The headline of a story written in the Guardian newspaper by an American doctor caught my attention recently. It went as follows:
‘Heroin killed my brother 38 years ago. Too many still suffer in its clutches.’
The author stated, movingly, that the death of his brother more than thirty years ago affected him still and indeed that, in a sense, he had never got over it. He did not mean, of course, that he had not continued with his life: only that he still recalled his brother’s death with deep sorrow. It was the phrase ‘Too many still suffer in its clutches’ that I dislike. It implies that in the relationship between a person and heroin, it is the heroin that is the active participant. This is entirely false: it is the person who grips the heroin, not the other way round.
The evidence that this is so is decisive. First, most heroin addicts take the drug for months before they start taking it regularly. It is inconceivable that they do not know the risks of addiction before they become addicted. They have to learn how to prepare the drug and how to inject it (most of us would have to overcome a reluctance to stick a needle in ourselves). In short, they want to be addicts, and are even determined to become so, no doubt for vague romantic reasons.
Nor is it true that once they have become addicted they cannot stop. The experience of many thousands of American soldiers who addicted themselves to heroin in Vietnam and stopped on their return to the United States proves that addiction is not something that cannot be resisted. The problem, then, is one of motivation, not physiology.
The status of heroin addict, then, is one that is sought after, and once achieved is not a slavery or enchainment, as has been claimed for so long: it is a lack of anything considered important enough to give up for. The metaphor of being gripped or enslaved by heroin (or opium) has been repeated since De Quincey and (to coin a phrase) it has gripped the western mind ever since. But what is essentially a lie does not become true by repetition.
However, I don’t to imply that heroin addiction is all right because it can always be overcome. It is just another of the myriad ways of fulfilling the human urge to self-destruction.
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