So You Want to Write About Addicts
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We started each morning of residential treatment with burned muffins, a house meeting, and introductions.
“My name is Tom and I’m a junkie here on vacation. My goal today is to lay in the sun and sample the delicious food in this all-inclusive resort.”
Tom’s sarcasm made orange juice squirt out of my nose. Humor was an elixir for the boredom of early sobriety and monotony of the rehab center’s strict daily schedule.
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Our addiction counselor corrected Tom: “You need to take this more seriously. I need you to redo that and tell us your real goal for today.”
The story that society tells about addiction is one of tragedy. When we talk about addicts, we talk about pain, drama, and heartbreak. Of course, addiction is all of these things, but it’s also a rich, multi-faceted story with humor and joy. When we let addiction define the entirety of a human being’s existence, we flatten people to one-dimensional caricatures.
The story that society tells about my favorite tragic hero Kurt Cobain is a prime example; his sense of humor gets buried beneath his pain. The media glosses over parts of his personality, like how he wore pajamas on his wedding day and a puffy-sleeved, yellow dress to a heavy metal show on MTV. “The show is called Head Banger’s Ball, so I thought I’d wear a gown,” Cobain deadpanned. “But nobody got me a corsage.”
Two weeks after Nirvana released Nevermind, they pranked the famous British show Top of the Pops. Wearing sunglasses and a smirk, Cobain infuriated producers and the audience when he dramatically sang “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” in a mopey style that evoked Morrissey from The Smiths.
If you want to write about addiction, remember that two seemingly contradictory things can be true at the same time. Addicts can be both funny and tragic. Another example: Cobain’s original name for In Utero was I Hate Myself and Want To Die, but the record company opposed the title, fearing that fans wouldn’t understand the dark humor.
While I love satire, I also understand why we don’t want to minimize the seriousness of addiction. Addicts suffer. Addicts bleed. Addicts, like Cobain, die too young.
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I know a thing or two about almost dying.
I recently discovered an old home movie of my ex Sam* and me. In the video, we were strung out like Christmas lights. Watching it made me feel like a voyeur in my own life.
Thick tongued, I slur, “Let’s jaaammmm,” to my musician boyfriend. He pushes a tuft of blonde hair out of my face. My unruly David Bowie mullet always gets in the way.
Sam’s strumming his acoustic guitar and singing “Needle and The Hay” by Elliot Smith, a classic junkie song.
I’m taking the cure/ So I can be quiet whenever I want.
He hands me a bass guitar, but I can’t hold it. My limbs go limp. Thunk. The maple-neck, cherry wood bass crashes to the floor.
So leave me alone/ You ought to be proud that I’m getting good marks.
The bass doesn’t break, but I do. I try to pick it up, but my body slumps into a question mark. I look like a bobble head doll, with glassy blue-green eyes. Doll eyes blinking open and shut. Opiate eyes. Open and shut. Haunting thing.
Sam stops singing. “Are you okay? Tessa, did you take Klonopin this morning?”
Shut. When my eyes roll in the back of my head, he grabs my shoulders and commands, “Wake up! Wake up!”
“I’m fiiiinnnneeee,” I mumble as my pale skin turns blue.
I wouldn’t be fine for years.
When I heard there was going to be an opioid overdose memorial, I was skeptical. When I saw that Showtime was releasing a new docuseries about the epidemic called The Trade, I was skeptical. When Andrew Sullivan christened a non-addict “Poet Laurette of the opioid epidemic,” in a New York Magazine essay, I was skeptical. But not surprised. Never surprised.
I’m skeptical because I’ve been devouring books, essays, documentaries, and movies about the opioid epidemic for years, charting their predictable rhetoric, cliché story arcs, and stigmatizing portrayal of addicts: addicts as cautionary tales, signal fires, propellers for drama. We’re afraid to color outside these lines, to show the ways in which addicts contain multitudes.
I wear skepticism like a shell. It feels safer than being vulnerable. My skepticism asks questions like: who has the right to tell the addict’s story? How can a writer dip their plume into the well of an addict’s pain without having been there herself? How can we do justice to addicts and the addiction story?
If you want to write about addicts, you first need to familiarize yourself with the formula and conventions of the “addict lit” genre. The territory has been well-charted in recent books like Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering.
Human beings are intrigued by conflict and drama. We are all complicit. I am, too. Even though I’ve been clean for multiple years and know that I shouldn’t be gawking, I do. Even though I feel like they exploit people’s pain for entertainment, I still watch shows like Intervention and Celebrity Rehab with Doctor Drew. These shows jolt us out of the doldrums of our own lives or, if we are addicts ourselves, they reassure us that we are not alone.
We watch from a safe distance, with the luxury of returning to the comfort of our own cocoons. At its best, addict lit satiates our quintessential human yearning for stories that may lead to salvation. We want warm fuzzies. We want sweet, sweet, redemption.
If you want to write a story about the opioid epidemic, you must imagine how addicts hunger for stories that represent us, encourage empathy, and feel believable. We long for stories to be our anchors and buoys to keep us afloat. Unfortunately, some stories sink. We must study those too, as a lesson of what not to do.
The Prescribed to Death Memorial is a dehumanizing failure. It features a wall of 22,000 faces carved on pills to pay tribute to those who overdosed in 2017. If I died of an overdose, I wouldn’t want my face carved on a pill.
I’ve spent my whole life being carved out. Instead, I’d like to know what it feels like to be whole.
Steve Greene of Indie Wire praises the series. The Trade “doesn’t purport to be a corrective or some magic key to unlocking the problem. But as a means for empathy and a way to understanding the human cost at each step of an international heroin trade, it does far more than hollow words and shallow promises.”
Each episode shifts between three main story arcs: a Mexican drug cartel, law enforcement, and addicts and their families. It is technically well-made, with sharp cinematography and juxtapositions like masked members of the cartel guarding poppy fields in Mexico as children play in the street; a grieving mother and father at a memorial rally in Ohio flying signs that say, “Hope Not Dope.”
But the series was predictable and flat. The addict’s story arc of The Trade is a simple five-part dramatic structure. In the exposition, we see white middle-class young adults are prescribed painkillers for a sports injury or surgery. As their physical dependence grows, they need more and more to manage their pain. At the climax, they switch to heroin because it’s cheaper and sometimes easier to find than painkillers. They fall deep into the well of addiction.
Then they go to rehab or they don’t. Cut. End scene.
Paste film critic Amy Glynn says it was “dangerous from a watchability perspective…Junkies don’t make good television because they are really, really damned boring. They are painfully uninteresting, because heroin turns most people into zombie reptiles who are deeply depressed and deeply depressing.”
At first, I was taken aback by this quote. But Glynn has a point. If you want to write about the opioid epidemic, you might want to do more than rely on pain porn. The poetry of a needle plunging into the crook of a junkie’s arm, crimson swirling into the plunger. Junkies drifting through public streets like zombies.
Glynn redeems herself: “Someone needs to start telling the rest of the story. Like now.”
If you want to write a story about addicts, you need to realize that it’s still a stigmatized condition. My friend had to leave a grief group because other parents said her son’s overdose death was his fault and not as sad as a child who died of cancer. It’s as though grief was some sort of competition of suffering and pain. But an entire super bowl stadium could be filled with dead bodies like her son. There were 64,000 overdose deaths in the US in 2016.
If you want to write a story about addicts, you need to know that life-saving medication-assisted-treatments like Suboxone and methadone are still expensive and difficult to access. Unfortunately, many treatment centers are “abstinence-only,” meaning they don’t allow their patients to take Suboxone or methadone. For a more in-depth plunge into the world of harm reduction, read Tracey Helton, Tessie Castillo, or Maia Szalavitz.
In addition to these dire facts, we have to deal with our stories being appropriated and exploited. Enter the poet William Brewer, who has never used opioids or struggled with addiction himself. Brewer inhabits the voice of addicts in his poetry book, I Know Your Kind. The title derives from a Cormac McCarthy quote, but it’s very clear to me that Brewer doesn’t “know my kind.”
I don’t want to be harsh on Brewer. Being from the polite Midwest where we’re supposed to avoid confrontation, I almost deleted this part. But Brewer’s words feel like a chisel mining people’s pain. I also feel it’s my responsibility as a recovering addict and writer to call it like I see it.
Brewer writes lines like: “Tom’s hand on the table looked like warm bread. I crushed it with a hammer, then walked him to the E.R. to score pills” and “Who can stand another night stealing fistfuls of pills from our cancer-sick neighbors?”
In a world where artists and writers are constantly being called out for cultural appropriation, I was surprised that nobody called Brewer out for appropriating the addict’s story for his own artistic gain. Brewer’s sole connection to the epidemic is that he was born and raised in Virginia, the state with the highest overdose death rate in the nation. In an interview with Virginia Public Radio, Brewer said when he visited over the holidays, he inquired about whereabouts of former classmates. “People replied, ‘They’re on the pills. We don’t really see them anymore.’”
If you want to write about an addict, you should avoid infantilizing and dehumanizing addicts, along with the trope that addicts are all “lost and forsaken.” Some of the strongest, most courageous people I know are addicts. Active drug users like The People’s Harm Reduction Alliance in Seattle established needle exchanges, distributed the overdose reversal drug, naloxone, and are fighting to open supervised safe injection sites.
If you want to write a story about addiction, realize that most addicts struggle with whether or not they should publicly share this part of their identity. For a long time, I didn’t think I’d ever write about my addictions to alcohol, opiates, and benzos. I didn’t have the courage. Here in the Midwest, we keep the laundry to ourselves. We don’t air it out. When I wrote about my first struggle with alcoholism in 2011, my family warned me that it could impact my future job opportunities and dating. I knew they were just looking out for my “best interests.” But I insisted: my privacy, my mistakes, my choice. I hoped that sharing my addiction and vulnerability might be therapeutic for me and maybe even help others.
If you ‘re going to write a story about addiction, realize how it’s affected by different identities. For example, I’m extremely lucky, because I have supportive friends and family. When I was broke and had nothing, they offered me food, shelter, and support. Also related to my privilege as a white, middle-class woman is that I don’t have a criminal record. Yes, my hospital records bother me, but they are protected by confidentiality laws.
In a way, writing about my addiction felt like making these private records a public matter. I was hesitant. Brewer was also reluctant to write about the opioid epidemic, for different reasons. He said, “West Virginia is very rarely looked at in a positive light. And so here again is a situation where something really quite terrible is going on, but it became so clear that this thing wasn’t going to go away and was starting to seep into my daily life.”
Heroin doesn’t seep into most people’s daily lives. Heroin is a tsunami. Heroin drowns.
There may be value in writing beyond our own experience, as Brewer did. Representation is important and if we all followed the advice to only “write what we know,” things could get bland and boring. Artistic expression would suffer. But it’s a tightrope. It’s a practice in tremendous empathy, wanting to diversify representation, while also being respectful and staying in your lane.
If you want to write about addicts, you’d benefit from also depicting the humor of early recovery, a story that often falls outside the margins. When I was digging through my own videos and journals, I was of course humiliated by some of my own narcissism and self pity. But I was also surprised and heartened by the unexpected joys like my friendship with Tom at my first rehab.
On my first day, I noticed him in the smoking tent, wearing bright red Converse, a beret, and long sleeves to hide his track marks. I noticed the way his brown eyes brimmed with both kindness and sadness as he deadpanned in meetings.
“You guys are like The Wonder Twins of rehab,” staff said. Despite our 20-year age difference, we were inseparable.
Tom bummed me Parliament menthols and lent me one of his ear buds, so we could listen to The Replacements, The Pixies or The Velvet Underground together. On weekends, we went to record stores, ate pizza, and he read my shitty poetry. We made beaded lizards and built crooked birdhouses bedazzled with feathers and glitter.
One day in group, we had to watch a 1987 film called, The Cat Who Drank and Used Too Much.
“Was I just daydreaming, or did you just say we are watching a movie starring a cat?” Tom asked.
“Yes, it’s made for kids. Lost and Found Ministries recommended it as a good way for parents to explain addiction to their kids.”
“Drunken cats, who knew?” I said.
I later learned that the film was praised as an “audience favorite about a beer drinking, drug addicted cat,” when it was screened at the Oddball Film Festival in San Francisco.
Our story begins in any town USA, a sleepy suburban neighborhood lined with rosebushes and plush green lawns. Cue sappy flute and piano elevator music with too much treble.
The film opens as Pat the Cat is getting into a red car for his morning commute. We see Pat drinking alcohol from a pitcher and beginning to experiment with other things. A cigarette here, some prescription pills, a bit of coke there (powdered sugar).
“He’d try anything, it was never enough. Then it was too much.” Pat crashes his car and almost loses everything, but then decides to go to rehab!
“I’m not trying to be catty, but Pat seems to be pretty well-off to me,” Tom said.
At the end of the movie, Pat has a cupcake to celebrate his sobriety. Ah, it seemed like only a few weeks!
“If only it were that easy!” I said.
“Sure, his life isn’t purr-fect, but it’s pretty close!”
What I’m trying to say is: If you want to write a story about an addict, we might not be perfect, but we can do better. Starting now.
If you want to read stories about heroin or the opioid epidemic, I recommend starting with nonfiction. There is power in reading about people’s lived experiences.
- Unbroken Brain by Maia Szalavitz,
- Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch,
- Whip Smart by Melissa Febos,
- “Heroine/s,” by Cheryl Strayed.
- Aaron Gilbreath’s essay collection, Everything We Don’t Know. His essay “(Be) Coming Clean,” is an earnest, insightful piece about his secret heroin addiction, arrest, and getting clean with methadone.
Of course there are also excellent and illuminating fictional books about the opioid/ heroin addiction. Check out this list by Kevin Pickard.