Words can always break me
Until two years ago I was a very high functioning Heroin addict and had been self-medicating with heroin since the age of twenty-seven. I had been battling anxiety, depression, anorexia, and addiction from the age of seventeen, all related to physical, psychological and sexual abuse in childhood.
Those of us that function at this level are invisible because from the outside we look like you. Look around you; we could anyone that you see, a friend that you have known for years or a work colleague that you admire and work alongside or the person you chat to at the school gates.
Addiction was not a life style choice; it was a psychological and physical need, like taking a deep breath and exhaling a very long slow deep long sigh of relief, where there is time and space while the drug lasted. The need for these spaces sometimes have lasted for years, other times days, weeks or months and outwardly no-one knew anything was wrong.
After three years of counseling and fast approaching my sixty-seventh birthday, I have been clear of Heroin use for two years.
When I have told people about my past, so far I have come across three different reactions:
One is “Oh wow, that’s amazing. I would never have known, Look at you. Look at what you’ve achieved with your life.
Others unconsciously glance down at my arms to see if I have tract marks, which I don’t. My arms look exactly the same as yours as I have never injected heroin.
And others unconsciously clutch their bags closer to them for a split second, just in case I’m going to snatch it away from them and run off with it.
Words can define how people look and treat us. They create pictures, which are able to shape our beliefs, prejudices and actions.
What picture do you see in your mind’s eye when you hear the words “Dirty Junkie.”
I can guarantee you it won’t be an image of a high functioning addict like me, as I am invisible to you but a stereotype that dehumanises and devalues us, that is very pale looking, often having dark circles around their eyes; they are skinny and always a little bit sweaty. Their clothes look worn-out and unkempt, as if they have not been changed in days.
By judging and reacting to us like this on top of the mountain of pain, fear, isolation and shame we feel already, maybe for things we have done to survive, you give us more shame. Shame founded on a Puritan belief, where belonging and connectivity comes from hard work and perseverance,
You see us as not deserving, a drain on society, not worthy to be part of your community which reduces your responsibility towards us, as you feel we bought this on ourselves. Your judgement excludes us, when what we need most of all is to feel that we belong and feel connected
This attitude is again reinforced by the media in films like “A street cat called Bob” and “Trainspotting” and perpetrated further by the newspaper in negative reporting.
The media makes a fortune out of it. Its big news, it sells papers, so woe betides a celebrity who falls to pieces due to addiction, as in the recent case of Amy Winehouse. Images of a public meltdown sell papers. This public scrutiny brings additional pressure at a time where the world was crashing in on her, where she had no space. Yet we followed and waited for her every move.
The deserving and undeserving is again perpetuated by Government policies of trying to force us into “treatment programs” that we are not ready for, with the threat of sanctions if we don’t or can’t comply.
“DRUG addicts and alcoholics who refuse to have treatment could be stripped of their sickness benefits in a new “tough love” approach to be unveiled by the Government” proclaimed The Express in 2012 It went on to say “From next year in pilot areas, drug addicts will be required to attend discussions about treatment and agree a rehabilitation plan to address their drug problem and other barriers to work that they face, or they risk losing their benefits”
Coercing people into therapy is dangerous as our consent is negated if it is given under duress. Punitive measures have no place in therapy. A safe environment is needed. Trust needs to be established. Asking questions about traumatic experiences can be extremely stressful or damaging for us as already traumatized individuals. Subsequent “re-traumatisation” could occur.
Then, when we enter counseling, where words and physical movements, just like music or smells can take us back to a particular event in our past flooding us with the memories and emotions of the trauma we have experienced and suppressed, we are faced with the expression, “Do you feel dirty?” A phrase so commonly and thoughtlessly used to describe people that take Heroin. This also perpetuates the stereotype image that’s been around for a long, long time.
These words are also said without thinking by many from the Psychology profession who use them without question. When you stop to think about them they imply that a person who has self medicated with an addictive drug, especially heroin, is dirty. If you want to use a “d” word think about despair, desperation and dehumanisation.
Yet, after recovery, when we have finished counseling, ready to face the world on our own, we stigmatise ourselves by use the word “clean” to describe our remission. Every time we use the word “clean” to describe our state of health, we reinforce the stigma that once we were “dirty”
Once we stop associating with the word “dirty” we can see ourselves as in the “clear” We have recovered from the trauma of our childhood and are in remission. We have forged new pathways in our brains that we now follow but just like any remission the old pathways are still there, so relapse is possible.
So finally, I would like you to picture a blank piece of paper. Take a pencil and write the word clean. Then take a rubber and rub away the downward stroke of the letter “n”, the downward stroke that is the stigma that society places upon us.
Many, many thanks to Dr Jay Watts for her support, kind words and comments below.
“Words shape how we feel about ourselves, our actions, our past and our future. Words frame how the Other will see us, a gaze that we then internalise and take up as our own. Words can and do kill. Expressions such as “dirty junkie” have a re-traumaticising effect, reinforcing every horrid, dismissive, hopeless thought that we have about ourselves. The term sticks people into a storyline that can reinforce precisely the self-attacks that make heroin the only way out. If we want to help people recover, we must transmit with every gesture that we never saw them as dirty in the first place, just in dire need of the help, support and validation which souls in pain deserve”
Dr. Jay Watts CPsychol AFBPsS Consultant Clinical Psychologist/Psychotherapist Honorary Senior Research Fellow