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Heroin Users: Not From Another Planet

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I work at Evergreen Treatment Services, a methadone clinic in Seattle. As a physician assistant (PA) for 14 years, I've encountered many both inside and outside the medical communities who don't know what that means and who also think that people who use heroin are somehow different than the rest of us.

Methadone clinics are places that people with addiction to heroin and other opiates (pain medication) come to take methadone instead of heroin. All in all, it's a pretty darn good trade, and helps thousands of human beings break free of the shackles of heroin addiction and lead meaningful lives.

When I talk to friends and colleagues about my work, they often pause, look sad, and say something like "oh that must be very depressing." Somehow, there's a notion that patients with the chronic illness of addiction are uniquely depressing, as opposed to working with other patients with other chronic illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc.

This reflects the pervasive view in our culture that people with heroin addiction are somehow the "others." Some of this undoubtedly comes from the graphic mental imagery of human beings sticking needles in themselves. But I really don't see how this imagery is any more horrific than the imagery of people smoking themselves to death, or succumbing to eating habits that lead to early death.

Heroin users are not from some other planet. They are people who have mothers, brothers, aunts and uncles. The 45-year-old homeless woman addicted to heroin was yesterday's bright little 7-year-old who loved to play, do crafts, color, and and laugh with other kids. The 28-year-old laborer stuck in his addictive behaviors was someone's cute and cuddly little brother who liked horses, baseball, ice cream, dolls and garbage trucks. These people are our sons, our sisters, our mothers and neighbors.

When a mother asks her 4-year-old daughter, "What do you want to be when you grow up, honey?" no one says, "I want to be a heroin addict, mommy, and get to a methadone clinic every day to get my dose!" People with heroin addiction deserve the same compassion and dignity that every other patient suffering from debilitating chronic illness is entitled to.

So no, I'm not depressed by my patients. I'm instead inspired by their struggles, their hard work, their response to setbacks along the way, and they way they keep battling, keep swinging, and keep fighting against both the ravages of the addiction, and the stigma and judgement that they face on daily basis.

To my patients, I say thank you for showing me how to fight the good fight. Keep up the good work.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

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