By Mahpharah Khan
Becoming consumed by your lover and heroin is a deadly mix.
“Sometimes maybe you need an experience. The experience can be a person or it can be a drug. All that crap — about Gemma leaving me, about Mum and Dad, about leaving home. All that negative stuff. All the pain… It just floated away from me, I just floated away from it… up and away…”
Melvin Burgess’ “Smack” follows David, nicknamed Tar, who runs away from his abusive household with his girlfriend, Gemma. Both end up on the streets of 80s Bristol and eventually fall victim to heroin use. They first adopt an attitude of invincibility toward their drug use — they can stop at any time, according to them.
However, they become delusional.
Their heroin use hinders any kind of agency they have; they eventually need it to function.
Burgess rejects the common criticism and demonization that drug users face. Through Tar, he conveys that drug use is falsely seen as an antidote to someone’s pain — their emotional pain. For Tar, he uses heroin to treat the pain that stems from his relationship with his mother and father, and their abusive home life.
It is known that when a child is surrounded by parents who are alcoholics or drug users, there is a high chance they will become one too. This, added with the emotional and physical abuse Tar endures, hinders him from having normal teenage experiences for the first time. His father beats his mother, claiming she is a drunk and doesn’t clean up the house like she is “supposed” to. Tar, in turn, cleans the house and goes grocery shopping in order to avoid this. Tar shouldn’t be concerned with this — it is his parent’s responsibility.
“It was me he was after, all the time! I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t understand it. He kicked me right round the room,” Tar said. “Mum was lying next to the table while it was going on. I saw her find a can of lager and take a swig.”
Tar’s mother relies on alcohol, just as he relies on heroin to function throughout the day.
Tar’s personality also starts to fold in on itself because of his heroin use. Tar loves art and wants to be an artist himself, but his addiction only makes him focus on surviving the day. Tar had interests before — afterwards, he doesn’t.
Drug use is often glamorized in the media. This can be seen with how Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love’s relationship was perceived — lovers who couldn’t handle the weight of the world, taking drugs in hotel rooms.
It’s disgusting that drug use is romanticized because it is painful and trauma-inducing. Surely, Cobain and Love did not view their drug use this way. Cobain used heroin for several years — eventually leading to his suicide. He used heroin to self-medicate his stomach pain, but this did not solve his problems; it escalated them. Drugs can be seen as a solution, as Cobain saw them, but this never ends well. “Smack,” thankfully, does not perpetuate this narrative.
One of the saddest scenes in “Smack” happens later in the novel, when Tar visits his friend, Richard. His visit is basically a plea for help:
“’I’m just a junkie. I’m just a junkie. I’m just a junkie,’ he said, over and over and over.”
Tar breaks down and cries, then collapses on the floor. His friend Richard watches him break down, unable to control his emotions any longer.
“He cried and cried, he couldn’t stop. All the strength fell out of him. When she let him go he sank to his knees and then lay down on his side, his face in his hands, and he cried and he cried and he cried.”
People who judge and demonize those who struggle with drug use do not see their suffering. Even if they do not see it or understand it, it does not mean that they should not empathize with them. Drugs aren’t their problem; they’re used to treat their problem.
This lack of understanding is still evident in 2020, as a perfect current example is Donald Trump. He attacked Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, for his past drug use during the 2020 presidential debate on Sept. 29th. Trump should have shown compassion, and should not have used it as a dig towards Biden — but Trump is void of empathy; therefore he is incapable of kindness and understanding.
“I was appalled at what had happened. But one thing — he was himself again. But it was so sad, because it was being himself that he found so difficult to cope with.”
“Smack” shows that drug use is not straight-forward. It is complicated and dangerous — it carries a stigma. These assumptions inflict more harm than one thinks. There are two problems, essentially: one’s struggle with their own life and their drug use. Drugs, and in Tar’s case, heroin, is used to treat his emotional pain.
Burgess grants humanity to those who struggle with addiction. He states that they matter too, and to suggest otherwise is cruel and perpetuating harmful notions. Addiction can happen to anyone — they should not be seen as “other.” They need help and compassion, not harsh criticism aided with insults. Addiction is multifaceted, and it only takes one’s empathy to realize that.