; and yes people in recovery too, especially if we don’t change our old ways of thinking and doing—that doesn’t change overnight! So realize when I’m out there risking myself by wearing a sober tee-shirt, or openly admitting I’m in recovery, that itself is breaking the stigma. But the key to all of this is that I’m not trying to change the mind of Suzy Homemaker. But, who’s mind I’m really trying to change is the addict still sick and suffering, by giving them a new way to live, a better life than they’ve had, and a reason to say that they are proud to be sober; not glamorizing addiction or any other stigmatizing and slanderous term we chain ourselves to!
So if you want to change this epidemic and the way it looks, feels, and moves, then get out there and spread a positive image for recovery no matter what, because we were the ones that create the derogatory terminology, not mom or dad… now it’s our turn, as a community, to change it for everyone! No ifs, ands, or buts about it! #EndTheStigma