Trigger Warning: This article contains discussion of addiction, death, metaphors around death, dehumanisation, and mistreatment.
What defines us as a human?
Is it rhetorical ability? Emotional experiences? Perhaps the tools we use?
I would argue that one of the defining characteristics of our humanity is our ability to to recognise humanity in others, or perhaps more specifically, our ability to deny the humanity of others. Thanks to years of colonialism, warfare, and eurocentric beliefs, we have developed a strange sort of morality. This morality is what we use to ordain or deny a person or object as human/human-adjacent.
Unfortunately, when you are an addict, human-adjacent would be a big step up in how the world sees you. For as long as we have existed, we have been ignored, spoken over, driven out of our homes, and killed. This because contemporary spins on normative morality posit that to be an addict, is to be a monster. We are beyond help and reason.
We are what you fear your children will become.
The truth is that all judgements on addiction come from a place of moral relativism. Addiction is only seen as a moral failing because of cultural attitudes towards the behaviour associated with addiction. Fundamentally, it is seen as a moral failing, rather than a response to trauma and unmet support needs. If we could move society to a more “trauma-informed” culture, it is likely that attitudes towards addiction would alter quite significantly.
This isn’t to say that addiction doesn’t represent a risk to others. As addicts, we find ourselves doing things we never imagined or wanted ourselves doing. The lengths that one might go to in that desperation can lead to some truly awful consequences. To put it another way; we still have to take ownership of our shitty behaviour, whatever the reason. However, we also require some level of compassion. Compassion can go a long way one the journey to recovery.
Sadly, compassion doesn’t go all the way. We still need professional input from those who know how to deconstruct the circumstances of addiction, and help the person to rebuild their life. We need to build a life where it is easier not to engage with our addiction. This is made ever more difficult by the defunding of services that work to do such things. Besides that, we need to recognise that heroin, crack, and alcohol, are not the only substances that need attention from services. The world of addiction grows more complicated by the day, especially since the dawn of novel psychoactives.
Considering the future, we need to build a world where it is not necessary to become addicted to survive. A world where if we do become addicted, we are not shunned to the outer edges of our community. We need people to stop acting like addicts choose to be addicts. Addiction knows no boundaries, it can come for anyone.
Deconstructing societal and cultural attitudes will take a long time. Things like decriminalisation are important, but if done badly could actually reinforce moral judgements of substance users. For this reason, we need further longitudinal data looking at other countries that have done such things, seeing where the positives and the pitfalls lie.
It’s vital that we do this work, because moral judgement and “not in my neighbourhood” attitudes are literally killing addicts. The world has blood on its hands, and it doesn’t even realise it.
Addicts deserve their humanity.