The White Noise

The White Noise

A hit of addiction and mental illness, chased by chemistry and culture.

Science, meet life: Why I write on addiction in the Bronx


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


For the past month, I've spent several late-nights exploring the South Bronx, in an area renowned in local circles for its prostitution and addiction, and in an overall sense, one forgotten and ignored by the surrounding NYC metropolitan area. Hunts Point is a peninsula, literally across the railroad tracks from passerby on the Bruckner Expressway, home to the police precinct with the worst rate of violent crime in the city. However, what I've found with photographer Chris Arnade, frequenting many a sidewalk, bodega, liquor store and on a particularly memorable occasion, a strip club, is a vibrant, unique New York community.

I first went to Hunts Point in the Bronx as an interest lark, contacted by Chris who invited me to go along. I saw the photos on his blog, read the stories on addiction but still gave little thought (to my retroactive shame) on what I was actually getting myself into. Now I'm involved in the long-term project and series, parts of which I'll post here.

Why post stories of addiction and personal travails on Scientific American? It's cursory to scientifically recognize heroin as a depressant and crack as a stimulant, far deeper to see the sensitivity and empathy in heroin addicts, the edginess in crack addicts. When talking to crack addicts, you can feel the chord of volatility, the twinge of paranoia and distrust on the edges -- can you conceive this in a scientific journal? (Yes, the drugs of choice in Hunts Point are crack and heroin.)

Science is obsessed with mechanism, so much so that the human element is often shoved aside, missed along the track of neurochemicals and frontal lobes, even though that's what they themselves describe-- the forest for the trees. In my last post, I received a hefty mix of feedback, some outlandishly negative, including an array of bitter emails: "Science belongs in Scientific American." It's the people who matter, which is why we talk about science. Context, in this case social context, gives rise to the need for science -- the context is the people who are affected by the devastation of addiction. I care about science for its humanity, and I think those who equally care about the field should glance back and remember the reason for their study.

I've restarted this post at least 10 times. Write a paragraph, erase. Write again, erase. When Chris asked what I gleaned from my first few visits to Hunts Point, I gave something I presume to be the dim-witted or easy transmission of my mental fog. I had no idea what I had learned. I had learned too much, perhaps, a writer who can't write through the swirling storm of emotion and experience.

After reflection, I can say this: positive spirits shine through and exist everywhere, beyond what I ever thought possible; some portions of the population aren't given the chance to escape turmoiled confines; we give credibility and platforms to some types of addicts (the prescription drug abusers and alcoholics of the world) far more than others.

I've been to Hunts Point five times now and have spent a good portion of nights there. I briefly jotted this personal catalog after my first night in the Bronx, when I was reflecting in the moment on what I had just experienced of street prostitution and drug use, which was a marked departure from my usual mellow keel:

I know I smoked more cigarettes than I have in my life, both during and after. I know I lied down in my shower after returning and remained there, curled immobile, for some time. It [Hunts Point] felt akin to having my insides turned upside down -- and I know how selfish it is to say how I was affected by a few hours in the neighborhood when this is a daily reality for many.

Shaken, helpless: me, not them.

The point: the lab knows but a modicum of addiction, in the end. People live the rest of it.

Since then, I've returned to Hunts Point, seeking the stories of unique, colorful people who have a straightforward, in-your-face addiction. No, they don't have Oxycontin dispensed from their general practitioner or a taste for expensive wines, but they do self-medicate like the rest of America.

Science in all its empiricism should see the world and what it studies for what it is -- beautiful, pained, troubled and triumphant.

We have enough people covering scientific papers and enough covering science factoids. What we need, and I won't pretend to say I have the perfect answer, is how science is relevant in our daily lives, struggles and triumphs.

Addiction is a case study in struggles. This is a slap of a reminder of WHY we do science and WHAT we are helping. I will still report upon science news, but I'll also tear through stereotypes and lend a light to communities and stories, which I think in many ways we need far more than mere news.

These are the human faces to your synapse, neurotransmitter and amygdala coordination, or lack thereof.

I'm proud to be on Scientific American, but I stand true to the people first, the people for whom I write in the first place.


Here are few of the people I've been lucky to meet so far, photos courtesy of Chris Arnade (click on a name or photo to get more of a story on Chris's flickr site):

Takeesha again: Hunts Point, Bronx

Takeesha shared some of her heartbreaking story with me involving abuse as a young child by family members. She's involved with crack now and "hooks" at times. She has a trusting, free way of speaking and openly adores Chris, running up to hug him on sight.

Craig: Hunts Point Bronx

Craig I met outside a bodega my first trip to the Bronx. We smoked together and talked for nearly an hour. He had an easy way with words and ended many a train of thought with "y'know what I'm sayin'?" I did know -- he made good points about the community, and about crack, his drug.

Cynthia: Hunts Point, Bronx

We ran into Cynthia on a quiet, side street, right when we were about to leave Hunts Point around 1 a.m. The mother of 15 was excited to parade this as the best photo she's ever taken -- she has it hung on a wall at home. She began hooking at 13 and began using heroin and crack shortly thereafter.

Shelley: Hunts Point Bronx

When I met Michael, he was dressed as Shelley, shaking, clearly undergoing withdrawal (from heroin and crack) and said he needed help finding a detox facility. He was afraid to check himself into a treatment center because he had open prostitution cases and wanted to avoid methadone because, he said, he had gotten badly addicted to it before. The police came and questioned Chris and I as we spoke to Michael. His sweetness, pain and the harshness of his situation shone through, and my heart hurt after. We haven't seen him again, though I look and hope on every trip.

A special thanks to Chris for his quiet observation, and for putting up with my presence again and again. See a recent NY Times writeup and follow him on Twitter.

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

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