When it comes to dying of a drug overdose, you can expect to be thought of, postmortem, in one of two ways. Here is a quiz to help you predict the media fallout after your untimely demise:
1. Do you come from a family of drug addicts?
2. Have you prolonged your death through other questionable life choices?
3. Are you a mother?
If you answered ‘no’ to all of these questions, the media merely have ownership of the sadness of your decline. Oh, the heartbreak. What a wasted talent. Gone before her time. So tragic. Your parents print a long letter to you in The New York Times. Your girlfriend is photographed in her first tearful public appearance. See: Cory Monteith, Heath Ledger.
Which is not to diminish the sadness of their avoidable deaths. Not in the least. But we have two ways of thinking about drug use, and that is the first.
Peaches Geldof died of a heroin overdose. You probably know this already, if you are inclined to read wailing opinion pieces on terrible websites. As you will now know, Peaches owed it to her children to shake her addiction. Luckily, all that is required to recover from addiction is pressure and guilt from strangers, and the media have always been forthcoming with that.
I read a revolting piece of “writing” last week that stated, amongst other atrocities against humanity:
But I simply don’t believe what Peaches Geldof did can be in any way compared to everyday transgressions like glancing at your phone while you drive. There is nothing I have done or will ever do that is in the realms of what Peaches Geldoff did.
(I’m not going to link to it because it’s so appalling, but if you are so inclined, you can copy and paste: http://www.mamamia.com.au/social/peaches-geldof-inquest/#g1Z4iS8fZDdQZEsg.99)
Here ye, here ye, merciful media: there is nothing I can do, ever, in the course of my natural life, that is even remotely as terrible as what Peaches Geldof did.
We know this is true because the author:
1. Was not born to a person whose death was caused by drug use. Children of addicts are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, social issues, normalisation of addiction, and are more likely to have access to said drug use. They are more likely to become drug addicts themselves. Astala Dylan Willow Geldof-Cohen and Phaedra Bloom Forever Cohen are more likely than most to become drug addicted adults. They are more likely to consider suicide. Statistically speaking.
2. Did not spend a lifetime being watched and scrutinised by the media.
3. Is an angel from heaven who should surely be lauded for her efforts in maintaining only “everyday transgressions like glancing at [her] phone while [she] drives.” Which, by the way, causes 1% of all road casualties.
What we can learn from this piece is that after you are a mother, you owe the world your commitment to being a mother. Mother, first and foremost. You are a mother. Where do you get off, going around being addicted to stuff? How dare you. How could she fail to realise the burden she placed on her children? If only she were the child of an addict herself, and therefore able to fully comprehend the consequences of her actions.
But then, is focusing on the tragedy of her death the best alternative?
Consider this piece by Wendy Squires.
We see two media portrayals emerging: you are the worst kind of parent because you fucking died instead of caring for your toddler; or, you are a tragedy, eventually succumbing the way we always knew you would. You must be shoved into one basket or the other. You must be labelled in a way that the public can understand, for the media’s sake. You must be pigeonholed, identified, scrutinised.
What you are not, when you die of a drug overdose, is a person. You are not someone who had a favourite TV show or a dog, or someone who liked an open fire on a Sunday afternoon, or someone who read Joyce or baked scones.
The only ways we are allowed to understand drug addiction, as a society, are as a slight on our community or as a hopeless tragedy.
Sociologists and psychologists talk about the danger of this binary outlook as it applies to good and evil. That in establishing that Hitler is “evil”, we a) absolve ourselves of any relationship to his behaviour, because we are Not Evil, and b) dehumanise his actions, denounce him as the antichrist, and as a result we fail to see it in other people. Here is a good piece to read.
The same type of thinking applies to drug addiction. We cannot be responsible for drug overdose if it was an unavoidable tragedy. We cannot be held accountable if the person was beyond help, or fundamentally terrible.
If the best treatment is prevention, what we need is a better way to identify and treat risk factors. And we can’t do that if we see our own children, friends, brothers, aunts and think: “Well, they’re not a hideous, terrible person. And they’re not a beautiful tragedy. Therefore, they’re not at risk.” We don’t know what the risk of drug addiction is because the media have always fed us these two saleable archetypes.
Is it any wonder, then, that we continue to live in a society that condemns the actions of addicts instead of establishing greater understanding, better services and, I don’t know, help? We don’t even know what they bloody look like.