CW: Mentions of substance abuse, physical assault, glamorization of addiction.
“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a family, choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments, and choose leisure wear and matching luggage.”
That is the opening monologue delivered by narrator Mark Renton from one of the movies that permanently resides on my Letterboxd feed — “Trainspotting.”
He continues through his Rolodex of society-pilled, quasi-random options, “Choose a three piece suit on hire purchased in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose D.I.Y and wondering who you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, sprit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth.”
Mark, portrayed by the suave and ever-likable Ewan McGregor, is a sly scottish fella with a quick wit and dishonest friends who has recently bottomed out in his relentless crack addiction.
“Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats you have spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future. Choose life.”
But Mark isn’t like that. He’s too urbane for sobriety, too fiery for the 9-to-5 stability and too chic to understand what matters.
“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?”
There’s something that impinges on my brain when I watch films about drugs and recklessness and fatalism — like a static shock from the carpet or the jolt of waking up when you die in a dream — particularly when it’s all tossed in a salad bowl and dressed with brilliant cinematography.
And in pining for these movies, in the way I swallow and slurp the sweet slew of postmodern media, overdosing on the eroticism of revolution, from naked and nude to needles and knives, I become a part of the problem.
The absolute romanticization of drugs and substance abuse disorders in the media is a ball we cannot stop rolling. How can we, though, when shows like “Euphoria” make them seem like an edgy high school fad, and when classics like “Scarface” and “Blow” make them seem so sultry, so captivating?
Because who doesn’t want to watch a movie about breaking social norms? Who doesn’t enjoy a narrative that usurps the idealism of white picket fences and the banality of gym memberships? We’re all just dreamers, and we live vicariously through the images distorted by the black screen.
And drugs on the big screen ooze sex — literally. Drug movies by virtue are rarely about the drugs themselves. There’s often secondary characteristics, deemed desirable by society, that build up the repertoire of being a drug addict.
Think “Wolf of Wall Street” and the gorgeous yet reserved supermodel you wish to woo, the one who won’t even look your way unless she’s strapping your money to her boobs. Think about the big boy yachts and snow white ferraris and the ensuing Quaalude dependency you keep up to make it all possible.
Think 90s-era Heroin Chic and the exponentially increasing expectations for a woman to not fit her own clothes, to smoke the drug that keeps her skinny, and to maintain the habit that keeps her glamorous. Think of heavy sultry smoke and backless dresses and the promotion of violence against women, both within the mirror, and without. Think Gia Carangi and her tragic death at 26 years old, succumbing to the addiction that built her very brand.
Obsession. Fascination. Because “being a junkie was very glamorous” in those days.
And yet — just like when you go to a doctor, aching all over, in every nook and cranny, and she asks you to point a finger to where it hurts most — I cannot name a single medium this narcotic eroticism has not affected. It engulfs everything because, despite dwindling interest in the culture of “sex, drugs and rock n roll” throughout the years, it will never quite fade from the background completely.
Drugs are still common, if not proliferate, in the fashion industry today. Moreover, drug dealers continue to fly under the radar on social media apps like TikTok, where posted content can be accessed by virtually anyone, including children and underage teens. Even on our very own campus, we continue to observe some of the highest rates of drug use among students in decades.
There is a tendency, I think, to disregard the impact of “softer” drugs because they’re not as threatening as the big and bad narcotics — heroin, oxycodone, meth, cocaine and the like. This bothers me, though, because the root principle, the dependence that characterizes a drug addiction, is one and the same across substances, even though the drugs might be interacting with our bodies in different ways.
In the original draft of this piece, I was taking an investigative approach to the opioid crisis, relying on facts and figures and tables to give me background on complex cultural circumstances. When I had finished, I stepped away from my art to examine it as a whole — like how a sculptor takes three steps and poignantly places a finger on their chin and furls a brow — and I was dissatisfied with what I read. What I thought would be an objective investigation into the heart of the opioid crisis only read as flaccid and uncreative — just another article covering just another overdone topic.
The reality is that there is simply so much to say, from conflicting financial interests to ethical dilemmas and the reality of implementing life-saving programs, and I am worried that no amount of research will ever be enough for real change.
Deaths from drug overdoses have quadrupled from 1999 to 2019, and almost every state in America has continued to observe statistically significant increases since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as all this spirals out of control, people like Richard Sackler, whose company manufactures OxyContin, continue to hold the view that the opioid crisis “this is not too bad.”
And as I continued delving into this topic, it felt like I was also delving into my psyche. What I read about the opioid crisis rang just as true for my own vices. The helplessness and pity I felt as I learned about overdoses and drug-related tragedies was akin to what I feel in my own skin, when I tell myself this is the day I finally quit — and then don’t. Perhaps, I began to consider, research and science are the very last things that can contribute something novel to this discussion.
Because we don’t think — we act. We do. It is a very different thing to watch those categorized as wealthy and desirable do drugs, like seeing Jordan Belfort snort cocaine off of a stripper’s chest on screen, and to watch others around you do it — to watch yourself do it.
I recently fell in love with a piece written by Zoe Zhang, a columnist for Michigan In Color. She wrote about her relationship with nicotine, which originated in high school as a way to cope and to rebel, and which has yet to die out. Reading it was harrowing to me, because it takes quite a lot of effort to evict words from my mouth. But to leave me speechless entirely, as I read about a life identical to mine fleshed out in black font on The Michigan Daily website, is a truly extraordinary feat.
Is this the type of engrained understanding users — like Zoe and me — collectively share? To sympathize with the necessary bathroom breaks between classes, to idolize quitting one day and to villainize sobriety the next. To pretend we have a say in the matter just because it’s our money that vanishes from our pockets — that must make our decision rational, right?
What left my mouth agape was the conclusion — or the lack thereof. Don’t get me wrong, the piece was perfect, but that’s not what I’m criticizing. Zoe left me hanging, because after all the understanding and sympathy and hope she pulled from my soul, we were both left staring at the same chess pieces.
Here we both are, naked and stripped of our sensible and logical interiors, knowing the paths that led us here and no conclusion in sight.
So yes, it is easy to stop seeking rehabilitation because we’ve identified the personal roots of our vices, and because no one wants to walk to Vape City with a guilty conscience. But how long will this self-forgiveness last? How much longer until the copious amnesty I have for myself poses a detriment to my life?
We are what we both forgive and do not forgive.
And forgiveness does not come easy, not when you’re being chased by a man down Maynard St. screaming “WOODSTOCK” while you yourself forget how to evoke any sort of alarming noise, failing to yell for help at a most critical moment. It does not come easy when I’m ripping him off my friend amid screaming and terror, answering his rough and offensive calls for a fight by telling him I’ll bash his fucking brains in if he keeps touching her, and staring into eyes that are etched in ink, big and wide and intensely dilated.
It doesn’t come easy when you’re running home and forgetting what may fall out of your pockets, calling the cops and pressing charges, all while knowing that the only ‘justice’ that awaits him on the other side is the injustice of the justice system.
Moments like this change you because they’re personal. Because addiction becomes no longer a figure on a graph — it’s a person in my face. And you overcome your anger and learn to forgive, because having compassion for people affected by these things is a more important goal than seeking brutal justice.
So yeah, I do write about drugs a lot, and the fascination I have with drug culture is unforgiving, and will surely alienate some people in my life. But I like to think that it is that deep, it is that important, because the loudness of the issue has drowned out any capacity for reason. Today it’s just a Juul, but tomorrow it’s something worse.
And conflicting interests between governments, pharmaceutical companies, individual experts and victims of the opioid crisis have only resulted in a cacophony of contradicting points and fruitless solutions. Legalize. Don’t legalize. They should be in jail. No, they should be in rehab. It’s the government until it’s the pharmaceutical companies and, eventually, the individual.
But whether or not Narcan is distributed without a prescription in pharmacies or psilocybin mushrooms are decriminalized does nothing to shed a light on the tragedies occurring on the personal level, where it really matters. Person to person, community to community.
Wavering between romanticization in the media and the stark, dull realism of drug abuse has created an almost insurmountable hill of public disagreement, and it does nothing to stop the damn demon in his tracks.
Without spoiling the rest of the thrill, Mark Renton manages to escape the world of homicidal acquaintances and the menage-a-trois of highs, lows and dirty needles, and ends his narration with an identically primitive monologue:
“So why did I do it? I could offer a million answers, all false. The truth is that I’m a bad person, but that’s going to change, I’m going to change.”
And as hard it can be to admit, sometimes we all just need to admit we’re bad people — not all of the time, but in bursts of bad decisions and recklessness. And that’s critical, because admission of guilt is lamentation of all the best things you’re losing.
“This is the last of this sort of thing. I’m cleaning up and I’m moving on, going straight and choosing life. I’m looking forward to it already.”
Mark believes this, and so did I during the countless times I have uttered these words to my reflection.
“I’m going to be just like you: the job, the family, the fucking big television, the washing machine, the compact disc and electrical tin opener, low cholesterol, dental insurance, mortgage, nine to five, good at golf, family Christmas, indexed pension, getting by, looking ahead, to the day you die.”
And I’m just like him. We’re just like him, making promises we tell ourselves we can keep, and hoping for a better life, and forgiving ourselves for the mistakes we make until our very last breath.
Statement Correspondent Valerija Malashevich can be reached at email@example.com.