“I hope you rot in prison forever. Haha.” That was one of about fifty similar messages – from complete strangers — waiting in my Facebook inbox after my arrest. Aside from the personal messages, there were a slew of nasty comments in forums, calling me everything from “the trashiest human being I’ve ever seen” to a skank to a parasite to, more creatively, “whoregeous.” One person compared me to the Virginia Tech shooter and another even said that the best place for me would be dead in a bathtub.
What did I do to incite such widespread internet ire? I was a drug addict. See, in 2010 I made national headlines when I was arrested with almost six ounces of heroin during what should have been my final semester at Cornell. Even before my arrest, I knew that I had completed screwed up my life. I’d become someone I didn’t even recognize. The terrible solution I’d turned to at the nadir of a deep depression had become my whole life. I’d done many things I regretted. But deep down, I knew that I wasn’t a bad person – I was just a drug addict.
So why would somebody hope that I die? Or compare me to the Virginia Tech shooter? I decided to investigate. I read other articles about drug arrests and scrolled through all the comments – and a lot of the results I found were pretty similar. It’s not one or two trolls that make these comments; on a lot of sites these are popular sentiments. What is this impulse to insult addicts – not ones who have a personal presence in your life, but complete strangers?
I came up with a name for it: addict shaming. (Okay, admittedly I’m probably not the first person to use that term.) The thing is, addict shaming seems to go beyond the realm of insults related to the addiction itself and often spills over into much more general assertions about an addict’s worth as a human being or, in some cases, their right to live. Why such venom? Because it’s so often considered okay – the people being shamed are just seen as a class of subhumans with no morals instead of as people with a disease. When someone is deeply entrenched in the disease of addiction, it can be easy to forget that there’s a person inside there. But there is – there’s a real human being with thoughts and emotions. A person who feels anger, regret, sadness, and shame. Yes, shame – we don’t need the help of complete strangers to be ashamed of the places our addictions have taken us.
However, addict-shaming doesn’t help aid recovery, doesn’t help the addicted person make reparations, and it doesn’t serve any positive purpose. It just serves to satisfy the base impulse to kick someone while they’re down. It’s a low blow; there’s no need to shame someone who is already full of it. In fact, if anything, addict shaming just compounds the stigma of addiction and deters other addicts from speaking up and seeking help.
In my case – nasty comments to the contrary notwithstanding – I got sober anyway. I served my time and paid my debt to society. I earned my good time and was released from prison after serving 21 months. After my release, I embarked on the deeply personal journey of writing a memoir – and whether or not it ever sees print, it is a strong reminder of what I can accomplish when I’m sober. For the first year after my release, I struggled with working low-paying jobs online. I started by writing trivia questions for $4 an hour. Over time, I found better paying writing gigs online and then eventually I got a driver’s license and was able to start freelancing for local newspapers. Last month I finally got hired as a full-time reporter at one of those papers. After a three-year suspension, Cornell readmitted me this year and this summer I completed the very last class that I need to graduate. (Appropriately, the topic of the class was prisons.) Also this summer, I celebrated three and a half years sober.
Everything seems good – but the stigma stays with me, like a film of dirt I just can’t wash off.
Most straightforwardly, there are concrete aspects of the stigma of addiction that stem from my being a felon. I can’t get a lot of professional and occupational licenses. I don’t quality for certain kinds of financial aid and government grants. In some states, I can’t vote and would be denied food stamps. For the rest of my life, most of the time that I fill out a job application, that application will go directly in the trash can. I will be denied housing, jobs, and volunteer positions based on my record. Is this a mess of my own making? Yes, completely. But I am proud to say that now the clean-up is also of my own making.
For me, the most emotionally difficult aspects of the stigma of addiction are not the straightforward long-term consequences, but the ones that can’t be measured. It’s the sideways looks, the subtle backing away. It’s the people who say that I don’t deserve to graduate from college or that I shouldn’t have a job that a qualified non-felon could have gotten. Recently I heard someone assert that I’m not fit to be around children because I’m a bad influence. Based on who I am today, by any measure that is simply not true – but for some people, my past will always define my future in the worst way.
Even for me, my past will always be a part of me and a part of my future. Addiction has left scars on my body and my soul – and after accepting (grudgingly) the judgment and shaming that I will face in some quarters for the rest of my life, I have decided to embrace the labels of “addict” and “felon” and make them a point of pride. I cannot be shamed or humiliated for that in which I take pride.
In the first days and months after my release, I attempted to avoid my past. I quickly found that was often difficult to do. Part of that was the fact that my initial arrest received a fair amount of publicity. Part of that was the many restrictions associated with being a newly released felon. Part of it was that I felt, and probably looked, like a deer in headlights, baffled and unsure about how to readjust in society. I had a large chunk of my life that had been consumed by addiction and then by incarceration – and it had shaped such a significant part of my person and had permeated so many aspects of my life that it was often difficult to pretend it didn’t exist. So I stopped trying. I know that I do not deserve to be judged by my past anymore and I will not hide who I am today out of fear of what people will think about what made me who I am today.
Today, instead of hiding my history of incarceration and addiction, I speak loudly and frequently about those very same issues. Now, when I am asked to speak publicly about the female prison experience, I say yes. When I am asked to be on the radio speaking about jail expansion, I say yes. When a journalist asks to write an article about my addiction and recovery, I say yes. I have learned that people will judge me regardless, but when I embrace my past they are judging me on my own terms instead of theirs.
If people identify me as Keri, the girl who went to prison, that’s okay with me. Because Keri the drug addict is now Keri the advocate and Keri the prisoner is now Keri the prison activist – and without the former identifiers, the latter would never have come about. I want to be a reminder that addiction can happen to anyone. I want to be a reminder that incarceration can affect anyone. When people meet me and learn that I am a real person, a good person, a person with thoughts and feelings and opinions, I want them to remember that addicts and inmates are humans, too.
If you want to check out more of Keri’s work go to http://keriblakinger.com