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Why Do We Hate Addicts?

After the death of Amy Winehouse this past weekend, I read an article by Russell Brand, posted on his personal website, that really spoke to me. A former addict himself, Brand traveled in the same circles as Winehouse and knew all too well the cycle of addiction that she suffered from and how the fame machine could chew up and spit out an already-vulnerable person. In his article he talks about the way we as a society stigmatize addiction and how people like Amy Winehouse and others who have died from their addictions end up being mocked or ridiculed for succumbing to something very real and completely uncontrollable.

The way we look at, treat, and talk about addiction in this country is somewhat sickening. It is ironic how judgmental our society is about the disease, considering that we are bred to have addictive personalities in every facet of our lives – the media, our leaders, and our peers all urge us to become addicted to cigarettes, to food, to alcohol, to television, to obtaining the perfect body, to sex, to video games, and everything in between. We are a nation of excess, and we’re steered from birth towards an obsessive-compulsive need to have more and more and more of whatever kind of lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed. So many of us are addicted to reality TV, or Facebook, or caffeine, or cigarettes. We all have addictions we cannot shake, from the smallest ones to the most dangerous. And yet that very same addictive society is the quickest to judge those who fall victim to their own addictions.

Celebrities and “normal people” alike have a raw deal when it comes to addiction. Your average everyday Joe or Jane Doe will become addicted to a substance, most likely at a young age, and oftentimes, instead of having the resources and support system to begin treatment, they’ll more likely end up being arrested and shuffled through the jail system over, and over, and over, a process that will cost hundreds of taxpayer dollars and do nothing to rehabilitate the person. As it stands, most rehab treatments cost significantly less than the average cost to incarcerate someone for drug-related charges. Despite this, we still jail first-time offenders for incredible lengths of time, costing taxpayers dollars that could be spent elsewhere, and doing nothing for the rehabilitation of the offender. Once they get out, they are much more likely to offend again, and their cycle of addiction will continue on and on, with most getting incarcerated multiple times, typically until they commit a felony that warrants a prison sentence or they end up dead from their addictions. And to think – if we could just send all first time offenders to rehab just once. They wouldn’t all succeed, but imagine how many might have had very different lives.

Celebrities, especially musicians, are often dead in the water the moment they become famous. Record companies and executives are said to be very shrewd and callous in the way they deal with their artists. Oftentimes musicians are encouraged to develop drug and alcohol habits, and people are hired to cater to their every whim. Drugs, alcohol, and other vices are bought and paid for by the label to keep their artists happy and producing work. In the case that those addictions lead to the demise of the artist, well, the record company benefits from that, too. They just release posthumous albums and compilations to “celebrate” the artist’s life and work and watch as the money piles in from grieving fans. Case in point: Michael Jackson. If an artist is falling down a slippery slope of drug and alcohol addiction, and they haven’t worked in months or years, they are costing the record companies money. It is so much more profitable for them to die a premature death so that record sales will surge again. It is cynical truth, and more than likely will be the case with Amy Winehouse, as we watch her album go to #1 on iTunes and wait for the inevitable posthumous releases.

Her death hadn’t even been announced on all the major news outlets before the snark began all over the web. “She shouldn’t have said no, no, no to rehab” seemed to be the most popular (and unoriginal) response. “One less addict in the world, good riddance” was another comment I saw. Even the major newspapers were jumping on the bandwagon and turning this sad, premature death of a talented young woman into a farce. No doubt many U.K. news outlets must have been on “death watch” for years, with pre-written obituaries about Amy ready to print at any time.

Alcoholism and drug addiction are diseases. Anyone can be afflicted. Celebrities, politicians, religious figures, men, women, teenagers, the elderly. It is a non-discriminatory affliction that can take hold of anyone. We would never think to chastise someone suffering from Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s, or to say, “One less diabetic in the world” when someone succumbed to the disease. So why do we treat our fellow men and women who suffer from addiction so horribly? Why do we feel that their lives are expendable? Is it so we can kid ourselves that we’re somehow stronger, better than they are? To feel that we are indestructible while they were weak? Or are we just a society of straight-up assholes?

I have seen friends struggle with various addictions over the years. I have watched loved ones “slip up” again and again, having that one drink after months of sobriety, swearing it would just be the one, and then falling head over heels back into the alcoholic cycle. I’ve seen peers incarcerated for drugs, trying to get clean, to get their lives right, and simply not being able to stop. I’ve seen friends lose their children, their jobs, their marriages, over their addictions. I’ve listened to doctors tell family members, “If you do not stop drinking, you will die,” and then watch them crack open a beer hours later. Do I think those people are just weak? No, I do not think that. I think they suffer from a disease, one that is harder to break than you could ever imagine, unless you’ve been there. A disease where your brain tricks you into thinking you can quit at any time, a disease that will kill you unless you can get help from a trained and knowledgeable outside source.

Amy’s biggest hit chronicles her resistance to go to rehab. The album sold millions and made record executives rich. Do you really think they wanted her to get better, when her reputation as a complete and total train wreck was making so much money for everyone?

To quote Brand’s poignant and experienced words: “All we can do is adapt the way we view this condition, not as a crime or a romantic affectation but as a disease that will kill. We need to review the way society treats addicts, not as criminals but as sick people in need of care. We need to look at the way our government funds rehabilitation. It is cheaper to rehabilitate an addict than to send them to prison, so criminalisation doesn’t even make economic sense. Not all of us know someone with the incredible talent that Amy had, but we all know drunks and junkies, and they all need help, and the help is out there. All they have to do is pick up the phone and make the call. Or not. Either way, there will be a phone call.”

I hope, perhaps in vain, for a world where we treat people with addiction like they are something other than sub-standard, deviant humans undeserving of love and support, who don’t even deserve to have their death mourned.

By Teri Drake-Floyd

An almost 30-something synestheste, foodie, genealogist and all around proud geek.

17 replies on “Why Do We Hate Addicts?”

I think the article skirts the fact that addicts sometimes do hateful things. That isn’t an excuse or justification for hate, but it does feed into the unreasonable, sometimes mocking, anger directed at addicts in the public eye. I agree with both this post and Russel Brand’s post that addiction is a disease that needs treatment. That said, addiction is a particularly complicated disease. The nature of the disease means that many do not want treatment and outside of legal action there are few means of forcing someone into treatment (though more often addicts are imprisoned despite this being less helpful than mandatory treatment). That’s not even touching the fact that unless the addict willfully participates any treatment or prison term is a brief stopgap.

This leaves some questions about agency and diminished judgment. Addiction clouds decision making, but it doesn’t give a carte blanche for actions that are often hurtful and sometimes illegal. The nature of addiction means there aren’t easy answers for how much can be forgiven as a result of the disease. Particularly when we’re talking about actions that are hurtful, emotional reactions aren’t as simple as “I can’t hate him/her because hate won’t help.” On the larger scale of celebrity addicts I think it is unfortunately easier to hate and mock than to acknowledge that there may be nothing we as distant observers can do to help that particular addict.

Of course it’s true that oftentimes addicts do/say hurtful things. Case in point: the family member I briefly mentioned in the above article. I can’t tell you how many times that particular family member has resorted to mental, emotional and physical abuse against her children, as well as unleashed all sorts of verbal warfare on the rest of us in the form of racism, homophobia, and various other slurs and insults. She’s burned so many bridges and hurt so many people that most of the family have given up on her and do all they can to stay away from her. No doubt the loved ones of addicts are the ones who suffer the most. That’s not in dispute.

And of course you have addicts who do not wish to seek treatment, who fight against it tooth and nail.

My article speaks more about addicts on the whole, however – how much of society refuses to treat addiction like the disease that it is, and often treats the deaths of addicts as something they deserved, or something to mock.

Just one more thing:

When I reread your comment I thought that the same could be said of the mentally ill. In many cases those suffering from some sort of mental disorder or disease will refuse treatment many times, go off their meds, and put their loved ones through endless amounts of suffering. That is a symptom of the disease in which they suffer. The same could be said for addiction.

If we accept that addiction is a disease (I see both sides of the discourse here), I hold addicts in the same contempt that I do people with treatable illnesses who don’t seek treatment and parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. Which is to say, get your shit together because I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy and/or empathy for people who persist in doing stupid shit while acting like they don’t know what they’re doing. I think a lot of people regard addiction as a totally preventable disease (ie the addict made the choice to start drinking and then to keep doing so). I’m not a huge fan of the current sociological trend of placing absolutely everyone on the same ideological level. Some people just naturally have more to deal with. It sucks and it’s not fair, but it’s not an excuse for not dealing with it.

On second thought, maybe “contempt” isn’t the word I was searching for. I meant to convey that I don’t believe calling something a disease gives you carte blanche to do whatever you want, cause other people pain, and refuse to try to fix what’s going on.

I see the point you’re making and I’ve heard a lot of people make this argument. But I think the gray area lies in the fact that the very nature of addiction is to continually engage in behaviors that you know are risky/dangerous/stupid. You cannot stop. No matter how much you may want to. No matter how ‘stupid’ you know you are being. No matter how much you realize that you could die from this. You can.not.stop. There are many addicts out there who desperately want and need treatment, but can’t afford it, or don’t have a support system in place, or don’t know who to ask…or maybe have been through it so many times before they’ve given up on themselves.

Perhaps we shouldn’t put them on the same level with other diseases, as you said…but it is still a disease, and still one that is deserving of some compassion. At the very least not to be mocked.

I live in an area where drug addiction is a big problem. It’s interesting since my community is very diverse in SES and it’s a problem across economic classes. A young guy from a wealthy family recently died from addiction, he had been sober for months and starting school again when he relapsed. For him, he was pressured into starting drugs by guys he knew. Another guy from a poor family I know got addicted to heroin, then wanted to get clean, and it was shocking the lack of resources available to him. I actually talked to an addiction counselor myself since I thought he had to be lying about it and was using it as an excuse to stay addicted. From my knowledge of drug addiction in my community, I do think that once you are addicted it is a terrible disease that should be treated seriously for the rest of your life. However, I do think that many addicts should have known better than to start down that path and are at least partially to blame for their current state unlike those afflicted with other diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.

Some people believe that there is a sharp distinction between addiction and other kinds of diseases; no matter what various scientists and medical associations say about the legitimacy of addiction. I have heard women with cancer say they did not choose to put tumors in their body but addicts deliberately choose to buy “tumors” and put them in their veins and nose.

I’ve heard this argument made, too. To me it just sounds like playing the blame game. My Grandfather died of lung cancer. He started smoking when he was 12 years old. His smoking directly contributed to his Cancer and that is what killed him at 65 years old. That was clearly the cause of his death. It was clearly ‘self inflicted’. It was his own ‘stupid decision’ to do that to himself. Yet I never heard anybody say it to him or to anybody else in my family. Some things, like the disease of addiction, might have been prevented if a person had not taken a certain step or made a certain choice. That’s obvious. But when you are dealing with someone who is already in the throes of addiction, there is little point to finger pointing and blame. We all do things that are dangerous to our health. We all make mistakes. We all have vices. There are a million psychological and emotional reasons why a person may decide to try a drug. Each example is different. We can know that the person made a mistake somewhere along the line and still have compassion for the disease they are suffering from.

I honestly believe there are people out there who think that shaming and harshly disciplining addicts will make them quit. Jail is a punishment that scares addicts straight, as opposed those cushy and awesomely fun (hah) rehab programs, which the samers see a reward for bad behavior, or at the very least, something that lets people of low moral character get away with being addicts without paying a severe penalty. They think they are advocating a “tough love” approach, one which, by the way, also allows the shamers to feel morally superior.

Obviously this is not how I feel. But I think it really does boil down to some people viewing addicts the same way a mean person would hit a dog.

Note: My comment is not actually my opinion.

We would never think to chastise someone suffering from Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s, or to say, “One less diabetic in the world” when someone succumbed to the disease. So why do we treat our fellow men and women who suffer from addiction so horribly?

Because people see the initial choice to go down a path that could lead to addiction as a basic flaw in moral fibre and completely preventable if you were “a better person”.

Nail on the head. We look at addicts as people lacking in ‘goodness’ as opposed to people struggling with a biological problem that completely changes your body chemistry. I think a lot of the way we “hate” addicts also comes from the hurt that they cause us and we associate it with who they are, not what the irrational addict self is telling them to do.

Growing up in the south, there is a real stigma around addiction and so a lot of alcoholism gets thrown in with just heavy drinking, something that’s considered part of southern culture. My father struggled with his own drinking problem for years( yet does not consider himself an alcoholic because he was” functioning”. I’d argue that though). while he is better today, I still have a hard time letting go of who he was when he was in that state, even though I know with all my being that it was not him.

Thanks for this, Teri. As a person who’s very recently – and publicly- recovered from alcohol abuse (just passed the 5 months sober mark), I’ve been watching this whole circus with a lot of horror and uncomfortable self-awareness. I was really grateful for Russell Brand’s insightful and articulate thoughts on Winehouse’s devastating illness, and for the timely reminder of how insidious this disease is.

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