Withdrawal and Sickness

When a heroin addict goes without heroin for long enough, he or she suffers a combination of cramps, chills, itches, vomiting, paranoia, delirium, and other physical and psychological symptoms. Most people call this condition ‘withdrawal’; drug users, however, call it ‘being sick.’ Why?

We don’t have to look far for an answer: normally when you experience the physical symptoms I just mentioned, you call it ‘being sick,’ so why call it anything else? Drug users are simply ignoring a distinction most people make based on cause of symptoms. But there’s another factor motivating drug users’ choice of language here. ‘Sick’ is a medical term—not a technical term, but a medical term nonetheless. The use of it is a sort of function call to the medical ideology of sickness, which holds that if you’re sick it’s because there’s something wrong with you physically and measures should be taken to make you well again. These measures might include surgery, medications, exercises, or other interventions, but sitting back and waiting for the sickness to work itself out is more or less a last resort. So long as there’s anything at all that can be done to treat the symptoms or the cause, medical ideology—by which I mean popular ideology concerning medicine, not the ideology of doctors—calls for action to be taken.

The term ‘withdrawal’ operates differently: it specifies not only a condition but also an etiology. In doing so it immediately conjures to mind two possible remedies, return to the drug and continued abstinence. Indeed, the latter remedy is privileged, because unlike the former it would remove both the condition and the etiology entirely. It’s understandable, then, that drug users prefer to think of it as ‘sickness.’ If you’re in withdrawal, you should probably endure it and come out the other side stronger and healthier. If you’re sick, you should probably seek out the medicine that will make you not sick anymore.

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.


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