Free Your Mind: Why is it so hard to change the way we talk about addiction?

Published on
September 27, 2017

I think I can answer the question in my headline with one word:


Drug use, misuse and addiction are so embedded in our popular culture that we have grown accustomed to seeing, hearing or reading about every permutation of the experience.

Drugs are comic relief. Think of Cheech & Chong or Harold & Kumar. One of my favorite episodes of the incredibly funny Silicon Valley involves a character eating a massive amount of hallucinogenic mushrooms and trying to conjure the name of a new company. Scenes that would look to a psychologist as clear signs of addiction are played for laughs. It should go without saying that comedy writers absolutely should draw on drug use as source material just as they do all other aspects of life, but I would venture a guess that we are much more likely to see comic depictions of drug misuse and addiction than we are to see depictions of other forms of illness. Can you name a funny scene from an HBO comedy involving diabetes?

Drug use can be seen as essential for reaching a creative height. Elizabeth Barrett Browning created some of her most beloved poems with her mind in an opium cloud. Arthur Rimbaud pushed himself to the limits of drug use – and other forms of physical boundary pushing – while creating masterpieces that continue to inspire. The list goes on. Not to mention all the literary and cinematic characters with addiction as part of their central identity. Sherlock Holmes dosing with morphine and cocaine. Al Pacino as Tony Montana pushing his face into a mini mountain of cocaine. And Hugh Laurie as Gregory House popping Vicodin.

Drug use disorders can have a heroic element. Rock stars who die from an overdose are idolized in part because of the live-fast-die-young ethic. We don’t think of them as individuals who suffered from a mental disorder. We think of them as aspirants to artistic authenticity who flew so high they were burned by the sun. When Kurt Cobain left a Neil Young lyric in his suicide note – “better to burn out than to fade away” – it troubled Young so much that he still had difficulty talking about it years later. Cobain was addicted to heroin and was in need of treatment. But he has become another part of the rock star cosmology, joining faces in the sky like Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix.

You undoubtedly will note that modern depictions of drug addiction – like House – are not as purely romantic as a Rimbaud poem. They show the damage being done, too. I would argue, though, that they are merely used as a way to add complexity to a character. It’s an easy way to make an otherwise heroic figure seem more human, more relatable. Writer Ian Irvine offers “55 ways to create compelling characters” in a blog post and among them says:

Give your hero a secret. This could be a history of (or disposition to) some kind of criminal activity, a drink or drugs or gambling addiction, an affair, sexual excess, or some other shameful incident in the protagonist’s past. Such a secret could greatly damage your hero in the eyes of others, or even send him to prison or the gallows, and must be protected at all costs.

So when the Associated Press started recommending this year that we change the way we write about drug addiction, it was doing so against a backdrop of drugs as entertainment.

The AP was actually late to the change. As is often the case with style guides, the AP was following a trend in the sciences that started many years prior. I will write about that in my next post.  

[Photo credit: Spencer Platt / Getty Images]


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