Addicts & Adults: Beautiful Boy, Gabor Maté as Doctor-Daddy & Safe Injection 4 Teens
“What about the children!?” the comment-section curmudgeons screamed in response to headlines announcing BC’s Representative of Children & Youth was recommending safe injection sites for teens. Had they read the recent and aptly named report, Time To Listen: Youth Voices On Substance Use, they’d know what the overdose-death data and a hundred youth with lived experience had to say: adolescents who use drugs need access to spaces that aren’t abstinence-based, and Indigenous youth need culturally relevant forms of healing.
It’s a big deal that this announcement has come from the most prominent voice in child/youth policy, especially for those already familiar with the organization. It wasn’t long ago the Representative reluctantly came out in support of the Safe Care Act, which would empower police to arrest young people heavily involved in substances for “secure care,” a euphemism for short-term detainment and treatment. While it may be too soon to say whether the organization has stopped supporting social services as a locus of social control, one hopes they finally agree that forced treatment doesn’t work, increases the risk of overdose, and can discourage young people who use drugs from seeking help. This is good news for youths, but also drug-dependant adults, because in the minds of many we’re one in the same.
People with disabilities (including those defined by medicine as having a “substance use disorder”) are frequently conflated with children. Although comparisons to kids are intended to sympathetically describe differences in ability and need, or to draw attention to someone’s potential, they’re also a demeaning form of infantilization. Underpinning these paternalistic parallels is a strong belief that children, and those being compared to them, are “lesser than.”
Not Adults, Not Authorities: Children & Dehumanizing (Forced) Dependency
Although what constitutes a “child” changes across time, culture, and context, a basic belief held by Western societies is that children are not adults. They are people who haven’t completed the stages of development that allow one to qualify as a “grown up.” In biological terms, that means anyone between birth and puberty, and as a legal category, a minor is anyone under the age of majority (18 to 19 years depending on where you are in Canada). Maturation has a psycho-social dimension as well, which is where we find addiction, disability, and childhood overlap.
It makes sense to say children are those who need support and oversight from others when we’re referring to an infant who will literally die if left to their own diaper-shitting devices. However, things get more complicated when adulthood is also based on the “normal” experiences of a gainfully employed, able-bodied, straight, white man. Under capitalism where resources are inequitably distributed, those who are unable (or unwilling) to live up to the standards set by the most powerful are often treated like kids. Those who are deprived of the things they need to survive are forced into sites of surveillance, control, and repression by authoritative institutions. This can be seen in colonial attitudes towards Indigenous communities (who were considered wards of the State and subject to the “civilizing” violence of Residential schools) but also in discourse surrounding the so-called “addict.”
A Decade of Gabor Maté as Doctor-Daddy of the Downtown Eastside
“Junkies” are pigeonholed as juvenile due to the assumption that substances cause the brain to regress, or that drugs are only “abused” by those with immature minds to begin with. Beliefs about drug users reflect dominant dehumanizing beliefs about children: the habitual drug-user is stereotyped as narcissistic, utterly incapable of exercising any kind of impulse control or critical self-reflection. Even in the world of harm reduction, you don’t have to look far to see the infantilization of drug-users. Gabor Maté’s immensely successful 2008 title, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction, brazenly compares the disabled low-income residents of the DTES to kids. For example, he recounts how a woman in distress was “like a child telling her story, asking for sympathy, pleading for help” and another patient “much of the time [ambled] around like an overgrown child.” We are informed that some people with addictions “are engaged in magical thinking – like children” and that “like children, they are unimpressed with titles, achievements, worldly credentials” as if they should be fawning over a system that actively discludes them.
We are encouraged to see drug users as immature children in need of a benevolent figure to monitor them
While this book is known for its exploration of how childhood trauma can foster addictive tendencies in those who have been abused, this is qualitatively different from explicitly comparing disenfranchised adults with disabilities to kids. By casting low-income residents as a bunch of babies in big bodies, Maté makes himself into a kind of Daddy-Doctor and naturalizes his authority over them. We’re encouraged not to see drug-users as people who are navigating powerful medical institutions and attempting to access State controlled resources (such as a #safesupply of pharmaceutical drugs) but as immature children in need a benevolent figure to monitor them. Maté’s book turned ten this year, and while some may chalk his callow characterizations up to age, the disempowering addict/adult binary continues to loom over drug-users, and can be seen in the 2018 cinematic release, Beautiful Boy.
Beautiful Boy: Whiteness, Wealth, and A Well-Meaning Dad
Based on the best-selling memoir, Beautiful Boy stars Steve Carrell as David Sheff (the deeply concerned Dad) and Timothée Chalamet in his supporting role as Nicolas Sheff (the enigmatic addict) in a story about a father’s struggle with his son’s addiction. This film is exactly what you’d expect of a drama about an affluent, white family: lots of close-ups, conversations in cars, and a soundtrack heavy on the post-rock, because who needs a broader socio-political analysis when you can fill the screen with white people crying to Sigur Ros? Although the movie could have been a coming-of-age story, Nic’s experience of emerging-adulthood is largely relegated to the realm of sideshow freak. The audience never gets a strong sense of what motivates him; it’s always implied that drugs are to blame for his room-trashing temper tantrums and refusal to return to rehab. He shoots up and falls down again and again, but Nic’s scenes of floundering are just the backdrop in a tale of fatherhood.
David is the main event, without whom the audience would have no connection to his son. Recurring in the film are flashbacks of David’s memories of Nic as a child. The Dad’s reveries present us with snap-shots of the pure child Nic once was, and the possibility of who Nic could be (if only he admitted he was powerless and would stop using drugs). We see Nic through a paternalistic gaze and identify little with him directly as someone struggling with substances, shame, and immense pressure to get “clean.” The audience feels for Nic, but primarily as the boy his father fondly remembers and could one day be recovered. Some will watch this movie and see a humanizing portrayal of addiction, but without his wealthy, white family Nic would be just another “addict” burdening society. By focusing on the drug-user’s connection to a “respectable” parent for redemption, Beautiful Boy follows in the footsteps of advocacy that uses the caretaker/dependant relationship as its currency. The movie is not unique in how it frames the parents of drug-users as the spokespeople for their children’s cause, and suitable substitute for the perspective of those labeled as having a “substance use disorder.”
Infantilizing the Overdose Crisis: Debasing Drug-users and Dependants
When it comes to the overdose crisis, there is no shortage of anti-stigma campaigns that call upon a drug-free family member to speak on behalf of their proverbial “problem child.” Allyship is important and there is a place for grieving parents whose offspring have been victimized by prohibitive drug-policy. However, these strategies risk reproducing the harmful belief that drug-users are children who shouldn’t be taken seriously, listened to, or regarded as actors in their own lives. Something is lost when those with the most power and ability are assumed to be the ones who “know best.” Or more accurately: someone is erased.
Endlessly centring white, well-off, sober parents symbolically annihilates drug-users, especially those who are single-mothers, Black, Indigenous, living in poverty, and in greater danger of having their kids apprehended. We need to acknowledge that infantilization is a problem for the ways it naturalizes social inequality, and realize if being compared to young people is a problem it’s because they’re also not seen as fully human.