The Token Victim

As part of my work on the board of HERO I often do interviews on TV, radio, and with newspapers. Whenever I’m being interviewed I usually end up representing HERO as an original board member, a recovered addict, or both at the same time. In both of those roles I have seen first hand a massive failure of the media to effectively cover the issues of addiction, recovery, the heroin epidemic, and grassroots efforts to address these issues. I’ve only talked to two reporters so far that actually get it, and focused on the right things rather than turning my story into more tragedy porn featuring me as the token victim.

Regurgitation and Archetypes

I can’t tell you how many times a reporter has called me up, made me explain my entire life story (which, incidentally, I’ve been able to whittle down to under an hour to tell), then a week later I’ll read the article and out of everything I said they take the most generic asinine quote and print it. On top of that, they completely disregard every important piece of the story and instead write about me in the same way you’ve read about other token victims. Here’s what some of their articles sound like:

“Bill was a straight-fucking-A student on the fast-fucking-track to success. Then he tried marijuana (oooohh soo scary) one time – yeah, just one motherfucking time – and he became a total junkie – nevermind how he made the jump from harmless pot to heroin. Bill says ‘Yeah, I regret some of the dumb shit I did, how about you ask a questions we don’t know the answer to’.”

They just drone on like that most of the time. The most formulaic, boring stories ever for white, middle class, suburban moms and dads to get scared over. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a terrible heroin problem, especially here in Chicago and the suburbs, and of course I want it to get as much exposure as possible. After all, I serve on the board of a group whose primary goal was awareness for a time (we’ve branched out since then). What I really have a problem with here is the fact that I’m always fit into the old ‘good kid gets in trouble, does good’ archetype, which admittedly I kind of do fall into, but there is so much more to learn from my story than what repeating that same lame story can offer!

Whenever I talk to a reporter, I say a lot more than what they report. In fact, unless I’m on TV, giving a talk, on the radio, or anywhere else where I’m live and not edited you’ll only read maybe 5% of what I actually talk about in interviews. Now, of course a reporter can’t just turn their story into the Bill show and just print what I say verbatim but it’s always my hope that the 5% they use is the best 5%. Unfortunately, it’s usually all fluff.

You should listen to this!

Instead of the bullshit fluff that gets printed about me most of the time, here are some suggestions I’d love for some reporters to take into consideration before they talk to me in the future:

  • Ask me how my parents progressed in their understanding of the problem and ability to help me as time went on

  • Don’t write that the threat of jail time made me quit. That’s not what did it. Lots of addicts face jail time and never quit. I always tell you what really made me want to stop but you all insist on using jail as the one true reason.

  • Mention that the story only begins at the “quitting” part

Being the token victim actually makes me feel bad. I do interviews and the work I do partly as a way to give back and help others who’ve been affected by what I was but when a fluff piece gets written about me it makes me feel like everything I’ve done and said has been a total waste. My identity is absolutely not tied to being an addict. I can’t escape the fact that that’s what I am but it isn’t my identity just like someone with diabetes wouldn’t tie their high blood sugar to who they are as a person. Addiction is something that affected me but it is not me. The one thing that almost every reporter fails to mention is that there’s more to me than just “being a ‘recovered’ addict” (whatever that’s supposed to me) and that the story only really begins after I took my life back. I don’t expect anyone to write a biography of me but I do insist that the most important aspect of the whole “this guy got clean” story is what the person has done afterward. Being the token victim sucks. I’m not a victim and if I keep being portrayed that way I’m going to have to start turning people down and let another token victim feel like they’re saying something original.

HERO, Thoughts

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