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Addiction, Mental Health, Safe Spaces and Stigmatization

“I have tried to speak to these issues in community, but very few of us speak to them loudly enough.”

(Image: Inner profile via Shutterstock)

I didn’t want to think this piece through too much before I wrote it, because I knew if I did, I wouldn’t write it. These topics are difficult for me, but I am putting these thoughts into words now because I believe it’s time, and because there is too much unnecessary suffering in our organizing spaces. I have tried to speak to these issues in community, but very few of us speak to them loudly enough. So, to anyone who has ever been harmed by my silence, or who could have been helped by my willingness to speak louder, I hope you will see this piece as the beginning of my amends.

To everyone else, please understand that I write this from a place of love. I recognize the good in you, and I am steadily grateful that I live and work in a beautiful, radical community. This community allows me to participate in the creation of change and spaces that make my life worth living, and I appreciate that more than I can say. But we all know, or at least should realize, that our good intentions do not exempt us from the failings of our society. Despite all we have learned, we still stigmatize what we should not, and at times, put social expediency before the creation and maintenance of safer spaces. It’s time for that to change, because the world we want must begin with the spaces we create for ourselves.

On mental health…

Most of the people I work with know that I suffer from depression. It is, at times, quite crippling. There have been periods of my life when I have been convinced that I would eventually be the cause of my own death, either through suicide or recklessness, and that the only question mark was when it would happen. Again, many people are aware of this, and have seen me struggle as painfully as I have with any of the serious physical afflictions I have suffered from in my life (some of which have been quite grave).

What I say out loud less often is that I live with bipolar disorder. Like many people suffering from a treatable, chronic illness, I manage my condition medically and manage to function in spite of it. And like many who suffer from illnesses such as diabetes, arthritis, or asthma, my illness occasionally flares up in spite of treatment, and requires an alteration in care, or a great deal of patience. But unlike many illnesses that manifest themselves in a more obvious, physical manner, my illness remains highly stigmatized. In some contexts, I fear it being made known at all. When the words “bipolar disorder” come up in conversation, or in the media, assumptions are made, and prejudices surface. This is true of many mental illnesses, and the stigmatization inspires a great deal of fear.

Last year, I saw a well respected organizer who suffered domestic partner abuse face a great deal of scrutiny amongst those who wanted to continue to associate with her abuser. Her abuser used her mental illness as a shield, and that ableist defense to allegations of abuse was embraced by a number of people. It didn’t matter to them that he had a highly problematic history, while she had a history of loyal, loving organizing with us in the streets. It didn’t matter to them that his own behavior was clearly indicative of him having his own emotional issues (which unlike hers, remained untreated). And it didn’t matter, of course, that abusers are known to seek out victims who are less likely to report or be believed.

Her condition was stigmatized and used as an excuse for complicity.

I would call this unforgivable, but both she and I are hoping to address these kinds of failures of community with transformative justice in the coming year, and I hope that those who have used mental health as a means of attack or as an excuse for apologism will likewise pursue transformative processes. This is behavior that must change, and I am open to building forward, but that can’t happen without accountability.

As a community, we can do better.

On addiction…

This topic is especially difficult, but I believe that owning our own lives can be an important part of any destigmatization process, so I am going to own mine here. For a number of years, I struggled with active addiction. There were a number of factors in play, including a condition that caused severe chronic pain and an untreated mental illness. My mental health issues being misdiagnosed, and occasionally treated in ways that only amplified my symptoms, left me walking through the world feeling utterly bewildered by the functionality of others. I did not understand how people could cope with any understanding of the world, and all of its cruelties and horrors, without wanting to do something to dull the pain of that awareness. I could not process the realities of the world at large, or my own life, without using drugs and alcohol to suppress the strain of it all.

Consequently, I worked my way through a cycle of addiction that eventually landed me in rehab, more than once, battling a severe addiction to opiates. Heroin addiction has a very low recovery rate, and after a great deal of trial and error, I realized that the usual routes to an opiate free life simply weren’t my road home. I do not wish to diminish any means by which people successfully save themselves – if a given path works for you, amen to that. For me, twelve steps and group therapy weren’t the way. I found my salvation in psychiatry and community, and with seven years between myself and that life, I feel firmly rooted in a life without hard drugs.

I still cope with the fact that I was once the worst version of myself, even though I thankfully never did a lot of the things that people have to forgive themselves for in the aftermath of active addiction. I managed to grab hold of some means of salvation before I destroyed everything that mattered to me. I know that many aren’t so fortunate. My life has moved on to much better things, and I am grateful for that.

I say all of this because I never should have had to live in fear of this being known. I say all of this because my fear of talking about it publicly has no doubt prevented me from connecting with people who might have been helped by discussing their own struggles with someone who might have understood. I say all of this because I have watched otherwise forward thinking people use destructive, dehumanizing language about the addicted, simply because they didn’t know that someone affected was in the room. Please remember that this is how all bigotry tends to manifest itself – the jokes and ugly comments get made when people think the affected aren’t listening.

And I understand the gravity of referring to these tendencies as bigoted. I stand by it. Does addiction involve choices? Of course it does. So do many ailments. Many diseases and conditions are amplified by, or even the result of unhealthy life choices. But most of those conditions don’t carry the stigma of addiction, because people tend to understand that it’s wrong to diminish the humanity of others based on their illnesses or disabilities. Some view addiction itself as a disease. For me, it was a symptom of an illness. But regardless of these distinctions, we are talking about a condition that afflicts many of our brothers and sisters, and the problems that result from that affliction are not addressed by using words like “junkie” or showing disdain and contempt for those living in that struggle.

Treatment is not prioritized or made affordable in this country, and the addicted are, themselves, largely criminalized (with those marginalized by virtue of race or gender identity facing the greatest penalties for their addictive struggles). If we hope to overcome these issues on a personal, familial, or societal level, we must be willing to dismantle our biases and bigotries, and treat addicted individuals as we would want to be treated.

We must love and protect one another, even in our darkest hours.

Most addicts long for recovery. Some will never see that day, but I firmly believe that many more would cross that threshold if the stigmatization and criminalization that compounds their suffering were addressed with the same vigor that we attack other forms of bigotry. This is a matter of honoring one another’s humanity, and for many, a matter of survival.

We can do better.

On safer spaces…

The language of feminism is often spoken by those who don’t understand it and those who manifest no real commitment to standing by survivors. Again and again, we see abusers coddled and given shelter as a matter of social expediency. In some cases, the complicity of leftist communities in cases of rape and abuse is more harmful to the survivor than the violence itself. Those who come from communities that are regularly subjected to abuse (such as women, people of color, the trans* community, sex workers, and those who are not able bodied) have long been forced to reconcile the fact that violence against them is a very real possibility, if not an inevitability. What many have not been prepared for, myself included, is a failure of community. When one believes that they are part of a community that exists in common cause, and that rejects the violence and complicity of the larger culture, solidarity can seem like a forgone conclusion. But like the change makers of the Civil Rights Movement, who were betrayed by the white moderates of their time, many who stand against rape culture have watched as friends and allies have turned their backs in times of crisis. This is beyond heartbreaking. For some, it is the end of radicalism, the end of trust, and the end of community.

This is unacceptable, and we can do better.

On transformation…

There is much more to be said on all of these topics, and one of my resolutions for the new year is to force these conversations in a way that honors those who have been stigmatized, dehumanized, abandoned, and betrayed. I will live and work with these intentions in my heart and on my sleeve, because it’s time. We cannot allow our friends and allies to suffer in silence, fear our judgment, or to be driven from our spaces by our bigotry, complicity, or failure to speak. Changing this society is not a matter of traversing an uncrowded high road. In truth, the high road is a much emptier place than we’d like to admit, because we all have a lot of work to do. We have to dig deep, and grasp injustice at the roots, both in our communities and in ourselves. We must be willing to create spaces that address these issues honestly and with love, and we must take much better care of one another. How do we do this? If I had a handbook, I would share a link to that page, but the truth is, we need to write it together. So let’s do that.

I believe in us, and our ability to build forward. As Assata said in her poem “i believe in living”:

i believe that a lost ship,
steered by tired, seasick sailors,
can still be guided home to port.

We’re all tired and we’re all flawed, but we can steer this ship home without leaving our sick, weary, and battered behind. Let’s make 2015 the year when we all dig into that work, and friends, let’s dig deep.

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