by Princess Harmony Rodriguez
A centuries old question was recently brought back to the forefront. Is drug addiction a moral issue or is it a disease? Since 1939, the publication of the book Alcoholics Anonymous and its prologue-like entry “The Doctor’s Opinion”, addiction and alcoholism have both been thought of by the medical community as a disease. Today, all reputable medical journals and treatment facilities treat it as though it’s a disease. As such, it’s been treated like one: we have medical treatments for addiction like Vivitrol, Suboxone, and methadone. Even with all of our advances on the medical side of things (from most professionals), many people in the general public see addiction as a choice, an indication of weak willpower, and a morality issue.
Over the weekend, a picture was taken and released by the East Liverpool Police Department in Ohio. This picture depicts two people in a state of overdose with a child in the back. It has all the makings of a viral picture, and like clockwork, that’s what it became. In their words, the point of releasing the picture was to convince addicts not to use the poison otherwise known as heroin.
As a recovering opiate abuser, I wasn’t particularly moved by the picture. I know that in active addiction, I wouldn’t have been phased at all by that picture. An addict’s mind doesn’t really work that way. All I would have done was think that it wouldn’t happen to me. We’re mostly unphased by shaming. While in some instances, shame from a loved one can temporarily keep an addict from using, the kind of shame used in that picture, that “look what you’ve done!” shame wouldn’t work.
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Instead of being persuasive to drug addicts, that display only encouraged and invited the self-righteous indignation of ignorant non-addicts. It invited their barbs aimed at the two poor souls who have a disease beyond their control. Comment section after comment section of people expressing their ignorance of addiction and their hostility toward drug addicts.
In the end, all that happened was that the already high levels of stigma that addicts face was increased. Rather than doing something to make addicts stop and think before their next hit, the ELPD only added to the stigma that keeps so many addicts from seeking help. How did it add to the stigma? It turned a tragedy, whose victims are both the child and the addicts themselves, into a clickbait, Easy Bake Oven for anger.
The anger that the picture roused toward those two addicts is the same anger that middle class white people tap into when trying to prevent methadone clinics, treatment facilities, and other important addiction recovery mainstays from entering their neighborhood. The stigma of addiction doesn’t just dissuade addicts from getting help, it directly stops them from getting help when their neighborhood drug replacement therapy clinic gets shut down.
The stigma of addiction is deadly. It prevents addicts from seeking help because they know that if they go, they’ll have that word put on them and they’ll be treated like second-class citizens. And, for the most part, it’s true. Addicts, even when we’re in recovery, aren’t treated like everyone else. “Once an addict, always an addict” is put into play and people believe we’re prone to just slam dope right in front of them.
Our character, at all times, is called into question because we have that label of addict attached to us. Once again, addiction is seen as a moral failure instead of a medical disease. The picture they released directly feeds that belief. Because their faces are out there, forever, for the world to see, they’ll face the consequences of being drug addicts in a harsh and unforgiving way.
Stigma affects all levels of one’s life as an addict. It makes one likely to be fired by an employer, even if you’re sober, out of fear that you’d go back to using drugs or out of the fear that you would steal. It impacts where one can live because of all of the people who don’t want addicts – in recovery or not – near their property. It even impacts what medical treatment one gets, because even though the medical community has done its part fighting stigma, there are still people in it who think addiction is a moral wrong.
In other words, what those two addicts face now is a lifetime of scrutiny, mistrust, and hate. While there are legitimate concerns about the welfare of the child, and no child should be forced to live among the misery of active addiction, what happened with that picture wasn’t out of real concern for the child. It was merely venting the hate and stigma society has toward addicts.
That said, I fear for the outcome that those parents will have. I fear that the intense public scrutiny that East Liverpool Police Department put them under will be too much for them and that they won’t be able to get sober. I fear that that child will be scarred, not just by the black hole that is active addiction, but by the irresponsible and reckless decision to put that picture out there.
The police could have done things differently. They didn’t need to put that picture out there, it served no positive purpose. But what’s done is done and now everyone has to face the consequences. For those two poor souls and everyone still struggling in active addiction, I hope society learns to deal with addiction in a better way.
Princess Harmony is a writer, consultant, public speaker, and a person in recovery. She likes anime, video games, and the letter Z. Hire her to advise on your projects, talk at your school or organization, or to just look pretty.