I needed to find a therapist willing to work with me, a person who uses drugs. I had recently lost my job. I worked as a high school teacher, and my colleagues found out about my other job, stripping. Upon learning I worked at a gentlemen's club, they told the school administration. Apparently, my weekend gig disqualified me from teaching youth.
I was humiliated and leaning pretty hard into cocaine—a means of coping I had learned far before entering the sex industry, but found ample access to it mostly through my clients. I wanted to change this and I thought therapy would help. When I reached out to a low-cost women's therapy collective, I was considered to be “too risky” a client given my drug use.
Jane*, a clinical social worker with the collective, said she would see me in her private practice because she thought she could “handle me.” I let her know my personal goal of being just a “normal person who does drugs sometimes,” and she laughed in my face. Given my own internalized stigma as a drug user, I continued to work with this person for 7 years.
I wanted help for many things beyond my drug use. I always saw it more as symptom rather than the problem. I couldn't seem to move beyond my past as a victim of abuse, and this latest issue with my colleagues amplified the shame I felt for being so vulnerable. Cocaine, along with anything that would alter my central nervous system, was one of my few resources for comfort. I wanted others. Each week I would return for the same alleged “harm reduction” oriented check-in: I would disclose some made up figure of what I had consumed that week so it seemed like progress, and she would tell me that this was all OK, but that she preferred I not use any illegal substances.
Every month or so I would get a lecture on how dangerous drugs are and that she noticed a deterioration in my cognitive abilities or my physical appearance because of them. Work in the sex trade begot further abuse, where clients knew they could treat me poorly without recourse given my criminalized and stigmatized status. In session, we would evaluate and critique the decisions that I made that led me to these events. When she brought in brain scan images of long-term cocaine users and compared them to “morbidly obese people,” I knew it was time to liberate myself from this expensive exercise in self-loathing.
I feel very resentful of Jane, and this could all be dismissed as the transference of an angry drug user in the grips of addiction. Maybe it is. The truth was that my use waxed and waned as I tried healing from my past while rebuilding a legal career—and that wasn’t a linear process, either. It's hard living as a disgraced person and as a criminal. That is why I was all the more bewildered and fed-up when Jane thought “tough love” was the medicine I needed.
Brain scan imaging is considered optimal, innovative research by institutions like the NIDA, as the US government continues to push a disease model of addiction. I now work for a well-ranked masters in social work program and see this being taught to aspiring clinical social workers. Jane really was only as good as her education—an education wherein all illegal drug use is indicative of addiction and addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease.
Through all her stigma and shaming, Jane helped me realize that I was in a place where I would never belong. I fired her, quit my work, subleased my room, moved 8,543 km away with a person I had been dating for a few months, and landed in Uruguay. When I first met this person, I decided I would present my entire self to him. This meant not hiding my drug use, which at that point was in one of those heavier and more indiscriminate phases; or my work in the sex industry, where I was doing more than dancing. I was tired of lying to try to make other people feel more comfortable with my life. In return, I received acceptance. This man loved me, including these parts of me, not in spite of them.
This is something Jane told me could never happen, given my sex work. You might think Jane sounds like an asshole, but she is really just a mouthpiece for widely tolerated values. Gutierrez wanted to move back home to Uruguay and I had an opportunity to join him in a country with better drug policy. I will forever thank my creator and the strong leftist movements in Uruguay for this moment in my life.
I am hardly the first drug user to move away in search of a change, especially to the southern part of the American continent. William S. Burroughs writes of a similar journey to be free from drug dependency, heading south in search of Yage, or what is more often called ayahuasca. “South America does not force people to be deviants,” he writes, “You can be a queer or a drug addict and still maintain position…In the US you have to be a deviant or exist in dreary boredom.” Indeed, I have found myself to be relieved of being a deviant and an addict here. This has as much to do with my own personal transitions as the cultural-political space I now occupy.
It was my distinct pleasure to write so blatantly of my personal drug use in my first article for Psymposia and join the movement for coming out of the psychedelic closet. The luxury of identifying one’s self as a drug user is rarely provided to those who do drugs in the United States. I am also humbled by the reality that, like Burroughs, I am a highly educated white person who had otherwise been able to evade so much of the state-sanctioned violence experienced by those who occupy more marginalized social positions, especially those people who also happen to use drugs.
The only other time I have been able to express my drug use so openly was when I joined a room of strangers for coffee and tautological exercises in the projection of life’s hardships onto some plants (whatever—mandatory 12 step programming didn’t work for me, bring on the pitchforks). Or, huddled over a dwindling pile of blow, or meth, or whatever, in rare moments of collective self-reflection, in which we all decided one more line was enough, a few more times. Even within the harm reduction movement, where I have worked for the past 10 years or so, there are very few spaces where I felt it was OK to talk about getting high in a way that wasn't based around a goal of quitting. Touting “clean time” is a way to win over a case manager or some other gatekeeper that stands between someone and their basic human needs like a housing application or a voucher for a food bank; as well as landing a job with a real salary.
This is all my own experience. It has been transformative to discuss my drug use as an asset of my life, or at least a thing of complexity. Jane’s analysis of my cognitive abilities and physical appearance be damned. I have come to realize I value feeling pleasure, being kinder, feeling more creative and open minded than being smart, hot, or law-abiding. This is not to say cocaine cannot be abused—anything can be.
In fact, most of my journey since leaving therapy has been about learning how to negotiate a harmonious relationship with all organisms, especially psychoactive ones. Cocaine is one of the many things I have obsessed over/feared/exalted/used/abused in my efforts to feel okay. I was humbled by this substance and had to learn to respect its power. I do suggest reading In Search of Yage by Burroughs if you care to hear another gringo discuss getting his ass kicked by a plant on the way to a few insights.
In the social spaces where I find myself in Uruguay, drug use just isn’t a big deal. The drug war most certainly is, and governments and activists here seem to focus more on cultivation and trafficking rather than individual use. (Spanish readers may want to check out this blog for a Uruguayan take on such). “Addiction” is discussed, but in ways similar to the States—in which the disproportionate suffering of the poor is masqueraded under alleged crack “epidemics.” Otherwise, it seems, you can be a normal person who does drugs sometimes.
At a picnic, myself and other adults share a joint with our wine. Children play amongst themselves and are no less scandalized by the cannabis than the alcohol. This is a tableau unimaginable from my own childhood, in which any witness to my parents’ substance use was sharply denied through lies. It makes me smile to think that parents and children may be able to enjoy a dialogue about cannabis, rather than games of hide and seek, or these types of conversations prompted by my government. Over our meal, I listen as my partner discusses cultivating our own plants with our new neighbors. A neighbor stuffs my hands with his own harvest before we leave, a welcome gift. There goes the neighborhood, some might say.
I live with four other adults. We all use drugs and manage to do the things that respectable citizens do: We hold down jobs and don’t break other laws. I hangout as a group of women prepare food on a Friday night for a big lunch we will host tomorrow. Women cooking together is a tale as old as time. Lucia* is doing lines of ketamine. After preparing a few dishes, she moves into the role of the entertainer, her dreamy reflections making everyone laugh. There are no eyebrows raised or judgments passed, as Lucia nears a K-hole. We all look out for her, and she enjoys a night among friends with her drug of choice.
Just last night, my friend Juan*, a music instructor, tells me a story where he accidentally sent a WhatsApp voice message to a student’s mother. It was intended for his girlfriend. He was explaining how he needed to bring some cannabis plants to her uncle, a fellow artist. The uncle is looking to change his daily drinking habit to smoking—a cheaper and healthier option, or so he hopes. A message about transporting a cannabis plant was sent to a wealthy, conservative, Opus Dei housewife.
“The type of woman, you know, that wears pearls in their ears,” he tells me. I get an image of Nancy Reagan in my head. Juan was horrified, he was sure he would be seen as a criminal drug dealer by this woman. Rather than admonishing him for his illicit horticulture, she opened up to him about struggles within her family. She shared with him stories of her silent suffering, and he kept his job. Moving plants around means something different when it is not solely linked to a campaign of stigma and violence.
I could go on with anecdotal stories about Uruguayans being especially chill about drugs. Maybe I just have met some cool people with cute stories, but having drugs integrated in mainstream culture through the recent legalization of cannabis and decades-long decriminalization of all drug consumption promotes different narratives about the people who use them.
I had a hard time finding help as someone who disclosed drug use. Many therapists told me that I needed to be completely drug free before we could work on my trauma, or that they would like to work with me, but could not because they did not have the capacity to drug test me. During intake interviews, I was told several times that a weekly toxicology screen was needed to know how much I used. I understand in some forms of drug replacement therapies this may be important, but to me these helping professionals were showing me what an addict is to them: A liar—a chronic, relapsing liar. In many ways that is true. I lied all the time in my effort to avoid being a deviant. It was a part of my efforts to maintain my social position as a respectable professional—but also to not get arrested. In Uruguay, I haven’t had the need. Getting high is not a scandal, a taboo, or really even a thing to build an identity on, or at least not in my little corner of Montevideo. And now that I no longer feel destined to a life sentence of “Hi, I’m Lindsay, and I’m an addict,” I get to dream about the woman I can become.
One of my few connections to the US now is in my job supporting online classes of a social work program. I provide tech support and listen in as instructors teach future social workers that marijuana use during pregnancy causes depression in childhood and other things like that. I see the literature that supported the “crack baby” scare are still being utilized in classrooms despite contemporary controversy. Students watch National Geographic “documentaries” that show drug use in its most extreme, sensationalized forms. There are no case studies or models of moderate or non-deviant substance use shown.
This week, students learned about how the monolithic category of “Drugs” change one's brain forever and that vulnerability to addiction is 40% genetic. I read student comments filled with shock and concern that this is what “Drugs” do to people who can’t help but fall victim to this “disease.” One of these victims myself, I reached for a cigarette, that, to my surprise, was filled with cannabis rather than tobacco. I felt a tinge of shame—I do not like being high during work hours, as it reminds me of a time in my life where these things felt out of my control. Alas, I enjoyed the irony of the situation. I suppose a risk of legalization is that rather than being stuffed in some rusty Altoids tin, cannabis mingles with the legal stuff right there in your living room. Intoxicated, I executed my duties just fine, helping social work students learn that brain scans of chronic drug users look just like those of people diagnosed with morbid obesity.
Being a normal person who uses drugs has given me courage to accept those things I can’t change—namely, my past. This has allowed me serenity in the face of quotidian and systematic attacks on people who use drugs encouraged through stigma, pathologization and criminalization—and the wisdom to fight back.
*Names changed to protect the innocent.
Lindsay Rothworks as a grassroots organizer and social work professional with a focus on the rights of people who use drugs and people who trade sex.
I hypnotized some of the attendees and put them on cocaine, pot, beer, and even ecstasy. I interviewed them afterwards and asked them if it felt real. And each of them said yes. Quite real. Then my head exploded.