A television ad from the 1980s begins with a man running while a child's voice says, "When I grow up I want to be a track star." We then see a police officer coming up behind the man and grabbing him, while as a man's voice says, "No one ever says I want to be a junkie when I grow up." The ad was sponsored by the Partnership for a Drug Free America. No doubt many readers remember this ad.
In the context of today's debate over drug policy and a comprehensive response to addiction, the ad comes to mind because of the man's statement. "No one ever says I want to be a junkie when I grow up." I have heard some members of this community and many around the country degrade and dehumanize the people who face this struggle. Judging from the kind of language I have heard, you would think that these people were dropped into our communities from some distant planet, already addicted, as soulless as the stereotype presented in that ad.
"No one ever says I want to be a junkie when I grow up." No, they don't. They dream of running track, running businesses, and running for president. The reality is that people are, in fact, doing both. The reality is that people who struggle with addiction are not the other, some shadowy entity lurking in our communities. They are running track, running businesses, and maybe even running for President. They are also finding themselves victim to a disease that crept up on them until they suddenly realized they're losing or have already lost control. Sure, you might say that some of them chose to take that first hit or gave in to peer pressure in high school. Many of them also set down that path because an unfortunate accident got them addicted to prescribed pain killers.
In reality, this is not about who they are. This is about who we are. This is about us seeking mercy instead of judgement, about us empathizing instead of condemning. This is about compassion, not just for those who need direct help — people who may be struggling to find any compassion for themselves — but the secondary victims as well. These people are somebody's child, somebody's parent, somebody's friend. There are many programs being debated in communities around the country — needle exchanges, Narcan availability, and amnesty for the addicted —as responses to the issues faced by municipalities. They are meant as a stopgap to mitigate some of the worst effects of drug addiction — spread of disease, death of people we care about — while we try to grapple with long-lasting permanent solutions to this issue affecting communities around this country.
This is not about who they are. This is about who we are, because at the end of the day, they are a part of the we that make up our communities.
Jeffery Anderson-Burgos currently resides in Holyoke, Mass., and is working towards a Political Science degree in the Commonwealth Honors College at UMass Amherst. He is a former Brattleboro resident and Town Meeting Representative and current member of the Brattleboro Masonic Lodge. His opinions are his own and not necessarily those of any organization he may also be involved with. Matters of Substance is a collaborative column of Brattleboro Area Prevention Coalition. BAPC works to prevent and reduce substance abuse in the Windham Southeast area.