When ignoring drug addiction doesn’t work anymore

Isolation leads to stigma, and stigma leads to desolation

The 3rd Annual Overdose Awareness and Remembrance Vigil was held in front of Monroe County Courthouse last Thursday to remember the community members that we've lost due to drug overdose.

Under their motto, "Any Positive Change," Indiana Recovery Alliance held this year's vigil to bring the Bloomington community together and cast away the social stigma that has ostracized people and prevented them from getting the help they need.

The speakers at the event made one thing clear: drug users are not criminals nor people that should be shunned. Instead, the speakers emphasized that drug users —the people we are so afraid of and by—need our attention and care to fight through their drug addiction. Multiple speakers highlighted that "criminalizing is not the answer."

Since I was at the court house early, I had the chance to talk to some people who represented IRA and other volunteers that were willing to share their story. The more I spoke with them, the more one thing became clear: their motivation to use drugs was to escape isolation of any sorts. But as their solution started to wear out, they found themselves even more lost than when they were sober.

"I became an alcoholic and started to misuse my prescription drugs to free myself from my problems. But when the drugs started not to work anymore, I lost my solution. I was lost, trapped and even more isolated." – Kim

"People are living chaotically because of shame, stigma, and isolation… When he [my husband] was alive, I was not standing on the courthouse square, talking about his heroin use. I wasn't talking to anyone about his heroin use because everywhere I've looked to reach out for help, there was a punitive response. So I was afraid." – Christie

Christie, one of the speakers at the vigil, shares her story about her husband.

Christie, one of the speakers at the vigil, shares her story about her husband.

"My nurse friend got in trouble at work, and lost her job. She was able to get a job as a nurse again, but she did not mentally deal with the stigma that was placed on her for being addicted to opiates. It was about a year after she was fired, and there was no criminal charges filed by her employer, but the state did decide to file charges against her, and it took roughly a year to bring charges.

So she was not aware of the charges and missed her court date. And the state police showed up and arrested her at midnight. Her mugshot was placed on Facebook and other social media things, and I live in a small town and she was a emergency room nurse, so everyone knew her. It was too much for her to handle. And she had some drugs she kept safe in her house. And that day, I told her, we will deal with this, but she couldn't handle the stigma that was placed on her and that night, she did inject herself and died of overdose." – Betsy

Isolation and stigma is the common theme that is linking these three stories. According to sociologist Émile Durkheim, people who commit egoistic suicide are more isolated. They don't see the benefit of belonging to a group because they don't have one that supports them. They are isolated. Similarly, drug users start using drugs to free themselves from isolation and pre-existing stigma; but ending up more isolated than ever due to stigma that is placed on drug users.

Matt, a guy I met at the vigil, said he started using drugs because it was a recreational thing that his friends did. To feel that sense of belonging from a social group, he did drugs. He wasn't pressured or forced to in any way, he just wanted to belong. So, he "casually" did some drugs.

Similarly to the other stories, Matt's primary motivation for drug use was to feel like he was part of something. The more isolated the users felt because of stress and other problems, the more dependent they became on the drug. Like a feedback loop, the more dependent they became, the more isolated they felt because of the stigma surrounding drug use. So they couldn't get help.

Drug abusers need help. They deserve the help. Instead of criminalizing drug addicts, we need to open our narrow minds and stop ostracizing them so they don't feel isolated from communities. We need to pass legislations and rules that don't punish those suffering, but rather support and help them recover from their addiction.

And this goes beyond drugs. People suffering from depression, loneliness, hunger, poverty and other things need our positive attention. That's the bottom line.

By not lending a helping hand, we're only pushing drug addicts further down the rabbit hole. And all because we don't want to "deal" with it. You have no idea how contagious a smile can be to someone you don't even know is suffering. If you someone who looks down, don't brush them off. Ask them how their day is going. The smallest attention might just save them from an overdose.

If you at least agree with me on this issue, think about what you could do at this moment. You can do something, I am sure. But the real question is, are you willing to do it?