Trigger warning: addiction
Addiction is a cold, cruel, and insidious disease — one which claims millions of lives each year. It is estimated that one out of every eight adults has struggled (or will struggle) with an alcohol or drug use disorder. This means you likely know and love an addict. It is a personal plight, one which may directly impact you or your family. And yet addiction remains highly stigmatized. Despite its prevalence, addicts wear a scarlet letter. They are shunned, discriminated against, and misunderstood, and this disparity becomes particularly apparent when a celebrity overdoses, as it’s rumored DMX recently did.
The 50-year-old rapper suffered a heart attack and died earlier this week. But instead of receiving only sympathy and empathy, DMX — whose real name is Earl Simmons — also received backlash and judgment. Vitriol and hatred was slung his way because he “chose” his path. Because Simmons was an addict, one who some believe “deserved” to die, or at least “brought it upon himself.”
“DMX deserved to die,” one Twitter user wrote in a since deleted series of tweets. “He was an addict,” another added. “He shoulda known better. Plus, with all them rape lyrics he was spitting with no remorse.” “You get what you get,” another said. Yup. Let that sink in. Someone said “you get what you get.” And the comments on Facebook were no better.
“DMX deserved to die because he used drugs,” another wrote. “I don’t care about any other facts about his life besides the fact he was also a thug!!! DMX had it coming y’all!!!”
And while I understand the anger and frustration — the sadness, rage, and fear — addicts don’t deserve to die, nor do they “choose” their path. Addiction is an illness. It is goddamn disease. Nobody would choose to live that hell.
How do I know? Because science proves that is the case. A 2016 report by former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy confirmed what researchers have known for years: Addiction is an illness, one which is accompanied by significant changes to the brain. Addiction is not a moral defect or character flaw. It causes a chemical imbalance, and this imbalance creates both a need and desire. The body craves the substance of choice. It requires it to survive.
It’s important to note that addiction doesn’t start off as addiction. People consume drugs and alcohol for numerous reasons, and many of them do so legally and/or with medical prescriptions. Drugs, even prescription drugs, can induce a state of pleasure and euphoria. They can stimulate and invigorate. For some, they trigger spiritual experiences. In short, people try mind-altering substances for a wide variety of reasons, not because they want to hurt. They definitely do not “sign up” for a lifetime of suffering. Case in point: My mother.
She began drinking, casually, in her 50s. This is considered culturally normal for someone her age, and it’s legal. By her 60s, the occasional cocktail had been replaced by beer. She would down half a dozen drinks a day. And 10 months ago, I found her alone at home, facedown in her own vomit. There were bruises on her face. Deep, bedsore-like wounds covered her chin and cheek, and there were marks on her torso. Her hair was moist and matted, soaked in bile and blood. And her eyes were dull and sunken. She muttered sounds, but made no sense. They were words without thought. And no one “chooses” this fate.
No one “chooses” to suffer such a long, sad, and lonely death.
“We are taught to stigmatize drug users (and addicts) by society and our laws,” Joseph Palamar — a contributor for The Independent — wrote in 2015. “Because drug use is illegal, it is seen as a deviant behavior. Therefore, many of us brand users as disgraceful or unworthy; we blame and devalue them, and shun or exclude them in order to purge them and their undesirable behaviors from society.” But this line of thinking is dangerous. This dogmatic approach is harmful, through and through. It leads to untimely deaths, as well as a lack of resources and support systems for folks who want/need help.
So what can we do to support addicts and alcoholics? How can we really help? We can learn about addiction, about the risk factors and causes. About the illness’s effects on the brain. SAHMSA, or the Substance Abuse Health and Mental Health Services Administration, is a great resource. It offers a ton of information for addicts, alcoholics, and their loved ones and family.
We can speak to addicts — not at them. Listening in an open, supportive way is key. We can change how we talk to our children about addiction. In order to reduce the stigma, we need to stop this shame-blame game. We need to stop dismissing sick individuals as “drunks” or “just addicts.” They are people, first and foremost. And we can and should support leaders and legislators who make mental health treatment a part of their political platform. We need to do more than “just say no,” because clearly that isn’t effective.
Because addiction isn’t racist or classist or sexist or phobic of anyone or thing. It doesn’t care who you are, where you come from, how much money you make, or if you are loved. Addiction isn’t discriminatory. It doesn’t pick and choose people based on social, emotional, or environmental factors. It doesn’t give a damn if you’re struggling on the streets or performing at the Grammys, at the peak of your game. Though Black, Latinx, and other minority groups are less likely to be able to access and complete treatment, largely due to socioeconomic factors. Minorities, more likely to be policed than their white counterparts, are also more likely to receive harsher sentencing for drug crimes. Further perpetuating the unnecessary and unfair cycle of judgement and shame, which prevents treatment and recovery.
Addiction doesn’t care if you want to beat it. In fact, it’s in these moments, addiction usually gets worse. Why? Because addiction is an illness. A disease that cannot be willed away. It requires comprehensive medical care, access to basic resources (like housing and food), and social support systems.
Does that mean you are helpless or hopeless if you suffer from addiction? That you are doomed to die? No. Of course not. With support, treatment, sympathy, empathy, and time, you can overcome addiction. You will always be an addict, but your illness can go into remission. You can be “cured.” And that is something. It is everything.
We can allow more people to experience recovery by de-stigmatizing addiction and dropping the blame game. Let’s do that.