Understanding Drug Addiction in ‘Sonny’s Blues’
Drug abuse is one of the largest epidemics facing our world today. Through research, we have been able to get a better understanding of the factors that cause drug abuse and consequently drug addiction in the first place. Studies done specifically on the physical effects of drug use have pinpointed the function of specific regions in the brain and how drugs manage to target the brain’s daily functions. Unfortunately, a lot of breakthroughs have been silenced by misinformation spread by mass media. Studies have also found that the way drug users are portrayed has a huge impact on the way society views addicts. Author James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues” follows the unnamed narrator’s journey after finding out his brother Sonny has been jailed for using and selling heroin. Readers can help deepen readers’ understanding of the issues raised in Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” by explaining what factors lead to drug addiction, displaying the effect drug use has on the brain, exploring how the way drug addiction is portrayed can change one’s attitude towards the topic, and the consequences that drug users may face.
The progression from using and abusing drugs to drug addiction does not happen overnight. There are many factors which may contribute to one’s addiction. Amongst these factors is the inability to find a healthy coping mechanism. A study which polled adolescents in a recovery high school found that “the self-reported reasons for the development of prescription opioid addiction were primarily due to difficulties coping with social situations in which participants found themselves” (Vosburg). The data provided by the study shows that many turn to drug use as a way of dealing with difficult social situations due to not having learned any healthy coping mechanisms. Therefore, a discussion about how to cope with one’s emotions is vital to understanding addiction. Work in this area could lead to the prevention of future addicts as well. To add, an article published in the Journal of Social and Psychological Sciences suggests that “The incidence of drug abuse among children and adolescents is higher than the general population. Students at the secondary/higher secondary level are most vulnerable to slipping into drug abusing behavior due to distress factors, anxiety and peer influence” (Parveen). Again, adolescents are prone to drug abuse and addiction, even more than the general population. Drugs are viewed as a way for students to cope with difficult emotions such as distress and anxiety. In Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”, the main character Sonny struggles with his addiction to heroin, which eventually causes him to end up in jail. Upon his release, he rekindles his love for playing the piano. While viewing Sonny play for the first time in front of an audience, his brother says “…the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours. I just watched Sonny’s face. His face was troubled, he was working hard, but he wasn’t with it. And I had the feeling that, in a way, everyone on the bandstand was waiting for him, both waiting for him and pushing him along” (Baldwin). For Sonny, playing the piano was an outlet. He coped with his addiction by expressing his feelings through his music. Not only did his passion for music help him cope with his addiction, but his fellow musicians served as a great support system. They encouraged him to continue fighting even when it would’ve been easier for him to give up.
Just as an addiction is not developed overnight, one cannot simply rid themselves of an addiction with the snap of a finger. This is mainly due to the significant effects that drugs have on a user’s brain. A report written by the National Institutes of Health explains that “Almost all drugs that change the way the brain works do so by tinkering with chemical neurotransmission. Some drugs, like heroin, mimic the effects of a natural neurotransmitter. Others, like LSD, block receptors and thereby prevent neuronal messages from getting through. Still others, like caffeine and PCP, exert their effects by interfering with the way messages proceed from the surface receptors into the cell interior” (Bethesda). Each drug has its own unique effect on the brain. Different drugs will interfere with the way the brain is meant to normally function on a daily basis. As if that’s not enough, there’s more. The report goes on to mention that “When drugs interfere with the delicate mechanisms through which nerve cells transmit, receive, and process the information critical for daily living, we lose some of our ability to control our own lives. The continued use of these drugs can actually change the way the brain works. This is the biological basis of addiction” (Bethesda). Drug use is extremely harmful to the point of potentially doing irreversible damage to the brain. A single occurrence of drug abuse is enough to lead one down a path of addiction and consequences that cannot be undone. No wonder why it’s so difficult for a non-user to understand the struggles of an addict. This is displayed in “Sonny’s Blues” when his brother says “I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work. I read it, and I couldn’t believe it, and I read it again. Then perhaps I just stared at it, at the newsprint spelling out his name, spelling out the story. I stared at it in the swinging lights of the subway car, and in the faces and bodies of the people, and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared outside. It was not to be believed and I kept telling myself that, as I walked from the subway station to the high school” (Baldwin). His brother can barely come to terms with the fact that Sonny had been sent to jail, let alone understand how someone he thought he knew so well could turn to using and selling drugs. The fact of the matter is that addiction does not discriminate. Anyone, despite their age, race, sexuality, or otherwise is susceptible to the destruction caused by drug abuse.
The way in which drug abuse as well as addiction are portrayed plays a big role in one’s attitude towards the two. Despite significant improvement, there is still an existing level of stigma surrounded the discussion and treatment of users. According to an article written for Saúde e Sociedade, “Throughout the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, people who abused drugs were consensually viewed as solely responsible for their immoral behavior, and considered ‘moral failures’ or ‘bad persons’” (Galvão). The basis on which the public forms their views on drug users is usually the media such as movies, television shows, and news. People rarely ever form their opinions according to real life experiences. A research article written for Social Science and Medicine claimed that “Studies analyzing the content of news and popular media have shown that the majority of individuals with mental illness and drug addiction depicted in the media exhibit deviant or abnormal behavior, in particular violent behavior related to the psychotic symptoms (e.g. hallucinations and delusions) often associated with untreated serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia. In contrast, few news stories, television programs or movies portray individuals who undergo successful treatment for mental illness and addiction” (McGinty). The media is constantly providing inaccurate depictions of drug addiction, leading their audience to be misinformed. In turn this largely affects how one views and treats addiction as well as addicts. A survey discussed in the article provided participants with vignettes to read and then recorded answers to questions relating to their attitude towards mental illness and drug addiction. The article goes on to express that “Portrayals of untreated and symptomatic schizophrenia, depression, and heroin addiction heightened negative social distance attitudes toward persons with mental illness. Compared to the control group, respondents exposed to the untreated schizophrenia and untreated heroin addiction vignettes were less willing to have a person with mental illness/drug addiction marry into their family. Respondents exposed to the untreated schizophrenia vignette , the untreated depression vignette , and the untreated heroin vignette reported significantly less willingness to have someone with mental illness/drug addiction work closely with them on a job, compared to the control group” (McGinty). The findings of the study clearly show how powerful the type of information consumed by readers changed the way they viewed the mental illnesses, drug addictions, and those affected by them.
Those who abuse drugs are likely to face countless consequences for their actions. In Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”, the unnamed narrator finds out about his brother Sonny’s drug use through reading a newspaper. He says that Sonny “…had been picked up, the evening before, in a raid on an apartment down-town, for peddling and using heroin” (Baldwin). After being caught selling and using heroin, Sonny is sent to jail. Despite serving jail time, Sonny got off easy. A lot has changed since Baldwin published this piece in 1957. Due to United States laws, specifically mandatory minimums, offenders can find themselves serving a lengthy sentence for even the most minor offense. According to an article from the publication Phi Kappa Phi Forum, “Mandatory minimum sentencing seems like a simple idea. Pass a statute, as New York’s legislature did in 1973, that says if you sell more than two ounces of cocaine, you will get a sentence of at least fifteen years in prison — no ifs, ands, or buts. Encouraged by Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, who gave his name to this statute, the legislators thought that they were getting tough on pushers, and their mental picture of the pusher was that of a professional drug dealer, one who lives off the misery of the addicted” (Batey). The reality is that this law did not only apply to repeat offenders; it applied to everyone. Even those facing their first offense with no previous criminal history can spend years behind bars. This doesn’t solve nearly as many problems as it creates. The article goes on to name a perfect example of the failure that is the mandatory minimum sentencing strategy. It tells of Angela Tompkins, “…a seventeen-year-old recruited by her uncle to sell cocaine. Despite a chaotic childhood in which she was passed from one home to another, Angela had no previous criminal record of any sort before she sold cocaine to an undercover agent, who repeatedly insisted that she increase the amount of the sale so that it would exceed the two-ounce level. Without the mandatory minimum, a sentencing judge could have taken all these mitigating facts into account in setting a punishment that fit this young girl’s crime. Instead, New York’s mandatory minimum sentencing law required a fifteen-year sentence, which the New York courts reluctantly upheld on appeal” (Batey). Tompkins’ case displays how easy it is for this broad law, and one false move, to ruin a person’s life permanently.
Jail time is certainly not the worst consequence drug users may face. Overdose has become an all too common, and sometimes fatal, result of abusing drugs. A study reviewed in an article for Drug and Alcohol Dependence examined data from patients of the ages of 18 to 64 years in the Medicaid program. The study found that “Among the nonfatal overdose cohort, 18.9% (14,263 of 75,556) had repeated opioid overdoses during the follow-up period” (Olfson). Not only does drug abuse commonly result in overdose, but drug abusers can experience multiple overdoses, even in span of a single year. Although one may survive an overdose, they are already susceptible to a fatal overdose in the future. The study provided by Drug and Alcohol Dependence also found that “In the first 12 months following nonfatal opioid overdose, 1.0% (770 of 76,166) died of an overdose involving opioids” (Olfson). The numbers of deaths from drug overdose has only been rising as the years go by. According to the American Journal of Public Health, “From 1999 to 2014, the death rate from drug overdose in the United States has tripled, from 4.71 deaths to 13.56 deaths per 100,000 population, creating a public health crisis. This marked increase is driven primarily by prescription opioid overdose and, in recent years, heroin and fentanyl“ (Xiwen). Baldwin’s story does not mention that Sonny overdoses or simply even relapses. The unfortunate reality is that past drug users, even after having experienced jail time, are very likely to overdose and possibly die.
After doing research, those who have read “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin can better understand issues raised in the story through learning what factors turn drug users into addicts, examining how drug use effects the brain, seeing the impact different portrayals of drug addiction has on one’s attitude towards the subject, and the consequences that drug users are likely to face. Problems such as not being able to find a healthy coping mechanism may drive one to abuse and become addicted to drugs. This turns to users being physically affected by their usage, specifically when it comes to brain function. The way that mass media portrays addiction can have a significant impact on how its audience views the topic as well as drug abuse and users in general. Also, those who use drugs can face some horrible consequences; the worst being death.
Batey, Robert. “Mandatory Minimum Sentencing: A Failed Policy.” Phi Kappa Phi Forum, vol. 82, no. 1, Winter 2002, p. 24. EBSCOhost, ezp.raritanval.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bsh&AN=6445626&site=eds-live
McGinty, Emma E., et al. “Portraying Mental Illness and Drug Addiction as Treatable Health Conditions: Effects of a Randomized Experiment on Stigma and Discrimination.” Social Science & Medicine, vol. 126, Feb. 2015, pp. 73–85. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2014.12.010.National Institutes of Health, DHHS), Bethesda, MD. Drugs and the Brain. 1 June 1991. EBSCOhost, ezp.raritanval.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=ED384833&site=eds-live.
Olfson, Mark, et al. “Full Length Article: Risks of Fatal Opioid Overdose during the First Year Following Nonfatal Overdose.” Drug and Alcohol Dependence, vol. 190, Sept. 2018, pp. 112–119. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2018.06.004.
Oliveira Galvão, Ana Erika, et al. “Economic and Sociocultural Poverty in Drug Abuse: From Individual to Sociopolitical Responsibility.” Saúde e Sociedade, vol. 27, no. 3, July 2018, pp. 820–833. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1590/S0104-12902018170970
Parveen, Heena. “Hope, Meaning in Life and Well-Being among Drug Addicts.” Journal of Social & Psychological Sciences, vol. 9, no. 2, July 2016, pp. 1–12. EBSCOhost, ezp.raritanval.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=129284985&site=eds-live.
Vosburg, Suzanne K., et al. “Prescription Opioid Abuse, Prescription Opioid Addiction, and Heroin Abuse among Adolescents in a Recovery High School: A Pilot Study.” Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse, vol. 25, no. 2, Jan. 2016, pp. 105–112. EBSCOhost, ezp.raritanval.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=EJ1091494&site=eds-live.
Xiwen, Huang, et al. “Increasing Prescription Opioid and Heroin Overdose Mortality in the United States, 1999-2014: An Age-Period-Cohort Analysis.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 108, no. 1, Jan. 2018, pp. 131–136. EBSCOhost, doi:10.2105/AJPH.2017.304142.
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