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Bernice: Abuse, Addiction and Hopelessness

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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This post is part of a collaborative narrative series composed of my writing and Chris Arnade’s photos exploring issues of addiction, poverty, prostitution and urban anthropology in Hunts Point, Bronx. For more on the series, look here.

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Almost half (45.5%) the clients reported having experienced one or more life-threatening overdoses. A third (32.7%) reported one or more suicide attempts. Suicide attempts were more often reported among those who had overdosed (odds ratio (OR) = 6.3), and the number of life-threatening overdoses and number of suicide attempts were positively and moderately associated (Pearson’s r = 0.39). Drug addicts who had exhibited both life-threatening behaviours were characterized by polydrug use, poor social functioning and HIV risk-taking behaviour. Suicide attempters were also characterized by psychiatric problems. Conclusions.
The substantial co-variation between suicide attempts and drug overdose suggests some common underlying causal factors. These seem to be related to heavy drug use and poor social integration.¹


Bernice, Hunts Point. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.

In many ways Bernice was supremely ordinary: the way she stood across from Hero City alone and lackluster, trolling for a date, in the light-ebbing summer; the way her shoulders were low-slung and braced in her tight halter top, her look of don’t-fuck-with-me simplicity.

But Bernice wasn’t like the others.

Her story was not one of the flippant-despair or black-humor variety spun by other women and addicts circulating the neighborhood.

From her poured dystopia.

It was in the rise of her shirt, which, when lifted, revealed her non-Bronx skin, white and dappled pink, and the long, purple crepe-paper scars scoring her back.

Once, a man went around slicing women working the streets with a knife, though, to this day, no one knows why. When he got her, splitting her back several times vertically, she stuffed cotton pads inside her wounds, later stemming the mess with duct tape by wrapping the adhesive around and around her body. With this steely corset, she continued picking up dates.

She needed $20 for a hit if she was to be sit in an ER for hours.

Dystopia.

It was in her background of damage, of trying and failing to recover. A life collaged by therapy groups, 42 counts of prostitution with infrequent jail time, one-on-one counseling and substance abuse programs.

“So they think I’m going to sit in a circle and sing Kumbayah and forget that my mother’s boyfriend raped me every chance he got? That I’m supposed to suddenly have a relationship with my family, sit down, and pretend he didn’t force himself on me?”

She is not like the others with their hope.

She gave her children up for adoption, considering it the best thing she’s done, unlike the other women who make fevered plans to regain custody as their children are shuffled between foster care homes while their parents idle in and out of rehab, who make custody visits semi-high, in withdrawal or not at all.

She is not this way, because she doesn’t see a future with herself at its happy center.

Dystopia.

She is not like the others in their street gossip and love-hate friend groups. She is isolated, moving out of time and touch.

This is why, when asked, no one remembers her, yet she has sidled in and out for years.

“I am out here trying to kill myself. I want to get a gun and do it faster, but I am too scared to blow my head off.”

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More Hunts Point Addiction Writing
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Chris Arnade’s Photos and his Facebook feed

Cassie Rodenberg About the Author: I write on culture, poverty, addiction, and mental illness: I explore things we like to ignore. I also teach public school in New York City's South Bronx. Follow on Twitter @cassierodenberg.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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