Cory Monteith is Dead, But He's Not the Only Addict

Why is it that we almost seem to worship addiction among one class of people while regarding other addicts as among the lowest of the low?
Publish date:
July 17, 2013
addiction, celebrities, drug addiction, overdoses

Amy Winehouse. Janis Joplin. Heath Ledger. Marilyn Monroe. Chet Baker. Jimi Hendrix. Dee Dee Ramone. Elisa Bridges. Elvis Presley. Michael Jackson. Whitney Houston. And now, Cory Monteith.

One is tempted to conclude that celebrities and drugs are, perhaps, a volatile mix. Many celebrities are open about their struggles with drug and/or alcohol addiction, and some of them ultimately lose that battle in accidental overdoses that immediately capture media attention around the world along with an ample helping of speculation about the circumstances.

Monteith, who appeared most recently on “Glee” as the jock we’re all supposed to love, was discovered dead in a Vancouver hotel this weekend, prompting mourning across the “Glee” fandom. There is a strange thing that happens with celebrity deaths, particularly among those who die young, where people seem to feel an odd connection, personalizing the deaths, turning them into their own tragedies.

There’s a long tradition, of course, of viewing drug and alcohol use, addiction and death as romantic and compelling when it takes place among artists, creators, and other people of high social status. Monteith’s open discussion of his time in rehabilitation facilities only added to his mystique as a celebrity, and now people get to cluck their tongues over his untimely death.

When I was in college, a young student overdosed during a long weekend. He was found in a bathroom after several days, and it plunged the campus into a state of bleakness for several days while everyone pretended they had known him personally and it was all so tragic. In reality, he’d been a loner with almost no friends; but the idea of being tantalizingly close to the glamor of addiction clearly appealing to many students.

After all, he was one of us, wealthy and privileged enough to attend the college without even needing a scholarship. He was youthful and had potential, a young man going places. And there was something romantic about his slipup in his dance with death.

He wasn’t one of them, a junkie, the sort of people you see looking desperate on street corners, shooting up in dark corners. The people who drain the resources of the system with their infected trackmarks and periodic overdoses. You know the sort of people I'm talking about.

Junkies, my fellow students assured themselves, were dirty and disgusting, with no redeeming qualities. I couldn’t help but feeling that something was slightly wrong here, and that sense of wrongness only cemented over time as I watched people commemorate the deaths of celebrities who died of drug overdoses while condemning addicts.

Evidently drug addiction is only romantic when your bank account has a sufficient number of zeros in it and you’re “contributing to society” by making music or acting, creating art or writing books. If you’re just a poor sod who fell in with a bad crowd, or who turned to drugs for relief from a hostile world, goodnight and good luck.

Resources for people struggling with addiction who don’t have access to financial backing and support are limited in this country. Slots in rehabilitation facilities are minimal, followup counseling is hard to get, medications to support people while they wean off addictive drugs are tightly controlled, and all of these resources are provided only grudgingly and with extreme shaming.

People with substance abuse problems who experience homelessness, mental illness, and other complications are well aware that society regards them as garbage; yet they walk past newsstands with pictures of people like Cory Monteith writ large with dramatic headlines.

A constant reminder that they aren’t the right kind of addicts, that if they accidentally overdose some night it’s unlikely to make the news, let alone spark global mourning. If they want to seek help for their addiction, they’ll have to pass through a series of humiliating hoops and they’re unlikely to be able to access residential treatment facilities or in-depth care of the nature they might need to successfully kick an addiction and stay clean.

Why is it that we almost seem to worship addiction among one class of people while regarding other addicts as among the lowest of the low? Why do we persecute chronic pain patients because of the medications they need to use while talking about how tragic, yet oddly compelling, it is to see celebrities being open about their substance abuse history and time in rehabilitation? Why is addiction simultaneously horrifying and romantic?

For a society that claims to care about addicts, we have a funny way of showing it. Seek drug treatment without the money for private rehabilitation options, and you’ll have to adhere to a strict list of behaviors or get kicked out. You’ll have to agree to be subjected to endless testing. If you stray from the program at all -- come home to your halfway house ten minutes after curfew, for example -- you’re back out on your own.

This is a country where needle exchange programs, proved to radically improve safety for addicts, reduce the spread of transmissible diseases, and help people access resources to help them get into treatment, are feared, hated, and opposed by most US cities. This is a country where addiction is regarded as a matter for personal shame if you’re not a celebrity, something you should deal with on your own and not tell anyone about.

This is a country where we step over the bodies of the homeless on the sidewalk, pretending we don’t smell urine, turning our heads away from the obvious signs of mental illness and addiction that often accompany homelessness. We tell ourselves not to give “them” money because they’ll just “spend it on booze” and then we go home to tune in to the latest episode of “Glee.”

After Whitney Houston’s death, Cat wrote about her own drug use and the stigma against talking about it: “Why can’t we acknowledge that lots and lots of women abuse drugs? That they are a huge part of so many women’s lives? Including mine?”

Why can’t we acknowledge that a lot of people use drugs, and that not all of them live glittering, glamorous lives? That death for many comes not in a luxury hotel but in the streets, in the beds of public hospitals, under the indifferent eyes of supervisors in halfway houses?

Why can’t we get this thing straight, the way we look at and talk about addiction? Must it occupy extremes of romance or depravity, mystique or revulsion? Can’t addiction be a thing that happens to some people because of a variety of factors, a thing that may necessitate treatment and support, but definitely doesn’t merit shaming?

Why is Cory Monteith a tragic hero, while the woman who died of a heroin overdose on the train tracks behind my house is a pathetic Jane Doe whom no one cares about?