In this special, two-part Op-Ed, Liam McCabe and Donna Mae Depola discuss the term “junkie” and what it means to them.
BY LIAM MCCABE
My name is Liam and I’m an alcoholic. Those are eight words I have gotten used to saying in “the rooms” of AA. Words are important. Words can heal. And words like “junkie” can crush.
Admitting you have a problem, as they say, is the first step to recovery. For a large part of my adult life, I’ve had a problem with alcohol and an even bigger problem admitting it.
If you know me, you’ve probably recognized this or at least had a suspicion. If you’ve drunk with me, you’ve probably tried to convince me not to have that last shot, or suggested it was time to head home. Most likely, I didn’t listen to you.
I didn’t listen to anyone for a really long time, until December 20, 2014. That was the day I had my last drink, took the advice of my loved ones, and contacted my friend Donna Mae DePola, who suggested I enter an inpatient treatment facility, followed by sessions at the Resource Training Center.
Not only have I suffered from addiction, but members of my family have as well, including my father, whose problems with substance abuse and depression spiraled into chronic homelessness. He passed away over 10 years ago, while he was living on the train tracks under the Bay Ridge Towers.
There are few issues as personal to me as the addiction epidemic our city and nation is facing right now. The addiction issue is so prodigious because of the stubbornness of the addict, and the tragedy of the consequences, if the disease goes untreated.
One of the more controversial approaches to “treating” addicts has been the introduction of “safe-use” facilities where addicts are given a government-sponsored “safe space” and clean needles to use drugs. The main argument behind these facilities is that with clean needles, the addicts will not contract or spread certain diseases, like HIV, or be far from emergency medical care, if it’s needed.
Right now, local government is proposing the use of these facilities. The City Council should save its money. These facilities have been shown to be failures, as evidenced in other cities around the world. And the argument for them is one based inevitably on enabling the addict, which might accomplish some of the short-term goals, such as disease prevention, but only stifle the larger fight against addiction.
I’ll put it this way: if there had been a state-sponsored bar I could have gotten drunk at, it would have done nothing to cure my addiction. These facilities are a bad idea.
But an even worse idea is resorting to shaming those with addiction, by ridiculing them and calling them names, like “junkie.” In my darkest days of alcohol addiction, I never responded positively to name-calling, no matter how accurate the ridicule may have been.
Addicts need tough love, not dehumanization. Tough love, from my girlfriend, and later my counselors at Villa Veritas Rehab Center, the staff at the Resource Training Center, and my AA sponsor, Keith, is what ultimately saved me. Facilities like these are what work and where we need to spend resources.
Many people with addiction also have depression issues, so much of the challenge is getting addicts to gain self-confidence. And an addict will never value himself if he only sees himself as a “junkie.” I was ultimately able to confront addiction when I began to appreciate my life, and that started with a phone call to Donna Mae DePola.
Liam McCabe is a community activist and the founder of the Willie McCabe Memorial Run.
BY DONNA MAE DEPOLA
My name is Donna Mae DePola and I have been clean from illegal drugs for 30 years and it is my life’s work to help others get sober. Everyone who abuses drugs or alcohol is different, but all who get sober have one thing in common: they want to help themselves. No one has sobriety forced upon them.
So, in 1994, I opened the Resource Training Center, where we provide educational hours for those seeking to become a Credentialed Alcohol and Substance Abuse Counselor and provide “Treatment on Demand” for individuals suffering from Alcohol and Substance Abuse.
Being clean that long has shown me that addiction is, indeed, a disease. Insulting someone who has a disease is cruel and, ultimately, unhelpful to solving the problem. And no one who calls an addict a “junkie” has ever experienced or lost a loved one to substance abuse.
About a year ago, when a handful of people in the United States contracted the Zika virus, not a single person in this country died from it, yet the government put millions of dollars towards research. Eight people across the United States die from overdoses every day, and, still the stigma of addiction persists and some people continue to use the word “junkie.”
Beyond being insulting, the term “junkie” is hurtful to those with addiction because it is inaccurate. It depicts someone who is wandering the streets, unable to hold down a job or a life because of this addiction. This is often not what addicts look like.
Many who use, use secretly. They hold down jobs as doctors, teachers and politicians, and in other professions. They are working family members who find a way to maintain their habit. Quintessential homeless addicts are a small population compared to addicts who are functional.
Addiction is an epidemic. And it’s unique because it’s unlikely that there will be one cure-all that totally solves the problem. The answer to how to cure all addicts of their disease may be a long way off, but we can slowly solve the issue here at home.
If you sense a friend is struggling with addiction, put your hand out and offer to help. Or just offer to sit and listen. Just absorbing their words and loving them will increase their self-worth exponentially.
People suffering with substance abuse are not caricatures. They are certainly not “junkies.” They are humans who are a little lost. And most addicts just need a loved one to show them the way home.
Donna Mae DePola is the founder of the Resource Training Center.