A couple of weeks ago, someone asked me to explain why the term ‘junkie’ is so offensive. Yes, I realise many of you are having the response that my colleagues did:
‘What do you mean you needed to explain why? It’s a fucking pejorative term – end of explanation.’
But the reality is that this is a term which is still littered through conversations in our community. Many people probably use it without realisation of just how offensive it is. I abhor the word and all that it connotes. Often I assume that my explanation of, ‘It dehumanises people; it diminishes who they are and it stigmatises them’, is adequate.
A brilliant colleague of mine wrote a very eloquent exposition of all that is wrong with the word on my Facebook page; yet our explanations were dismissed ever so patronisingly with, ‘It’s good that you both get so passionate about things’.
While I just came to accept that no matter what you say, some people simply don't get it, the whole discussion made me think about the need to explain – particularly to my students – as to why the term is so deeply offensive. Hence, this post.
(Picture from the Stonetree Harm Reduction facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/StonetreeHarmReduction)
In a twist of Jungian synchronicity, the same day that this all started, someone left this comment on my blog post about overdose:
‘What is another way to tell people they died from an overdose without the stigma? Possible heart failure? Possible personal trauma? Toxic substance?’
That’s right. Someone has lost a loved one to overdose and rather than be left to grieve, they are seeking advice as to how to frame their loved one’s death as something other than overdose. What’s the link between this and the word ‘junkie’?
The eloquent post that my colleague, Horace Wansbrough, wrote on my page about why the 'J' word is so problematic captures how the term stigmatises people:
'The use of the 'J' word is a form of everyday nastiness that leaves me with queasy guts every time I hear it, and betrays a kind of sour ignorance of the outliers in our society. Regardless of its origins being a description of the scrap metal merchants of 19th century American street drug-user scene, the 'Junks' that originally transported opiates from Shanghai ports, or simply from the slang for heroin being 'junk', its implicit modern day, almost sub-human, connotations are truly gross. I hate its implicit hierarchy, that of a certain kind of visible drug use: street-based, injecting, excessive, illicit, obsessive, insatiable; the kind that makes you steal from your grandma, neglect your children, and come out in scabs all over your arms--the lowest of the low. How easy it is to discard these beings as so outside our sphere of regard, outside the deserve of help and care. I believe that drug users in the predicament of such forceful dependence deserve, yes DESERVE, every bit of regard for their health that we have to offer. Within and betwixt the trauma and mental pain, the troubled, shamed and fractured selves, stands a human who faces each day with extraordinary courage and sometimes lives on to love a partner or a child, as many of my dear friends have done, or just to find small but meaningful moments of connection with others. You may find these remarkable people in jail or a grave, in academia or running a hospital. Whoever and wherever they are, they are not junk.'
He summed it up perfectly.
When you use a term like ‘junkie’, you are not ever using it in a complimentary way. It’s a derogatory term that, at best, is used to position yourself as better than someone else; and at worse, dehumanises a person so much from you that you are able to psychologically separate yourself from them to the extent that you believe them to be lesser than you.
To believe that someone is lesser than you also means that you are unlikely to care for them. You are unlikely to advocate for their rights and you are unlikely to say hello in the street. If you believe someone to be lesser than you, you are unlikely to be compassionate to their plight; moreover, you probably take the moronic Western view that a ‘junkie’ is an individual who made poor choices, is of weak character and has deep moral failings. When you have no issue with separating someone from yourself – when you think such a thing is even possible – you enable stigma.
So what’s the deal with a bit of stigma?
Matt Gleeson, educator and trainer at ReGen, covered this in his post on Hit Hot Topics for last year’s Overdose Awareness Day:
‘… a crucial ingredient in addressing overdose is overcoming stigmatising attitudes towards people who use drugs. Stigma kills. It drives people who use drugs to the fringes of our community. Stigma has the power to separate people from much needed supports, marginalising them from health services and even their families. People use in secret or fail to let others know when something goes wrong due to fear of the judgement and condemnation.’
People who use the word ‘junkie’ believe it acceptable to surmise all sorts of things about a person by how they look or because they are an injecting drug user. It is not acceptable. Unfortunately, this view is hard to shift.
A couple of years ago, I was in the Emergency Department of a private hospital in Melbourne. An ambulance arrived with a man who’d just received a shot of Naloxone (‘Narcan’). How did I know this? Because the nursing staff didn’t feel that his medical history warranted any confidentiality. Later on, as they gave my mother opiates, via injection, they told me, ‘We just need to keep an eye on him because he’s a “druggie”.
Fury, absolute fury, washed over me.
It took all – absolutely all – of my might not to leap up off of the seat I was in next to my mother’s bed and dismantle this horrible nurses’s language. I wanted to yell at her – I wanted to humiliate her. I wanted to use my ability to articulate to give voice to the man whose voice had been silenced by stigma. I wanted her to know that I thought that she was less of a person, not him. And I wanted him to hear me do this for him. I wanted it to be clear that I did not agree with, nor condone, either her view, or her absence of professionalism. Most of all, I wanted to tell her, that she was speaking to the mother and sister of a very brilliant young man who died of an overdose on exactly that day three years earlier.
I wanted to tell her that my mother’s sudden deterioration, the reason that we were in the emergency department in the first place, was because the anniversary of her son’s death had broken her soul a little more and that this had somatised into physical ailment. I wanted this woman to know that yes, educated white people who speak well and access private hospitals also use drugs. I wanted her to know that trauma and mental illness permeate all social classes and the ability to wear nice clothes and have a shave didn’t change the fact that drugs – both prescribed and illicit – were a salve for my brother’s soul.
I didn’t say this to her – only because I had to prioritise the wellbeing of my mother who was screaming in pain; my impassioned rant would do little to appease her suffering. I am still appalled that this young man, who was likely admitted because he was so alone in the world that he had no one to monitor him in the hours following his shot of Naloxone, had to endure discrimination rather than care.
This discrimination is inextricably tied to a common vernacular which accepts terms such as ‘junkie’ or ‘druggie’ as acceptable. Stigmatising visible drug users doesn’t help anyone.
The anonymous commenter who was seeking an alternate cause of death to ‘overdose’ is but one of many who finds this blog via my post on overdose after a search of the terms, ‘What to say when someone died from an overdose’. That in itself speaks volumes. What you say when someone dies of an overdose is exactly the same thing that you would say if someone died from any other way: ‘I am sorry for your loss’, or, ‘I am thinking of you’, or, ‘I care about you and I am here for you’.
That people think there needs to be different words demonstrates that people think the death is somehow different. It’s not. How someone dies doesn’t diminish their absence in your life and it certainly does not diminsh their life.
My post on overdose was far more popular than I ever could have anticipated. I was, and continue to be, inundated with messages and comments about it. The comments section of it is full of saddening stories of siblings left in the wake of a brother’s death. People who contact me about that post tell me that it’s good to talk to me – to someone who understands that their loved one wasn’t a bad person. While I am glad that they find some solace in my writing, it saddens me that this solace is from a stranger’s blog on the Internet.
These are the everyday implications of a community that thinks a term like ‘junkie’ is harmless. My colleagues and I aren’t so passionate about the term because we have a surplus of passion to dispense: rather, we cannot sit in silence while others are being diminished.
Yesterday was the birthday of my brother and my cousin. Born on the same day 10 years apart, both died 10 years apart, both aged 27. These beautiful men both died of drug overdoses and neither of them would fit anyone’s descriptions of ‘druggies’ or ‘junkies’ or ‘addicts’. But even if they did, it wouldn’t matter: they were my family and now they are gone.
Drug use – visible or otherwise – is not an indicator of a person’s value. In fact, you are likely to find a kinder soul in the person being labelled than the person who thinks it’s okay to dehumanise a person.