COMMENTARY: Ending drug addict stigmas can save lives
With the addiction epidemic being a frequent topic in the news, I am constantly reminded of my past. My best friend, Gabe, died from an accidental drug overdose from painkillers a few years ago. We had been friends since I was 2 years old. How can drug abuse be prevented? We need to stop focusing on drugs as an abstraction and start teaching kids real and personal stories about drug use, and what to do when they learn that someone they know or care about is experimenting with drugs.
At the start of one summer, Gabe was devastated when he broke up with his girlfriend of six years. Though I had seen him many times over the summer of that year, he drank only occasionally. He was making new friends and trying to build up an active social life. On one occasion later in the summer, I found that he was really high. He told me that it was “only” painkillers, and not to tell his parents. When I tried to convince him to stop, he admitted that he had been abusing painkillers every once in awhile over that summer and that he enjoyed the feeling they gave him. I explained that he could be doing irreversible damage to his brain and body. He seemed convinced, and he told me he would get rid of his supply. When we met after then, he said he had stopped taking them altogether. I trusted him. The night before he accidentally overdosed, I was with him, and I saw him take different types of drugs together. There was a real danger here, but I acted out of self-interest. Instead of doing the right thing, I kept my mouth shut. I felt conflicted about telling his parents because I did not want to risk losing his friendship. Instead, I lost a friend. I made the biggest mistake of my life.
I miss Gabe a lot, and his death has taken a big toll on me. The thought that I could have done something to prevent it has haunted me. At the same time, I am upset that I did not understand the situation well enough to see past his promise that he had stopped taking drugs in the first place.
Gabe developed friendships with people who exposed him to drug-taking culture and provided him with access to harder drugs. To say that he took drugs to just cope with his feelings or only because of the social pressures from his new group of friends, would not give the full side of the story. He had baseline experience with drugs like alcohol. He was around people who did not see drug use as problematic, and who encouraged it by their example. I can imagine he was afraid to lose this group of friends — to be made to feel the odd man out. I believe he also saw drugs as a means of temporary happiness while he figured out a way to set things right emotionally in his life.
But, drug users are victims of their addiction, of a social environment that condones and in some ways romanticizes drug use and of the illicit industry and trade network that profits from its tragic consequences. Part of the problem is how abstract our drug education tends to be. Schools show us images of how different drugs destroy different parts of our bodies. The problem is that this approach is not in any way personal. We are made to think about a lung, brain, etc. While a hypothetical scenario may identify peer pressure as something that kids need to watch out for, it does not do anything to teach them what peer pressure really feels like in the heat of the moment, how hard it can be to say no and how important it is to avoid being in that situation in the first place. More problematically, a hypothetical scenario does not even hint at the complex combination of factors that can drive people to try drugs.
We can start by emphasizing real stories about relatable young adults whose lives have been changed utterly by drug use. Stories about people who were not bad kids. We can talk about young adults who had bright futures and opportunities ahead of them. There is something uncomfortable about making drugs personal. But if we are committed to making sure that a tragedy like Gabe's never happens again in any community, we cannot allow kids to leave a class about drug education thinking, “That could never be me.”
We need to emphasize the obligation to say something when we see something. I knew something was wrong, but I did not want to betray my friend. That mentality needs to be wiped out. By teaching people a more personal narrative about drug use and showing them that every one of us can be susceptible to it given the wrong combination of life circumstances and pressures, we can go a long way toward ending this culture of blaming drug users and instead recognizing them as victims. Until then, it will be exceedingly difficult to teach young adults that telling a parent is not an act of betrayal. It can mean saving a life.
Skyler Cohen is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in computer science.
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