The Opioid Epidemic as Metaphor

tags: drugs, cultural history, Opioid Epidemic

Faith Bennett is an educator at the Tenement Museum in New York City. Her research interests include cultural history, women, labor, and the service industry. She earned her bachelor’s degree in history with a minor in African Studies from the University of Florida in August 2016. She will be attending UC Davis as a graduate student in the PhD Program for American History beginning this fall.

I watched a lot of drug movies in high school. Maybe it was the clothes, the pulsing soundtracks, or how much I loved a voiceover. It also could have been the incredibly pretty people in these movies. Maybe it was because the Drug Movie as a format involves a type of fantastical world-building absent from many realistic dramas. Films like Trainspotting (1996), Party Monster (2003), Requiem for a Dream(2000), and Drugstore Cowboy (1989) felt magnetic. I saw some of these movies before I had a real understanding of drug addiction, and others after, but I can’t deny that movies about drugs shaped the way I viewed opioids and amphetamines alike. In 1979, Susan Sontag wrote about how the language we use to describe diseases such as tuberculosis and cancer (and the media produced about it) may affect how we think about such illnesses when we or our loved ones are afflicted with them. As the opioid epidemic in the United States worsens, I’ve begun to wonder if the same may be true about media concerning opioids and addictions to them.

In a standout scene from the 1995 film the Basketball Diaries, Jim Carroll, played by a young Leonardo DiCaprio, goes through heroin withdrawals in his neighbor Reggie’s apartment. Covered in sores and bruises, drenched with sweat and drool, Jim writhes against the bed, the wall, and finally against Reggie as he sobs and screams. It is a memorable scene bordering on tragedy porn. A year later, in Danny Boyle’s popular filmic adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” blares as an emaciated Ewan McGregor (playing the character of “Renton”) runs through the streets of Edinburgh dodging traffic and stating “I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?” The two films, both released in the veritable heyday of “Heroin Chic,” may have wildly different tones, but they both establish that individuals addicted to opiates essentially depart the world of the ordinary and live on a separate plane as addicts.

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