Stop talking about drug addicts like we’re not here
EVERY day I sit down at my laptop, go online - and see another slew of salacious articles written … about me.
I'm not talking about the perils of being a student shackled with HECS-debt, housing prices or, heaven forbid, avocados. I'm not even talking about my homosexual orientation and how it forbids me from rights that so many straights take for granted.
I am talking about article after article on the topic of addiction. Editorials, reviews, and the endless screaming from the Opinion sections, on matters these writers know little about.
I click a link, and see video content about people going through addiction. The footage is laced with a gasping voyeurism. It's as if the tales depicted were woven from the nightmares of mothers everywhere.
And even our very own government, it seems, wants to perpetuate the notion that drug addicts are welfare bludgers by penalising them for using.
I sit back in my chair, breathless at the careless whimsy of it all.
And I want to scream. I want to shout at the producers who vouched for takes that have addiction described as "disturbing". I want to rally against the editors with their essay-endings that read like haunting chords of uncertainty for the future of those humans.
I want to, but I don't.
Instead, I'm going to tell you a little bit about me.
Consider this my "coming out" - and my most sincere declaration.
My name is Brandon Cook. I am twenty-four years old from the city of Melbourne. Here are some details from my life.
When I was nine, I wanted to be a writer and a photographer. Both of those goals persist to this day.
I love fashion and portraiture the most. Part of my business involves shooting sex workers for their advertising. This is apparently quite controversial, but all I know is I'm on a perpetual quest to find the best Club Sandwich at a hotel in Melbourne.
When I was young, I had a crush on a boy that made me afraid. So I did what so many teenage lovers do, and jumped the backyard fence to steal late-night kisses. It would have made for wondrous romantic trysts - if I didn't leave evidence of a possible break-in scattered around the backyard one night for my dad to find.
At eighteen, I took a job as a night-life photographer, which I did freelance, for six years. I drank beers and shot babes in bands.
One night on the job, I fell in love with a pack of musicians whose first ever Melbourne show contained an audience of me, two drunk girls and a bartender. You may know them as Sticky Fingers, as they later went on to become Australian music royalty.
It wasn't an Almost Famous-groupie kind of love - but friendship. The kind where the band detours to your house, collecting you on one of your darkest days.
The kind where you're whisked backstage to a dreamy music festival on New Year's Eve, where they're playing the countdown set, and you remember to cherish these moments for the rest of your life.
And here are some other details of my life.
The night I first had a bad reaction to crystal meth, I laid in hospital expecting death for a total of eight hours. My heart raced and head pounded, mind screaming with anxiety - but there was nothing they could do.
You can't reverse the effects of ice; you can only soothe their symptoms. My only company for that horrible night was a fellow drug user, still under the influence, who stayed by my side until he was sure I'd be safe.
I knew I was becoming a crystal meth addict when my attempts to ignore the voices telling me to lapse, failed spectacularly. At first, meth made me feel sexy like I've never known - but then it made me suicidal.
Weeks went by and I quaked under the fear of relapse. Mighty earthquakes make for great holes to fall through, because despite that fear, I would go on to lapse so intensely that I was hospitalised. This happened more than 12 times.
I was the boy who, at 22, feared becoming a "junkie" to my doctor, one wandering the streets looking for his next hit.
At 23, I found myself staring down with moon-pupils at my dirtied hands, as I heaved from one apartment to the next and realised: I had fallen through the looking glass, and become him.
Larry Clark once wrote on the topic of injecting drug use, in the foreword to his first photobook, Tulsa said, "Once the needle goes in, it never comes out".
Truer words have never been said. Only for me, they're words I wish I'd never learned the meaning of.
He was the worst human I had ever met. Not a "monster" like those the journalists describe - but a man. A man who gave me my first meth injection; the most potent route of administration.
The amount he gave me was too much, or maybe it was something else entirely. Because all I could say before I drifted into incoherence and dissociation - eyes rolling into their sockets while I felt his body crushing me, all licking, spittle and grunts - was, "What the fuck did you just do to me?"
In the blips of clarity I had during those moments, I thought, "This is how I die."
But I didn't. I lived.
In February of this year, I went to rehab. I spent several weeks enduring daily turmoil, constant struggle, and endless epiphanies. I was broken down, rebuilt, then made whole again. And it was the best decision I've ever made in my life.
Now, months later, I've written about lessons learned during my rehab stint. I've gone on radio to talk smack about crack, and contributed to the blogs of internationally renowned health organisations with my lived experience of addiction.
I've met addicts who run successful NGOs, whose briefcases are only accessible by their thumbprint scan. I've met addicts with Harvard MBAs, psychology degrees, top jobs at law firms, and astounding cred as critical care nurses.
I've met addicts who whimper into rags at how their lives have gone wrong - and addicts who have become better, more passionate people as a result of their disease.
In early June I came out to defend the addicts being punished by our government for daring to lapse in the drug-testing trials, by showing them who they would harm should these laws come to pass - people like me. I wanted my vulnerability to spark empathy, to challenge their preconceptions about the people who would fail those tests.
Instead, I was met with a monsoon of hateful comments. On an article where the header image is one of me, post-overdose, in hospital, people told me I was nothing but a fabrication formed to stoke sympathy.
I had become the horror story and the monster at the same time.
In our cultural narratives, we ignore the voices of the addict. We block them out, as we fear they can't speak for themselves, and create content that reflects our childlike perception.
At best, we fill discussion panels with counsellors rather than recovering addicts ready to speak their truths. At worst, we typecast these addicts as lost causes, essentially muting what voice they might have. And then scrawl their names onto news articles in bold, like the brandings of an obituary.
What these journalists, politicians and producers don't realise, as they broadcast their own takes on addiction, is that these algebraic narratives make it harder for addicts to speak out - because then they become the horror story.
I write here as one of those horror stories.
I am the nine-year-old chasing a boyhood dream - and I am your monster.
I am the documentarian capturing ascents to fame - and your sordid, tragic tale.
I am the son, the lover, and the ne'er-do-well dancing with the devil.
I am the nightmare your mother dreads for your future; your scandalous addict-in-recovery.
Like Larry Clark's photographs of his sick-junkie-friends in Tulsa; addicts exist to be sorrowfully observed, and never can they speak up about their mistreatment. But I won't be made into a caricature as you wail ignorantly on behalf of us poor lost, souls.
So. Now you know a little about who I am. You know my name and my face. You know my ambitions, some of my brightest moments, and the deep sin of my pitch-black darkest. And you know that I am an addict. For some strange reason, I am apparently one of very few addicts around brave enough to publicly admit to it. My sincerest declaration is that I will not apologise.
So go ahead and ignore me. Pass your laws and write your pieces.
Talk about me like I'm not here.
I dare you.