* Originally published in my blog “Sawbuck City Chronicles” on Tuesday, September 23, 2008.
Everyone knows an addict. A drug addict, specifically. But many people often don’t know that a drug addict travels in the same orbit they do. But when an addict’s particular addiction comes to light, when someone discovers her addiction, how do we expect the addict to present herself? The presentation of self in everyday life, a la sociologist Erving Goffman, stands sentry at the gates of scholarship on the topic. In this entry I want to tease out some of the finer points of an addict’s presentation of self in relation to others, especially the allegedly non-addicted, “high functioning,” and “normal” people who surround her.
In our everyday interactions, we attempt to maintain “coherence,” or integration of our identity as it plays out on the stage of interaction with others and as it unfolds behind closed doors, where only our most intimate others might observe us (if even them). And we also work very hard in our interactions to develop a mutually agreeable “definition of the situation.” In short, we strive to present ourselves as coherent, integrated beings and convince others that the way we have defined ourselves, as evidenced by self presentation, is the correct way for them to define us, too.
All of this is to say that defining the situation and our relative character and character roles requires interaction and a tacit contract of understanding between and among the parties. Discordance and conflict arises when one party views the other as incoherent, as somehow insufficiently integrated as an actor in the situation. The “bum” on the street or the strung out addict, for example, present to us incoherent selves. Their begging entails references to unemployment, or military service, or other creditable endeavors, but the problem is that these references evoke grand, even noble, enterprises entirely contraindicated by this person’s presentation of self (e.g., Soldiers are strong and dignified and therefore could not look like this).
Now, when a person’s self-presentation deviates from how we define the situation, we’ll let them off the hook as long as their presentation of self bears witness or evinces attachment to some greater, more ostensible upright and proper frame or context. The recovering addict, now clean and sober, who stands before us talking about how his service in Vietnam brought him into a world of heroin, which led to a 20-year career as a junky, is acceptable to us because it allows us to conclude that the soldier’s willpower, stamina, moxie, and perseverance (the noble qualities of the good soldier) permitted his recovery. At this point we conclude that the stated addiction, although 20 years in length, was a “blip,” a misstep, a minor setback in his overall moral trajectory.
Junkies must display characteristics associated with “legitimate” concerns, enterprises, and/or ideologies in order for us to accept what they’re saying about themselves or anything else. In short, the junky must be “recovering,” abstinent, even abstemious. The junk must be in the past, and we must agree with the junky’s definition of himself as a being capable of KEEPING the junk in the past. All of this requires a great deal of work on the junky’s part, for he must convince us to gamble on a racehorse who broke its leg two years ago. If the junky’s presentation of self fails to marshal evidence of puritanical washing, cleansing, or attachment, then we dismiss the junky as “just a fucking junky.” Or maybe we allow our knee-jerk liberal sensibilities to lead us down the pity path: Oh, I feel so sorry for this victim of society.
Even when the junky assumes full responsibility for his actions (which we expect of ALL junkies, recovering or active), we deny him this right by citing “push factors” such as a bad family, growing up in a bad neighborhood, and/or other forms of victimization that propelled this otherwise noble character into bad ways. Academicians, scholars, who study heroin users tend to adopt this paradigm, swallowing it hook, line, and sinker. Society created this junky. Inadvertently, however, the professor has stripped the junky of what might be the only source of capital he has left, the only area of life over which he feels even a modicum of control: His addiction to junk.
When an active junky appears before us, we notice the track marks, the stigmata. Or we note the mannerisms we associate with deviance (shiftiness, inadequate eye contact, etc.), and we telecast our disapproval verbally and non-verbally. This makes things awkward. But if the active junky says the right things and acts just the right way, we’ll agree on the situation and allow the junky to assume the role he’s trying to assume. This is a rare occasion. Typically, the junky’s behavior (actions, speech, etc.) will be held accountable to his “master status” of JUNKY. So if he’s being particularly generous or helpful or polite, we conclude that he’s running game, pulling a con, taking us for a ride, or at least trying to. But oh, we’re too smart to let him get away with that. If, on the other hand, he’s engaged in bad behavior, if he’s stealing or lying or just “treacherin’”, then we say, “That’s exactly what I expected of a fucking junky.” Either way, the junky is held accountable for BEING a junky. No matter what he does, good or bad, it’s a result of his desire to advance his cause AS a junky. It’s a no-win situation.
What’s the most shameful thing you’ve ever done? Cheated on a lover, partner, or spouse? Have you killed someone? Have you told a lie with huge implications? Have you gotten an enemy unfairly fired? Whatever it is, imagine that for the rest of your life, all of your behaviors and words will be taken as evidence that you ARE what you did. A confusion of act and being. Imagine that you will forever be held accountable for the action, but more so for BEING the actor who naturally succumbed to the implacable evil that dwells within you.
Imagine: You are a junky.