Archives for posts with tag: death

The communist that everyone loves to hate, Joseph Stalin, is credited with having said that, “The death of one is a tragedy, but the death of millions is just a statistic.” This obviously refers to the intimate heartbreak of having some one person in our lives pass away versus the math class-styled boredom humanity possesses toward the deaths of millions of “other” people. Now I can very easily link this to the anti-vaxxers who either shrug off or outright deny the literal millions of people who have died from Covid-19, but I’m not going to because the vast majority of Canadians have recognized the severe nature of the disease and acted accordingly. The point I’m actually going to make is that the response to this pandemic refutes the quotation: millions died, but there was action taken to mitigate those deaths on a global scale. Despite the impossibility of connecting on a personal level to all of those who were dying, we all got together to do something about this catastrophe. Covid is more than just a statistic; it’s human enough to elicit a response.

On the other hand, we have the communist that everyone hates to love, Karl Marx, being credited with having stolen this line from Friedrich Engels, “First as tragedy, then as farce.” This is referring to the notion that when tragic history repeats itself, the second instance is often a cruel parody of the first. If the deaths from Covid are the tragedy, then drug overdose deaths are the on-going farce.

And we all know Marx liked to party.

In British Columbia, we’ve had 3,547 deaths from Covid so far; in contrast, since the start of the pandemic until March of this year, there have been 4,552 deaths from drug overdoses, with 2022 set to outpace the previous record from the year before. Certainly the measures taken to limit the impact of Covid have significantly reduced the number of deaths that we would have faced otherwise, but we have harm reduction measures to mitigate drug deaths too with remarkable success (no one dies from overdose at safe injection sites, for instance). My point is that one set of deadly statistics was collectively agreed upon to be a tragedy, and the other was not.

Some might argue that a drug overdose death isn’t the same because they cynically believe addiction to be a choice, and therefore, a death arising from that choice is the addict’s own fault. I don’t think that this belief is as prevalent as it used to be. BC just decriminalized small amounts of all drugs, and even the conservative news outlet, the National Post, is framing this decision as being in response to a health crisis. Obviously it’s a health condition, right? Everyone is saying so.

This looks like candy, and I want to eat it.

In response to this fading belief of personal choice resulting in death, alleged advocates will point out that many of the overdose deaths are not regular substance users, but result from those who casually use drugs receiving a sketchy concoction that they were not physiologically prepared for. This is trying to paint a picture where real humans are dying from drug overdoses, so please care about them! Don’t think this is just sub-human junkies! This could just be someone who likes to party! You like to party, right? Even Marx liked to party!

This mad dash to declare addiction a health crisis to eliminate stigma is inevitably destined to fail. During the AIDS epidemic, people were stigmatized not because of the disease ravaging their bodies, but because they were gay. Everyone knew it was a health crisis, but nobody cared because it was ideologically chained to the homos. Similarly with opioid deaths: you can scream all you want that it’s a health crisis, but no one is going to detach drug use from drug users. Destigmatizing drug use will never work so long as we’re ignoring the stigma attached to the users themselves.

I expect that a drug user Pride event would be less colourful, but probably more fun… cuz, ya know, the drugs

If we see stigma as being attached to the addict in the same way that AIDS stigma was attached to the gay community, then what is it about filthy junkies that we just hate so much!? What biblical sin have drug users committed that earned them this stigma? Well, drug users are racialized, for one. They’re poor. They’re abused. They’re hobbled. They’re men (not in a femi-nazi way, but in a “failed men deserve to be discarded” way). Drug users are imbued with the sin of being socially despicable across all fronts. When society starts to embrace its homeless, when Indigenous people stop being followed around in stores, when we stop pitying the disabled, and when we allow diversity within masculinity, then maybe, the stigma against drug users will wane. Unfortunately, we’re nowhere near that.

The ads I see around town regarding substance use these days are linked to the Drug Free Kids organization which, hence the name, advocates an abstinence-based approach to drugs. We’re still teaching our kids abstinence-only programs like we were sex educators in 1950s America. It’s like we haven’t progressed at all since Nancy Reagan told us to just say no. We seem to have evolved passed the puritanism that demonized sex before marriage, accepting that kids are gonna bone and that’s okay, but we have not yet exorcized the demons from the devil’s weed.

I haven’t seen the show, but I wouldn’t believe you if you told me that none of these kids bone

Remember when sex would immediately result in pregnancy and syphilis? From my old textbook on addiction, “Estimates are that only around one-third of people who have injected heroin become addicted, compared to 22% for cocaine and 8% for marijuana. Only one drug causes addiction among a majority of its users—nicotine.” This little tidbit is completely irrelevant because we don’t want our babies to grow up to be crippled natives living on the street, and complete abstinence is the only way to be sure. Our reaction to drug users is an emotional response curated by centuries of racist, ableist, and classist attitudes, and patriarchal definitions of men. Any kind of drug education or strategy that isn’t addressing that is actively harming our chances at overcoming the opioid crisis.

The millions of deaths from Covid-19 are a tragedy because in theory, if not in practice, it can impact anyone regardless of status. There’s no stigma to it. I got Covid. You probably got Covid. Overdose deaths are for “them.” No matter how much the term “health crisis” gets bandied about to proselytize a benign neutrality, it won’t stop drugs from being a social issue. When we stop the farce and address those social issues, then maybe it will be just as okay for people to use drugs as it is for kids to bone.

It seems almost unconscionable to ascribe a moral quality to ill health. It’s absurd to think that someone who has caught the common cold is some kind of sinister deviant, but as far back as the lepers being shunned and shuttered out of society, humanity has pointed at the unwell and called them devils.

Europe blamed the Black Death on the wrath of God, who was furious over the alleged impiety of His people. The mentally ill used to be incarcerated alongside criminals, their characters indistinguishable. Even lately, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s seemed only to punish those considered perverse. Consider how we inquire after cancer: did they smoke? Did they eat processed foods? Did they stay too long in the sun? What was their lifestyle like that earned them a terminal illness?

Disease is an unquestionable evil, but why are we so quick to point to its host as having responsibility for it? When disease becomes a moral choice, the pure among us become immortal. The myth that bad things only happen to bad people convinces us that if only we maintain our righteousness, we will be spared. Righteousness only as a veneer, of course, as compassion for the ill could only ever be a supererogatory act. Far simpler to pillory the sick and use the blind luck of our good health as evidence of our sanctity.

everything-in-your-life-is-a-reflection-of-a-choice-you-have-made-if-you-want-a-different-

A meritocracy of health. God, I hate memes.

Where this demonization of illness is most prevalent is the disease that seems to be built on a long series of choices: addiction. It’s so immoral that it is literally a crime. Mitch Hedberg satirizes this mentality with his quip:

Alcoholism is a disease, but it’s the only one you can get yelled at for having. “Goddamn it, Otto, you’re an alcoholic!” “Goddamn it, Otto, you have lupus!”

One of those two doesn’t sound right.

Addiction is a reaction to trauma, neglect, and mental illness. Addiction is what happens when reality is so brutal that the body seeks any kind of escape from it. Addiction isn’t so much of an illness as it is the medication for when life is a sickness, and then through the obsession of escape it becomes a part of that sickness. Any sense of “choice” in the matter is illusory, any kind of “morality” illegitimate.

But people continue to yell at those whose lives have become diseased. Consider the top rated comment on a CBC article saying that in the first 8 months of 2017, the number of overdose deaths in BC had reached 1,013, compared to the entirety of 2016 which was 922:

I have a real hard time feeling sympathy for these people who have died. They knew fentanyl was out there. They knew that over doses were on the rise and out of control. There’s absolutely no way they didn’t know the risk that they were taking! Yet, they chose to anyways. So no. Finding sympathy is very hard for me.

1,013 human lives extinguished. That’s 1,013 families that have to deal with the grief and guilt of a loved one they will always wonder if they could have done more to save. Of course addicts know that there is Fentanyl in the streets. Some of them ask for it directly. The “risk” isn’t the point. The cure may be worse than the disease, but for many of them it’s the only option available, and some might see the risk of overdose as a potential escape from their sickness altogether. Can we truly judge those adrift at sea who drink saltwater rather than endure the agony of thirst?

But it’s fine. Sympathy is for the bleeding hearts. That could never happen to me because I am morally righteous. I am pure. I am better than them because I wasn’t raped, or abandoned, or abused, nor do I have voices in my head that only shut up when I shoot heroin into my veins. I get to tell myself that it’s my choices that make me noble. My fear of death, a bold reminder in the face of an addict, is well hidden behind the vitriol I espouse. But death cannot come for me. I am pristine. I am immortal.

A young boy dashes through the park, trampling through the flower beds. He stops to admire his handiwork, trying to memorize the patterns of dislocated petals and frantic insects. Weary of play for the moment, he collapses onto a bench.

He sees a group of children come up with rules to a new game, devoid of any reason. They scream and run about, tagging one another then arguing over new sets of rules to replace the old ones which allowed them to be tagged. Their laughter rings across the park, the frivolity creating an ambiance of innocence.

He witnesses a young man let his dog off the leash. The young man throws a ball down the field, and the dog bounds after it. With the ball retrieved, the dog jubilantly takes off across the park. The young man yells out after the dog, and begins a slow lope to chase it down.

A couple walks past the bench, hand in hand, talking quietly among themselves. The words are meaningless, but the conversation between their eyes and the dialogue of their bodies express a mute intimacy.

He looks further across the park, and sees a man with a stroller. The stroller is surrounded by a cooing group of women, while the man sheepishly stands by, feeling awkward with the attention. The group of women carry on their way, waving their high-pitched goodbyes to the infant, while one waves only to the man, who waves back with a grin.

Hearing a commotion, he turns to see that the couple, further down the path, have erupted into an argument. They remain mostly hushed to avoid public embarrassment, though passion elevates the occasional phrase before a scrutinizing stare quiets it down again. The words maintain their meaninglessness, however, while tone conveys everything they didn’t intend to communicate.

He sits back in the bench and observes the environment surrounding him. The lives of so many blur together to create a primordial vision of human existence. A flurry of sound and colour wash over him, engulfing him in their emotions. The world spins around him while he sits in the centre, calm and unmoving.

An old man struggles to his feet, and walks slowly toward the gate. As he reaches the old iron bars, he pauses. He pats at his pockets, and turns slightly, as if to look back. Shrugging his shoulders, the old man raises the collar of his jacket against the bitter cold and crosses the threshold, certain he’s forgotten something.