Norwegian journalist, Sturla Haugsgjerd, on the shame of addiction.
Shame associated with drug use kills lawyers the exact same way it kills unemployed people. This shame kills magazine magnates, rock stars, sex workers, regional managers, and office workers alike. When we use alone there are no safeguards if we take too strong a dose, or if we use drugs that—thanks to prohibition—are not what we thought they were. My country kills people with shame every day.
My name is Sturla, and I'm addicted to heroin. When you imagine a ‘high-functioning addict’, I’m it. I work as a journalist, writer, philosopher, and podcaster. I’m also an active advocate and op-ed writer on behalf of people with criminalised habits. In bad times, however, that criminalised person might also be me, so I might ride the subway into downtown Oslo, where I live, and I might buy heroin. I might melt it on a sheet of aluminium foil using a lighter. I might put on a pair of sunglasses or a hoodie as I ride the subway and let it rip.
I continued using, despite the fact that by doing so I risked losing work, friends, my girlfriend, and my family. I'm not a hypocrite, I told myself. I did not deny that the urge to get high was still a daily struggle for me when I was asked about it on the radio. No reason to be ashamed! Yet shame rots my soul...
As I type these words, I tremble with shame. I’ve participated in public debate, then gone straight into the city to score. I know that I’ve been seen doing it. I know some people talk about it. Shame prevents me from imagining them as genuinely worried, kind, or caring, and instead I assume they think diabolical things, like he was supposed to be a role model, now he's fucking up again. I actually think he just likes it. He doesn't even want to get clean!
And it's partly true. I, and thousands others, like me either like the high, or dislike its absence to the extent that we’re unable to stop. We consequently either don't want to be, or are unable to be, completely abstinent. This is how the world is; this is how I am.
Part of me desires to be like everyone else, and every time I fail, the pickaxe of shame and social rejection chips away a little piece of me. I know that my fellow drug-users feel it too—this sense that we’ve betrayed you.
If you discover us in public bathrooms, we all feel like Goya’s Saturn eating his son. If you’ve ever felt this shame, you know how truly monstrous it feels. And YET, people will say horrible things like you need to have more willpower and motivation—those are the kind of addicts Norway embraces! And they’re right: this is the gross truth of Norwegian society, that if you can be, or at least appear to be, completely drug-free, you will often be welcomed back into public life! So long as you make it clear how much you deplore your previous life, and so long as you’re willing to discuss your affliction ad infinitum. But make no mistake: the 90 percent of us who fail to achieve, or don't want to achieve total abstinence are motivated, and we have willpower. This we will prove, for the whole world to see, and our society will give us dignity, or our society will continue to cannibalise itself.
Is it really absurd to imagine a world where people who are addicted, or who use drugs for any reason, can stand up straight and contribute to society, without having to sneak away into toilets, or parking lots?
Imagine a future where I could sit, writing to you, as I am, in a multipurpose room where anyone can be safe and open about their drug use—somewhere I could smoke my heroin before I write my contributions to public discourse, or where my friend, who is addicted to amphetamines, could go to safely do his drugs before he goes to work selling Red Cross memberships and hydro plans?
Let me tell you a little secret: in one way, the future I imagine is already here. Many of those politicians, teachers, economists, judges, police officers, and lawyers—whose contributions are rarely, and usually justly, called into question—do so with a regular supply of illicit drugs in their blood. In one way, or another, we all sit behind closed public bathroom doors with voices of shame in our heads.
Safe injection sites already exist in many parts of the world. We even have one—but just one!—right here in Oslo, but safe injection sites are only part of the puzzle. More than mitigating the damage, let's build a society where we don’t allow arcane and punitive moral codes to kill as many as we currently allow.
Sturla Haugsgjerd is a Norwegian journalist and activist. His addiction to opiates, benzo and alcohol has informed every aspect of his professional, moral, and spiritual life over the past 15 years.