'I Was a Slave to Addiction'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That’s how this reader describes his past:

I have been sober—free from drugs and alcohol—for almost nine years. Before I started my journey out of addiction, my life revolved around alcohol, cocaine, MDMA, and prescription painkillers. Not a day goes by that I don’t feel extreme gratitude for where I am now. I know that I am lucky to have found a way out, since most addicts don’t; they end up in prison or in a cemetery.

My experience has really shaped my views on public policy surrounding drugs and addiction. I believe that our current views and policy surrounding illegal drugs is not only ineffective, it perpetuates the very problem it aims to solve.

First, while I was in the trenches with my addiction, I lived in fear. I was afraid of what people thought of me, afraid of being lonely and inadequate; my life was run by fear. Even so, I was never afraid that I was breaking the law. I didn’t think twice about using illegal drugs and I didn’t think twice about breaking the law to continue using them.

Furthermore, I didn’t get sober because I was afraid. I was arrested numerous times, I was berated by a judge in front of a courtroom full of people, I developed serious financial problems and health problems … and yet I still continued to use drugs and alcohol. I didn’t fear the consequences, the loss of family and friends, or the threat of jail.

I only made an attempt at sobriety because I was beat up and tired, and drugs and alcohol had stopped working for me. Fear never deterred me from using. It didn’t drive me to get sober, and it doesn’t keep me on the path I am on now. There are plenty of other people out there who are just like me.

Fear wasn’t effective in deterring my drug use and yet so much of the language and law surrounding illegal drugs is based in fear. Our teachers and programs like D.A.R.E. tell us that all drugs are bad and we should be afraid of them and the people who use them. The law tells us that we are going to get locked up for a very long time if we use or sell drugs.

I think the only thing that this teaches us is that drugs are bad and people that use them are bad people. I felt like a bad person for years and years, and it was only when I started to get sober that I learned that I wasn’t a bad person; rather, I was a sick person who did bad things, a sick person that would go to any lengths to scratch the itch that was my addiction.

Since I’ve gotten sober, I see the addiction as a sickness, as a public health crisis, but I think we as a society look at people who are addicted to illegal drugs and think “oh look, they’re a criminal, they’re a bum, they’re a bad person, a drain on society.” I even catch myself thinking like that sometimes!

So is that a way of comforting ourselves—distancing ourselves from the “bad” addicts? Looking down at someone who is doing something illegal is, in a sick way, a comforting thing that shields us from looking at ourselves and our own legal vices. (I had a far more difficult time putting down alcohol and cigarettes than all of the other illegal drugs I was doing.) Maybe we all have addictive tendencies; maybe we all just need a little help.

We as Americans don’t like difficulty, especially when it comes to our health. Eating healthy and exercise? How about take a multi vitamin and my blood pressure medicine? Pre-diabetic because of too much fast food and soda? Just take a pill and switch to diet soda, right, and if the pills don’t work, you can always inject insulin, right? Depressed? Maybe some fresh air, a run, some healthy food and socialization would help ... but a prescription is easier. Can’t sleep? Ambien. Anxious? Xanax …

So it goes with the drug policy. Treating addicts like they have a health problem means funding rehabs, special floors in hospitals, therapy, exercise programs, drugs like Methadone and Suboxone. Freedom from drugs and alcohol means, in a lot of cases, lifetime care and lifetime work. Isn’t it easier to just lock us up and throw away the key? Isn’t it just easier to say “they’re bad” instead of “they’re sick?”

Getting sober is difficult. It’s hard to unlearn the reflex that using drugs and alcohol. Staying sober requires self-reflection, asking other people for help and trying to take good care of my mind and body. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it. I am grateful that I had and still have the resources and support that I needed, since lots of people aren’t so lucky. They’re not lucky because our government has decided to turn sick people into bad people (and this idea seems to disproportionately affect black and Hispanic communities).

Anyhow, I know that addiction is a radical, cunning and baffling health problem; I think that it’s time for a more creative and compassionate solution. Will legalizing all drugs help? Maybe. Will it be the answer? Absolutely not. But what we are doing right now is not working; it’s time to give something else a chance.