Oftentimes, as drug users, we’re close to people who don’t support our drug use. When you’re a long-term, often-problematic drug user, as I call it, who in their right mind would support your continuing drug use? Many people confuse “support” with “enabling,” unfortunately, encouraging family members, friends, and acquaintances of addicts to not even associate with their loved ones as long as they’re using drugs — and those who do associate with them keep a distance.
As an often-problematic drug user myself, it’s especially difficult to tell others I use drugs. If old friends or peers ask if I still use drugs, answering “yes” often elicits negative responses. “Maybe you’ll quit using one of these days,” an old friend of mine recently said. People are generally unwilling to learn about naloxone, let alone accept a naloxone kit (syringe, vial of naloxone, and instructions) from me; as a heroin user, I can’t expect to comfortably tell others something like, “I’m about to use, would you stick around for 10 or 15 minutes?”
These problems, of which there are countless examples — many more than the two above — arise from two areas:
- General stigma around drugs, particularly illicit drugs.
- The misconception that bailing someone out of jail, allowing someone to live with you while battling addiction, or agreeing to supervise their drug use to promptly respond to overdose are all nothing more than “enabling.”
First, I’ll share my experience with this issue, followed by things we can do to improve these problems.
It Comes From a Good Place, But the Road to Hell Can Very Well Be Paved With Good Intentions
I’ve been with my significant other for over five years. My drug use was a problem long before we got together, though, in the infancy of our relationship, I was able to keep my drug use “together.” Fortunately for me, she’s never used drugs — at least not like I have, in the fashion of a long-term, often-problematic drug user.
Understandably, she hasn’t always responded favorably to my drug use. I’ve long concealed my use from her. Just like you wouldn’t want to tell a loved one you’ve been injecting heroin, even if it’s not negatively affecting your life and you’re able to use in moderation, because you don’t want them to worry — it’s that kind of deal, more or less.
Since I started giving out naloxone, syringes, and other safe drug use supplies to fellow drug users across Northwest Tennessee roughly two years ago, I’ve always had naloxone around. Since early on, I’ve tried to educate my S.O. about the potentially-life-saving drug. Up until recently, it’s been difficult, though — just as I’d rather not tell her my plans for getting high due to potential backlash, she was similarly bitchy when I tried to teach her about naloxone and responding to opioid overdose.
Last year, within a three- or four-month period, I had three opioid overdoses — well, two full-fledged ODs and one close call — from which I was revived with naloxone by my S.O.
The first time, she recalls struggling to draw up naloxone into a syringe. Imagine having the antidote in your hands but not being able to use it — my heart’s pumping just thinking about it. It’s scarier than any horror movie I’ve seen.
That struggle ultimately arose from my aversion to bringing drug-related things up to her, which, of course, came from her long-held anti-drug stance — which, although diminished, is still alive today — and her rock-solid belief that helping me navigate the waters of addiction wholly constituted “enabling” behavior.
Although she’s now willing to supervise my opioid use, I’ve long been incentivized to use drugs away from home (without supervision) — I almost always have to drive an hour away to cop, so why not use before I drive back home? I mean, wouldn’t you want to get a judgment-free shot off?
Using in such situations might have been fun, though doing so unarguably put me even further in harm’s way.
Here’s Yet Another Sticky Situation I’ve Found Myself in
In 2019, I was arrested for syringe possession despite the fact a 2015 Tennessee state law (T.C.A. § 40-7-124) should have protected me.
You can read more about this story here, but it goes like this: I was speeding and got pulled over. Knowing I was in possession of used syringes, I refused the deputy’s request to search. As always, they brought a drug-sniffing dog — poor pupper, unknowingly being used as an instrument in the long-running, entirely-oppressive War on Drugs — to unfairly construct probable cause by detecting the scent of drugs that weren’t there. The deputies obviously weren’t aware of the 2015 law that protects people from getting charged with Possession of Drug Paraphernalia, a Class A misdemeanor, if they inform police they’re in possession of syringes or sharp objects that could be construed as drug paraphernalia before a search is executed. Unable to post bail or afford private legal representation, I was essentially forced to plead guilty to the charge.
At the time, my girlfriend thought that, no matter the circumstances, bonding me out would have exemplified enabling behavior. While we both conclude that, at least in many situations, bonding a long-term, often-problematic drug user like me out of jail could very well be considered “enabling,” she now recognizes that she could have helped me avoid major life issues by simply calling a bail bondsman to help me post bail — and that isn’t enabling.
To further fuel the fire of intimately-intersecting issues that plagued my life at the time, I was on probation. Like many probationers, I was required to report in person every month. It just so happened that, at the time of arrest, I was six days away from my next report date. The probation office I was assigned to had a policy where you could postpone your report date by a week if you couldn’t make it, extending my “grace period,” if you will, to 13 days.
If you didn’t already know, you can be “violated,” or sent to jail, for not reporting.
A court liaison — I think the woman I talked to was a probation officer (P.O.) or another court official, as there weren’t any official “court liaisons” there — told me it’d likely be at least two weeks before I could be appointed a public defender and attend another court date.
So, here were the potential outcomes:
- Plead guilty and show up to probation on time, being violated for catching a charge (although violation is ultimately up to the P.O. or judge, since I was already on probation for Possession of Drug Paraphernalia in the first place, I felt confident I’d be violated).
- Wait for a public defender, not be able to report on time, be violated, and end up not beating the case, thereby being considered for violation twice.
- Wait for a public defender, not be able to report on time, be violated, but ultimately beat the case.
- Plead guilty and show up to probation on time, narrowly avoiding violation purely by luck.
- Plead guilty and not report to probation — running from the law, in other words.
At the time, I was nothing short of nervous. I went to jail for the first time ever in March and ended up being put on probation in August.
Just a month-and-a-half later, I found myself in jail again.
Just a month-and-a-half prior, I “lucked up,” in my mind, by only getting probation for Possession of Drug Paraphernalia — initially, though the charges were entirely unfounded, I was also charged with D.U.I. and Violation of Implied Consent.
Just a month-and-a-half prior, I’d lost what little hope in the criminal justice system I had.
I was scared. I wanted to die — that wasn’t a new feeling, by any means, but it was based in reason more than ever before thanks to the potential of violating probation, not passing “Go,” not collecting $200, and going directly to jail.
I genuinely felt like I might spend more time in jail, something I despised after spending just 24 cumulative hours behind bars. I thought my life was in shambles and my drug use was spiraling out of control — it wasn’t actually as bad as I thought, but as a newly-minted thought-to-be-unfunctional addict, I had no confidence in myself.
It seemed like all those warnings my dad and other family members gave me — “You don’t wanna turn out like your mom, do you?” — had gone to waste. My run-ins with the grossly-unfair criminal justice-social services alliance I had turned into the good-for-nothing junkie my mom was for the bulk of her life, that her dad (my grandfather) was for much of his life, and that so many other community members grew up to exemplify the behaviors of.
Just two days after release, I overdosed — that was the third of three overdoses I experienced in 2019, and, while it wasn’t a true, full-on, passed-out-and-blue-in-the-face overdose, I was certainly close to it.
After this, I felt especially compelled to do anything that’d make me look better in the eyes of my P.O.; that’s why I got on Suboxone, actually, which I’m still on today.
And, even with a letter from the medication-assisted treatment program’s director that said I was making good progress, even with the list of signatures I’d racked up from attending NA meetings, even with me knowing I’d taken initiative, I was still scared of being violated.
Fortunately, I didn’t get violated, though the probation officer didn’t seem to care about steps I’d taken to better myself.
“The only reason I didn’t violate you is because I didn’t have time to get around to it.”
Let’s Make Things Clear — It Wasn’t My Significant Other’s Fault
If you’ve picked up the vibe that I’m not taking responsibility for my actions, I understand — so far, admittedly, I understand I come across that way.
Whether or not my ol’ lady was comfortable with my drug use, I am still ultimately responsible for taking syringes with me on my drug run and for absent-mindedly speeding in the first place. I’m ultimately responsible for getting arrested and having my vehicle impounded. I also can’t blame my significant other for not seeking help from a bail bondsman — I’d been arrested for Possession of Drug Paraphernalia a few months prior (and once before we got together), so I totally understand why she didn’t want to help me bond out. She and my dad told me they wouldn’t be willing to help me bond out if I got arrested after my first arrest of 2019, after which, fortunately, my dad helped me post bail.
Also, since long before I began using drugs nearly 10 years ago, I knew that legal troubles were damn near guaranteed for anybody who regularly used, sold, or were otherwise around drugs. Having grown up with a super-problematic drug user of a mother, I knew that drug use — at least for addiction-prone people like us — just about always resulted in jails, institutions, or death.
I read the terms and conditions before I signed up for this shit.
And, although I’d long skirted serious legal problems, I knew shit would eventually catch up with me.
Are the Eventualities of “Jails, Institutions, and Death” a Guarantee for People in Systems That Treat Drug Users Fairly?
I understand that the majority of people who use drugs do so without facing substantial problems. Maybe parents smell weed on their teens’ clothes and ground them for a month or you drink too much alcohol and end up puking, but that’s about it for most people.
Some 86% of American adults admit using alcohol at least once before, 70% say they’ve drank in the past year, and 55% report alcohol consumption within the past month. Research I’ve dug up indicates that 22.4% of Americans are under 18 and there are 14 million Americans with alcohol use disorder. Assuming there are 328 million Americans, just 5.5% of people meet the diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder.
And, yes, there might be more or less people who face “substantial problems” as a result of alcohol use but don’t have “alcohol use disorder,” but, either way, the prevalence of problem drug use is still low.
Although I know that people, in general, aren’t likely to consistently run into problems as a result of their drug use, certain countries’ populations are less prone to problems stemming from drug use if they’ve got more-forgiving drug policies or less drug-related stigma.
For example, if I lived in a country with more lenient drug policies — regardless of stigma toward drug use — I likely wouldn’t have been arrested and ultimately found guilty of Possession of Drug Paraphernalia three times if drug policies were more lax. And, also, if I lived somewhere with less stigma toward drug use — independent of drug policy leniency — I think I wouldn’t have faced as many drug-related problems. Stigma and drug policy bring forth different problems, though they overlap on many issues.
Even if there were a society with entirely-friendly drug policies and no stigma towards drug use, some drug users would inevitably face major consequences from using drugs.
So, to answer my question, “jails, institutions, and death” — a phrase that seemingly all long-term, often-problematic drug users are familiar with — are less of a guarantee in places that have less stigma toward drugs and friendlier drug policies. Still, of course, even in a perfect world, some problems would still result from drug use.
How Can We Better Accept People’s Drug Use?
Once most Americans are willing to accept other people’s drug use, most people reading this will be dead — at least I think we’re that far away.
However, it’s clear that you’re interested in supporting someone in active addiction, and that’s what matters. Just one person — hopefully you — can have a big impact on an active addict’s life.
Know How to Respond to an Overdose and Be Available to Supervise Others’ Drug Use
In my case, as an active illicit opioid user, I can protect myself from overdose by doing a few things:
- Always use around someone else who knows how to use naloxone and spot signs of opioid overdose.
- Make sure that person has access to naloxone. Point it out to them before using — do this every time you use.
- Do “test shots” (doses) with every new batch you use.
- Not mixing drugs — if you’re drinking alcohol, only drink alcohol.
You can be that supervisor for a friend, family member, or even someone you don’t know very well. There are plenty of good naloxone administration and opioid overdose response guides out there — look on google for on— so I won’t be explaining how, exactly, you’d learn.
However, in general, opioid overdose response looks like this:
- If breathing slows or the user goes unconscious, make sure their airway isn’t obstructed.
- Calling 911.
- Giving the person naloxone.
- (Possibly) performing rescue breathing.
Give Addicts Autonomy in Making Decisions
When it comes to recovering from drug addiction, we often know what’s best for ourselves. Why do many rehabs, drug courts, and probation or parole programs not take advice from current and former often-problematic drug users?
Don’t they do that in quite literally every other field — take advice from experts?
We really are experts in dictating the course of our addiction recovery ventures. Still, expect us to fail several times before getting it right.
Don’t View “Recovery” as Complete Abstinence
One of the most dangerous ways family members and friends treat addiction is by considering “recovery” to be full-out abstinence from all drugs.
If someone shows good faith in wanting to reduce drug use or fulfill unmet needs to improve their lives overall, support them!
Since I’ve been able to tell my S.O. when I use drugs, I’ve reduced my consumption, enrolled in a medication-assisted treatment program (“Suboxone clinic”), and experienced greater quality of life. I know this is just an anecdote, and not everybody will follow my same recovery path, but trust me when I say that supporting someone in active addiction is the best thing you can do. I agree it’d be ideal if I didn’t use drugs, but that isn’t a practical.
Sure as hell not anytime soon, at least.
Recovery should be about improving one’s quality of life — let your addict do what they think is best (within reason, of course). Simultaneously, try to be that voice of reason, but fall short of dictating their recovery decisions.