Why Addicts Do Not Choose Overdose

In the US, 43 982 people die of a drug overdose each year, averaging to about 120 deaths per day.

And with movements such as Bell Let’s Talk Day gaining traction, trying to reduce the stigma that people struggling with mental health related issues face, you’d think that we’d be talking a bit more about addiction, and the stigma that surrounds that. I mean, if the above statistic proves anything, it’s that this is not a small issue in our society. And the two issues are not inherently connected, no – dealing with a mental illness does not mean that you will also deal with addiction. But there is plenty of research that suggests that addiction is often rooted from a deep-felt and terrible emotional pain.

As addiction expert Gabor Maté says, “all the addictions are meant to soothe the pain”.

This might be a pain stemming from neglect or abuse – one of those life events that we as a society have all mutually agreed is terrible and meriting certain sympathies and allowances. It might be a pain that we all deal with, in one way or another, like low self-esteem, or just your average, everyday existential crisis. It doesn’t matter where the pain comes from; all that matters is that it is pain, and the addiction serves to alleviate that pain a little bit.

Now, why am I talking about this? I am not personally addicted to drugs. I have never been addicted to drugs. In fact, at this point in my life, I am actively trying to avoid most sources of addiction, because I know that I am precisely the sort of person who would get addicted: a highly sensitive empath with tendencies toward depression, anxiety and self-harming behaviour. I see myself too much in the addict to risk it.

But I, like most everyone reading this right now, know people who have dealt with drug and alcohol addictions (it’s too prevalent an issue in our society for this to not be the case).

And recently, I found myself watching a video by Juggling The Jenkins Blog, wherein blogger and former addict Tiffany Jenkins reacted to such comments (directed toward another individual) as, “if you overdose, you know, cause you’re a drug addict… I’m not saving you” and “stick a needle of f*cking poison in your arm… and die a pathetic death on the shitty floor of a shitty public bathroom… Nice choice buddy”.

I like to think that beliefs such as these, that addicts deserve to die because they “made the choices” that led to their overdose, are in the minority. And maybe they are. But nonetheless, it is a belief that I have heard many try to defend. It is even a belief that has bled into our medical system. In 2017, Sheriff Richard K. Jones of Butler County, Ohio declared that his deputies will no longer will be supplied with a product needed to save the lives of anyone experiencing an overdose. In another part of the same state, it has been proposed that emergency responders not be dispatched to help anyone experiencing their third overdose.

“I’m not the one that decides if people live or die. They decide that when they stick that needle in their arm,” Jones has been quoted as saying.

I honestly cannot believe that I am sitting here, trying to argue that lives are worth saving.

Because I could begin, quite simply, by pointing out that addicts are people. They exist. They think, they feel, they pick up on the messages that society gives them and they know when they are not being valued as human lives. They have families – maybe a mother, a father, a significant other, a child, anything. And as much as I hate the argument that people only have value in connection to their relationship with other people – if it was your loved one dying of a drug overdose, wouldn’t you want everything possible to be done for them to save their lives?

Even if we can’t picture ourselves as the addict, we can at least imagine the addict as a person with worth, can’t we?

This idea that addicts choose to die the moment that they take the drug in question comes from such a place of superiority. It is entirely wrapped up in this misconception that we as society have that non-addicts are somehow better than addicts, that addicts are stupid because they said yes to a drug that the rest of us either said no to, or we just weren’t put in a position where we had to find out what our answer would be. It is associated with this idea that addiction is caused by stupidity – except I have already discussed this. Addiction isn’t caused by stupidity. It is caused by pain.

And, truly, think about it: how are any of us any better than an addict? Seriously, answer that question without any generalizations that addicts are ‘stupid’, any classist assumptions of the addict as dirty or impoverished.

And I’m not trying to diminish the fact that addiction is a terrible thing. Addiction can and has led many to hurt other people, to hurt themselves, to lie, cheat, and steal to serve the addiction. I am aware of that. But what we are talking about right now is whether or not an addict deserves to die, whether or not they chose to overdose. And I fear that, when we answer this question, we remove ourselves from the equation. This becomes an issue of us, and them, and we are very separate, worlds apart, from them.

And, end of day, haven’t we all done things that we knew were harmful to us to serve an addiction? Perhaps not an addiction to drugs, but addiction can come in many shapes, ways, and forms.

Can you imagine a world where a doctor refuses treatment to someone suffering from heart failure because “they chose to eat all those burgers”? Or where a smoker is denied the lung transplant that will save their life because “they chose to smoke all those cigarettes”?

And perhaps this is where the issues gets a little bit personal for me; do you remember my mentioning that I have tendencies toward depression, anxiety, and self-harming behaviour? While I have not dealt with drug or alcohol problems myself, I have dealt with eating disorders and self-harm, and I would hope that, had I ever been hospitalized or had my life threatened by either issue, someone would be there to help me. They wouldn’t just stand back and say, “well, she did choose to do that to herself.”

Yes. Yes, I withheld food from my system. Yes, I cut into my own skin. Yes, an addict took that drug, knowing full well that it is a drug. But in every case here, the choice was not made out of a direct desire to die. It was to temporarily alleviate an outside pain that needs to be dealt with so that the person in question can lead a healthier, happier life.

The only difference between these scenarios is that, in this post-Bell Let’s Talk Day society, I feel more confident in someone else recognizing that don’t want to die, then I do for anyone who is addicted to drugs.

And this shouldn’t be the case. We should live in a society where we know and accept that everyone has worth, that everyone has the right to live and be safe and supported by their government and their society. We have already let people who are in pain slip through the cracks as it is.


Changing the Way We Think About Addiction

Very recently, I have found myself becoming acutely aware of the ways in which people talk about those who get involved in drugs. I have heard people say that they very clearly have a death wish, and if they want to die then let them die. I have heard people refer to those who manage to get clean as being “smart enough” to do it. And the thing about all of these statements that completely baffles me is the way that these statements dismiss drug addicts as being ‘lesser than’ the average person.

A drug addict who doesn’t get clean isn’t smart enough to do it. A drug addict who takes life-threatening drugs deserves to die. These seem to be very common assumptions that non-addicts continue to make, but they are very, very, dangerously wrong.

First of all, let me discuss this idea of an addict being “smart enough” to get clean. A comment such as this implies that any addict who doesn’t get clean, any addict who succumbs to their addiction, is doing so simply because they are too stupid to do otherwise. But I think that it is fairly obvious that a person who returns to a drug again and again is not doing it because they are stupid; they are doing it because they are addicted. In fact, intelligence and addiction have absolutely no correlation with one another. Not every addict is some uneducated sap sitting in a pool of his own vomit and urine with a needle sticking out of his arm – some of them are highly educated people. Some of them are very intelligent, very well-spoken, very worldly. There are many highly successful writers who have been regarded as great minds of their generation, while simultaneously struggling very openly with addiction, including William Burroughs, Philip K. Dick, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, just to name a few. So, no, addicts are not addicts because they are too stupid to be anything else – they are addicts because they have become hooked to a highly addictive substance, one that, for better or worse, they keep turning back to again and again because they feel like they have to.

But this brings me to my second point, and to my response to the idea that if addicts want to die, then why not let them: why do addicts feel like they have to? I mean, yeah, sure, being hooked on a highly addictive substance is one explanation, but there is quite a substantial amount of research that suggests that chemical dependency is most common among people who are dealing with depression, post traumatic stress disorder, or some other form of mental illness or personality disorder. Some doctors, such as Gabor Mate, have even suggested that depression is the leading cause of addiction, and that as much as the chemical dependancy is a factor, it is much easier to become addicted if your brain is predisposed to needing that sense of comfort that drugs offer. Think about the way that other addictions work for an example of this: gambling addicts or shop-a-holics are most certainly addicted, despite the lack of an addictive chemical substance. And in many cases, they are addicted because the action makes them feel happy – it fills a void that they felt in their lives.

In many cases, the addict is a person who is intensely, deeply hurting. The addict is a person who has been sexually, emotionally, or physically abused at some point in their life. The addict is a person who has been tormented by their own mind for years. But more important than any of that, the addict is a person. The addict is not some idiot who turned to drugs for no reason at all, just because they felt like destroying their lives.

The addict is that kid who snorted cocaine once because he was curious, and found that it was the answer to all his pain, the mental torment that he has lived with all his life.

The addict is that grown woman who had a chance at a life, but lost it all because her mental illness went undiagnosed, and heroine masked the pain that she could not understand, even if it was just for a little while.

The addict is a sister, a brother, a son, a daughter, a friend, a lover, a cousin, a mother or father. The addict matters.

And honestly, there are few groups of people that a statement like this can be directed to and it can be considered morally right. For example, while I am not addicted to chemical substances, I am a person who has dealt on and off with depression and anxiety, like many addicts. I also engage in some behaviour that some might consider harmful to myself, such as self-harm. I have struggled with suicidal thoughts in the past, but if anyone ever said to me “if you want to die, why don’t you just go and do it?” that would not be okay. That would not be tolerated – not by me, nor by most anyone who heard a comment like that made against me. Why would that be okay to say to an addict? And if it is okay to say to an addict, then why not to other types of addicts? Why is it only drug addicts who this can be said to? An alcoholic also takes in a mind-altering substance that puts their own life and the safety of others at risk, and yet I have never heard anyone say that if an alcoholic wants to die, they should. It is only drug addicts who receive this sort of treatment, and that is because people see the drug addict as a lesser human being.

And if you think an addict’s pain ends the moment that they start taking the drug, think again. I cannot speak for every addict’s experience, and it is especially difficult for me to do so as I have never been an addict myself, but I can imagine how hard it must be to be hooked on a chemical that forces you to become ostracized by society. I can imagine how hard it must be to feel hated by the very people who are supposed to protect you – the police. I can imagine how it must feel to know that everyone always expects the worst from you, or they expect too much from you. They want you to get off the drug but you feel like you can’t, you feel like it’s too hard. And if you go back to the drug, then everyone says of course you went back to the drug. What else would you do? You’re just a no-good, worthless addict. And if enough people say this about you, then you’ll even start to believe them. You’ll start to see yourself as nothing more than that. You’ll lose your self-esteem, fall deeper into that spiral of depression, and lose any and all motivation to get yourself out of the situation you’re in.

I am not trying to ignore the fact that many addicts cause harm to themselves and others. Addiction is an ugly thing, and it can make people do very ugly things. But that doesn’t get rid of the fact that addicts are people, and the vast majority of them are people who are hurting and people who need help. We as a society tend to ignore them. We don’t like to think about them because we see them as morally wrong, as ugly and twisted and not worth our attention. But they are worth our attention. They are entirely and completely worth our attention because they are people, and maybe it’s difficult to individually help every addict that we come across in our lives, but we should be pushing to set up our society in a way that better helps these people, rather than ostracizes them. And the first step in setting up a society that helps addicts is by changing the way that we think about them.