PEOPLE DON'T think of addicts like me when they imagine intravenous drug users. I'm a white woman who works as a producer for a national PBS talk show. Five years ago I was shooting cocaine and heroin up to 40 times a day.
When Americans picture a heavy drug user, they see an ignorant, immoral, undisciplined criminal: the worst caricature of the racist view of minorities. But because addicts are in the closet, no one banishes that image. And this lets addiction and AIDS continue to kill us. If we want to fight those diseases, recovering addicts had better come out and organize. There's no other constituency for the change we need.
With a new drug czar -- former New York City police commissioner Lee Brown -- who has no experience with treatment or prevention, we need to raise our voices to fight the misinformation that has obscured the real solutions to the drug problem.
Myths about addiction have hidden me and harmed me since before I tried drugs. No one expected me to become a drug addict at an Ivy League school, largely because I was white and an over-achieving student. But if people had looked for the real red flags, they would have found them. They would have seen depression and compulsive behavior in my family -- and noted the correlation between my increasing drug use and my parents' disintegrating marriage. And they would have discovered that, despite a nurturing early childhood, I never really made friends. These are definite precursors to addiction.
While my Columbia classmates were able to give up coke when it fell out of fashion, I progressed to IV use and added heroin. Addiction wasn't a lifestyle choice for any of us, but drugs trapped me because they filled an emptiness I didn't know was there. I hadn't known I was in pain until drugs freed me; I couldn't give up this anesthesia until it stopped working.
That happened suddenly. It was as if I was in a movie and perspective shifted. I could see that the 85-pound, emaciated woman with tracks on her arms, hands and ankles was an addict. Her drug use had become joyless, compulsive; she found herself weighing whether or not to violate her principles by sleeping with someone to get drugs. I had never seen myself this way before. It meant I needed help. I got treatment and have been drug-free for almost five years now.
But no one speaks for me as the AIDS epidemic progresses. Myths about IV drug use nearly killed me. Since people assumed that addicts wanted to die, no one offered us information on how to protect ourselves from HIV; clean needle programs were blocked for years. A friend taught me how to be safe, and thanks to her, I was not infected when I kicked drugs.
Most addicts don't have such a friend. There's no Addicts' Health Crisis, nowhere for us to turn as a community. There are 6 million hard-core users in this country, yet we have no voice. Few attempt to raise money for us. Despite a surging number of people who contract HIV by needle, there are no celebrities who focus on IV AIDS -- and even in ACT UP, there are few addict activists.
We need a political organization of former drug users to fight for us, so that we have a chance at battling the twin epidemics of drugs and AIDS. While the participation of active users would also be helpful, it is unlikely that they could lead the way. Since there is no cure for either disease, recovering users have just as much stake in this fight.
First off, we need to teach the public what addiction is and who addicts are. How many people know, for instance, that those who become addicts really are predisposed to this disease, usually by some combination of genetics and environmental factors? How many know that most addicts are white?
By coming out, we raise these questions. By showing that we are decent people from all social classes, races, genders, sexual orientations and backgrounds, we can fight the stigma that 12 years of drug war has pinned on us.
Next, we need to take this idea to its logical conclusion: Drug treatment should replace punishment. If addiction is a disease, then jail won't cure it. The sentence for all non-violent drug-related crime should be treatment.
Today, finally, the timing is right: Many Americans, even in law enforcement, are fed up with the drug war. From left to right, experts now agree that what we need is not more prisons but more programs. And President Clinton, who noted during the campaign the profound effect his brother's addiction had on him, seems open to new ideas. Yet if no one brings the real facts to his attention, nothing will change. An addicts' organization could help by offering an informed, intelligent perspective -- and publicly counter misguided addiction treatment policies. We could also serve to evaluate the various organizations meant to confront addiction, guiding them in the most effective ways to fight it and help us. After all, if you want me not to do something, perhaps it's a good idea to look at who I am and why I do it.
There are signs that addicts are ready to fight. One organization, the Society of Americans for Recovery, has 17,000 members committed to the treatment fight. That's a good start, but many addicts in the group won't go public about their status. As for the 12-Step programs to which many addicts belong, they too stress remaining anonymous. Many interpret this as: One should never reveal that she is a recovering addict. In fact, it means simply that one shouldn't disclose AA or NA membership. These programs also emphasize that they are apolitical. This is appropriate, but it has been taken to mean that political action by addicts is wrong. Twelve-Steppers should get ready to add a new meeting to their schedule.
Our organization would also have to work on changing our sexual behavior, among both active and recovering users. Seventy percent of heterosexual AIDS results from sex with drug abusers. Also, we know that many newly recovering addicts use sex as a substitute for drugs. Increasingly, I hear of women who avoided AIDS when they used drugs but became infected sexually in recovery. This is tragic, and it can only be stopped if we organize and educate.
Until we come together to speak truths like these to power, we'll continue to get short-changed in AIDS and drug treatment funding. Research on opportunistic infections that affect us will go undone, and money for needle exchange and drug programs will stay at a bare minimum. We will continue to have to confront AIDS in prison. The closet will continue to kill us.
Maia Szalavitz is a segment producer for "The Charlie Rose Show."