Normalizing addiction and the addict is essential in building a world based on compassion for ourselves and others.
When I was a kid, anti-using campaigns did their darnedest to convince us that drugs and booze were, like, so lame—even to the point of encouraging shaming and mocking of other kids. Slogans like “weed is wack” and “only losers drink” were designed to deter us by creating negative associations. And, to some extent, it probably worked.
But it also encouraged us to be little assholes. Little assholes who grew up to refer to other human beings by their suffering—“junkie,” “methhead,” “crackhead”—we were taught to stigmatize from a young age. It’s no surprise that we grew up to elect a President who refers to other people as “losers” and “cows.”
The more I think about it, the more it becomes clear that a large part of our society is bonded around othering those we deem different or scary. Whether it’s Mexicans, methheads, or even Trump supporters, a large segment of our culture thrives on one-dimensional caricatures.
It’s no wonder my mother was shocked when I came out to her as an alcoholic last year: “You just never think your daughter will grow up to be an alcoholic,” she said to me through tears. Those words were spoken out of a genuine broken heart and disbelief—after all, how could her daughter, her only daughter, who graduated with her M.A. from a prestigious school and led a seemingly successful life in Seattle, be an addict?
The reason my mother was in such disbelief is the exact same reason it took me so long to admit I was an alcoholic—othering.
When people hear the word “alcoholic,” the mental picture that comes to mind is not one of a young successful Millennial pursuing her dreams. Rather, it’s typically an older (questionably homeless) dude who drinks out of brown paper bags and gets loaded at the local dive every night. He smells like stale beer. He can barely hold down a job. He probably beats his wife. It’s a gross one-dimensional caricature—one that severely limits the representation of alcoholism and alcoholics.
So why is this important? Why should we care about how our culture portrays addiction? Because being an addict is totally normal. Not OK. Not healthy. Normal. And we need to start representing it as such.
Negative associations, such as the ones we were taught as kids, can be helpful. As an alcoholic, I’ve learned to associate things like painful hangovers and being a sloppy drunk with booze so as to encourage me on my path of recovery. The problem comes when we associate negative things with, not the substance, but the human beings who are addicted to them. In doing so, we rob them of their complexity, worth, and, ultimately, their humanity.
Such a value-system creates a society where people demand that food stamp recipients be drug-tested. Where our Attorney General demands maximum imprisonment, not rehabilitation, for suffering addicts. Where even PC progressives, such as myself, feel comfortable othering others for their suffering.
And that’s ultimately all addiction is: suffering birthed out of suffering.
In this way, the non-addict can understand and empathize with the addict. There is perhaps nothing more universal to the human experience than the desire to escape pain, suffering, and discomfort. Relief.
We see it everywhere: In the hard-working parent who escapes reality every night lost in their favorite TV show, in the coworker who avoids bringing up that uncomfortable (but needed) conversation with their boss, even in the caring friend who brings us hot soup when we are sick. While none of these things have the potential to be habit-forming in the life-destroying make-you-hate-yourself sort of way, they highlight a basic reality: Human beings seek comfort.
Blame it on our lizards brains, blame it on our cave person survival instincts: Seeking pleasure and avoiding pain is a universal human quality.
We know that people who are addicts began using to escape pain and/or discomfort. That the majority of us started young to escape early trauma and suffering. We also know that addiction, while providing temporally relief, ultimately leads to more suffering and pain.
In Trump’s America, an America where fear of the other has led us to turn our backs and build walls, it is more important than ever that we resist the temptation to other those we fear. We need to actively work, as a people and as individuals, on cultivating empathy for every single human being—those we fear, those we dislike, those who have hurt us, those we are utterly disgusted with.
Normalizing addiction and the addict is essential in building a world based on compassion for ourselves and others. Here’s to seeing ourselves in the addict and the addict in ourselves.
Jessica Schreindl is a community organizer and freelance writer in Seattle, Washington. She is a contributing writer for Mic.com and has been published on Feministing.com. She graduated with her M.A. from Syracuse University where she studied film history and documentary filmmaking.