March 14, 2013 | 8
Welcome, if you’re new to SciAm Mind, or to me. I write on addiction and the culture surrounding it, something that morphed from my original focus of addiction and mental illness chemistry (though I’ll still delve into that sometimes). This is mainly why, but let me explain more.
Because we don’t like to talk about addiction, a single story perpetuates. The one where the addict should choose better but doesn’t. But addiction isn’t a world with a fixed narrative. It has threads, black and sticky, that web and and reach out to run through lives, surprising and fragmenting them. It’s among the loneliest of diseases, effects, choices and strain difficult to explain to those uninvolved. As someone once asked me, “what else has the strength to separate mother and child?”
Addiction isn’t yet a full-frontal issue of national public health. It will be. Other countries are currently doing it better (sorry, U.S.). It’s something we, as the public, need to address. To begin, we need to talk about it more and understand why perception change matters so much. It matters because of all the people addiction affects.
In light of that, I will share stories, stories of family and individual and public and private. We have wonderful writers like Dirk Hansen, David Kroll, and Maia Szalavitz who discuss issues and mechanics of drug science. But I’m after the humanity, stories of rich, poor and in between.
A woman whose love for her lost daughter urges her to work to save others, a man who became a leading scientist after coming back from near-death alcohol abuse and withdrawal, a car company executive with a penthouse in Times Square who once could barely function from pills. A homeless heroin addict who felt effects of withdrawal on my couch, a woman despairing after a hit of crack was lost in a McDonalds bathroom. Late-night notes from a woman who reaches children of addicts (after having grown up in a home riddled with addiction-based abuse), and a blog written through the mail by a man not allowed technology in rehab. Each of these people and their paths, and the many more I’ve been honored to encounter, astound me.
After many years, I’m now able to say I’ve been hurt terribly by the disease of addiction. I can, in a quiet voice, tell you that it’s ripped me apart and set a course for my life — writing and discussing addiction — that I don’t think I would have wanted otherwise. That the past year, detailing and trailing the lives of street addicts full time, has all but done me in. But that’s what addiction does to those it touches: it smothers the good and dredges up moralities and makes you question yourself, looking for someone to blame.
I believe that stories, that the anthropology and psychology of addiction, change minds, derail stigma and, in a small way, heal. Addiction isn’t what you think it looks like. It doesn’t always grab who you expect.
There are those who recover. There are those who function. There are those who don’t. There is trying. There is stumbling. There is trying again. It is a land of extremes. On the other side of a disease of great darkness, though, in the hope for recovery, there is a force of great love. Love and faith that someone has for her family, her friends and, ultimately, for herself. Irrepressible.
I write about addiction because I hold fast to the belief that people need to hear it. That those touched by it are not so alone, that a struggling friend or family member isn’t a fiend, that addiction isn’t an issue of morality, right or wrong. It’s an issue of public health, one we need to recognize and give voice to.
Why? Because people are worth it. Here, I simply quote a poem from Tatiana, a young woman struggling with heroin dependency:
What does the disease of addiction mean to you?
It means we’re strong to still be standing after
all we’ve been through.
It means we’re wise, if we learn from our past.
It means we’re innovative — we will find
the means & ways to get what we want.
It means we’re persistent.
It means we can do anything
in this life.
A little about me: I left science because I missed people, then I later left TV media for the same reason. For the past year, I’ve been half of a photo-documentary project exploring Hunts Point, Bronx, chronicling, among other things, issues of addiction in extreme poverty. Largely because of this community, I now teach science in South Bronx public school, and I write, always.