When Charles first realized he suffered from depression, stigma drove his decision to never take an antidepressant.
From the beginning, we were pill shamed and later he was shamed for his drug use. Both of us were.
He was punished for having a panic attack with suspension. Then he was punished with a week in detention for using his iPod at lunch one foot past the line that was designated iPod area to manage his anxiety and prevent a panic attack.
It jaded him against the system and drove him towards drug use to manage the feelings. He lost faith in the mental health system and as a result started to rely on drugs and alcohol instead. He would never admit to me he suffered from depression but did admit to anxiety. And teens can be masters at hiding depression. Boys in particular.
But it was his addiction to heroin he was most ashamed of.
This made Charles feel worthless, like one of society’s throwaways. That’s how our culture treats those with substance use disorder. That’s why they struggle and I believe that’s a big reason why the relapse rate is so high.
If you look back at veterans addicted to heroin back in the Vietnam days, they just gave it up once they got back home and were with their support network. And when rats were put in a cage by themselves with drugs or water they chose drugs and became addicted. When they were in an active social environment, they chose water over the drugs. Their environment increased or decreased the likelihood they’d use substances.
It’s culture and connection that are the key to curbing this epidemic.
Charles never once admitted to me or his father he was addicted to heroin. Until the day he died he said he was addicted to oxycontin.
“Heroin addict” is a phrase dripping with shame, darkness and moral failing. It oozes out of every letter and makes people cringe. Heroin addicts are subhuman. Not worthy of the rights other citizens enjoy. At least that’s how it feels in our current culture.
But it was his treatment by a policeman on the side of the road at night that ultimately sent him spiraling out of control. He was roughed up, humiliated and treated like trash. Then the people you would expect to help then stalked and taunted him. I know now he felt the world was closing in on him and it crushed Charles. I know I felt it but there didn’t seem to be much I could do to stop it.
His music reveals this over and over. As did his Facebook messages. Stigma equals shame. And that is deeply internalized and difficult to undo.
Stigma was a factor in his drug abuse and addiction. It was a huge contributing factor to Charles ending his life.
It’s a factor in a lot of suicides. It’s a factor in the opiate epidemic exploding like it has. And if we want to save lives, we need to make some changes in our culture. That starts with individuals and our attitudes.