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Justine had no idea that her entire life was about to explode.
She was the pretty, influential director of corporate communications at IAC. Today IAC is traded on the NASDAQ and they are an internet and media company built of brands such as Investopia, Vimeo, OKCupid, Angie’s List, Tinder and Match to name just a few. But our story is not set today. Our story starts ten days before 2014.
Justine had just landed in Cape Town South Africa. As she completed the 11 hour flight from New York she turned on her phone. That was the beginning of the end.
A text from someone she hadn’t spoken to in over a decade captured her attention. “I’m so sorry to see what’s happening,” came the surprising sentence. During her flight the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet was trending worldwide. In reverse chronology she began to see tweets such as, “We are about to watch this @JustineSaaco bitch get fired. In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired.” There was the comment from her employer, IAC, which read, “This is an outrageous, offensive comment. Employee in question currently unreachable on an intl flight.” One read, “I’m an IAC employee and I don’t want @JustineSaaco doing any communications on our behalf ever again. Ever.”
Justine made a critical error in the last tweet she sent out before the flight.
But, there was a problem with the joke. It was incredibly sarcastic. In her attempt to shine light on the pristine bubble of white America, Justine combined race, politics and disease in one joke, on a medium where sarcasm doesn’t always translate.
She wrote, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
It was her, albeit insensitive, way of saying, “now that the AIDS epidemic is under control for rich, white America, no one cares about it anymore.”
Or possibly, “Because of the fortunate, white bubble of safety around me, I don’t have to worry about AIDS.”
Unfortunately the Twitterverse did not take it that way. It was taken literally by a few influential people and piled on by their audience to the tune of tens of thousands of hateful, name calling, threatening tweets in response.
Justine’s life was completely altered during that 11 hour flight and she had no idea. She had unknowingly hitched her social wagon to one misunderstood sentence. But why in the world would the director of corporate communications, or for than matter anyone, allow themselves to offer up such an easily misunderstood sentence? Why, in her attempt to be funny, was she blind to the manner in which that sentiment could be construed?
The answer is that she, like a lot of us, was an addict.
Drug addicts often describe the feeling of euphoria as beginning the moment they decide to get high. Or as soon as they obtain their drug or choice the high starts. Not only do they feel the effects before they use the chemical, but they get addicted to the process as well. The sneaking around, money and paraphernalia are as much a part of the addiction as the drug itself.
Consider this sentiment, written by a former drug dealer under a pseudonym on substance.com about the addictive aspects of the lifestyle of dealing drugs.
-When people discuss drug addiction, treatment and recovery, they tend to spare little sympathy for the dealers. They’re the ones causing the problem, right? But a high proportion of dealers are addicted themselves—and not just to drugs.
I started dealing shortly after I began using—initially to support my own habit. I was smoking weed and hash at the age of 13 and by the time I was 17, I was supplying marijuana and LSD to 15 colleges in five states on the East Coast. I was definitely addicted to substances: I smoked, drank alcohol or tripped on acid daily. But I was also addicted to the money, to the lifestyle I was living and to the status they earned me.
I craved the outlaw image. When I walked into a party it was like I was a celebrity, with the girls whispering my name and wanting to meet me. Everyone gave me the ultimate respect because I was the connect, the dude that was holding.
I craved the superficial freedom that selling drugs granted me—the ability to do what I wanted and go where I wanted, whenever I wanted. I went to Hawaii once. I just said, “Let’s go” and paid cash for four round-trip tickets. The ticket lady looked at me like, “You’re paying cash? Are you serious?” I took three buddies and we stayed in Honolulu, then hopped over to Hilo and rented a house. We stayed for two months, partying, chasing girls, surfing, spear fishing and jumping off cliffs, and I paid for everything.
I was living a dream, reveling in my ability to bring my peers exotic brands of marijuana and LSD, so that they could enjoy new experiences. I was a connoisseur of high-quality merchandise, of kind bud and excellent trips
It all ended with a drug arrest at age 20, resulting in a 25-year mandatory minimum federal drug sentence for a first-time, nonviolent offense. A harsh reality for a kid barely out of his teens, and a sobering one.
That was in 1993. I’m still in federal prison today. During my time inside, I eventually not only quit using all drugs but also had to address my craving for the dealing lifestyle. I’m convinced that both were equally addictive. And I’m not the only one—the existence of a fellowship like Hustlers Anonymous testifies to that. So do dozens of the men who have done time with me over the last 20 years, often small-time dealers who were hooked on the process and lifestyle of selling drugs.
“I’m in prison for selling crack,” says Ben, a 24-year-old African American from St. Louis who is doing a five-year sentence. “I used to smoke a little bud and drink some forties, but I didn’t really get ****** up. I was about my money. I was on a paper chase, for real. If I was addicted to anything, it was getting money.”
Ben, who grew up in a rough area of South City in St. Louis, didn’t feel like he had many other employment options. “Everybody in the hood is involved in drugs in some way,” he tells me. “My mom was a crackhead and my dad was in prison my whole life. I was just doing what’s natural. In my hood if you’re about anything, then you’re getting money.”
“I wish I didn’t get high at all,” he continues, “because that’s how I got caught slipping. When I go back out there I’m gonna be drug-free. That’s how it’s gotta be if you want to make money.
I’m still sick behind this stuff—I need my fix.”
If one definition of addiction is compulsively continuing to do something, despite negative consequences, young men like Ben fit the mold perfectly. Why else would they plan to take the crazy risk of getting busted again for something that they’ve already done time for?
Black has a similar story. Born and bred in New York City, this 35-year-old Puerto Rican is doing a 15-year stretch for selling cocaine and carrying a firearm. “My thought process has always been, ‘If I have a gun, I can get money,” Black tells me. “I grew up in the South Bronx, where you had to stay strapped. For real I don’t even do drugs—I just drink Cristal. I like the finer things in life: money, BMWs, Rolexes, Armani and gorgeous women. That’s why I sold drugs—to get the things I couldn’t afford. You see it in rap videos, in the magazines, in the movies, and you want it. I’m addicted to money, power and respect, just like Biggie said.”
Our understanding of addiction is evolving to accept that it can apply not only to drugs, but to behaviors like compulsive internet use, eating and sex. Numerous studies suggest that the “high” of certain behaviors may affect our brains in similar ways to drugs. DSM-5, the updated version of the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual published last year, included a new category on behavioral addictions. “Gambling disorder” is the only one currently listed as a diagnosable condition, but “Internet gaming disorder” is mentioned as meriting further research. Logic suggests that new studies will bring other conditions into future editions. From where I’m standing, selling drugs should be under consideration, too.
As a teenager I was living in the middle-class suburbs of affluent Fairfax, Virginia, so unlike Ben, I had other options to make enough money to get high. It’s not always the kid from the bad side of the tracks that first seeks to emulate the Scarface lifestyle, then finds he can’t let go of it—just like the junkie who keeps sticking the needle in his arm, even when he can’t find a vein.
Of course, for many dealers, their addiction to the drug itself does remain primary. “I sold LSD, mushrooms, weed, whatever I could to support my heroin habit,” says Aaron, a white 44-year-old Massachusetts native and former “Deadhead” who is doing a 17-year sentence for an LSD conspiracy charge. “I wasn’t even a big drug dealer. Everything I made off hooking dudes up went toward heroin and staying on tour. I followed the Dead, then Phish and finally Bonnaroo, Burning Man and other festivals.”
“I would move lots of acid on the lot and do mail order to dudes all over the country,” Aaron says. “I would basically sell anything I could get a hold of.
But everything was geared toward getting that next hit.”
I used to love the rituals, love getting loads of weed and breaking it up into one-pound Ziploc bags. I used to love counting the money. The whole process.
I saw myself as a high-level businessman. But the truth is, it’s a miracle I was even able to run my drug business while smoking weed and drinking all day. I would make my rounds, drop off drugs, pick up money, fly to different states to arrange shipments and coordinate their arrival. I thought this represented total freedom, but I was a slave to that lifestyle.
Christopher Hoss is a pseudonym for a writer who is in a federal prison, serving 25 years for drug trafficking.
How is it possible that someone who has not yet put the addictive chemical in their body is feeling the effects of that chemical or that the dealer becomes more addicted to the lifestyle than some of their clients are to the drug itself? The answer is that some of the addictive chemicals have already been released by their own brain without using the drug. In fact, in some cases people are more addicted to the chemicals released by their brain than by a chemical artificially inserted in their bodies. Think of adrenaline junkies. They are driven to put themselves in incredibly dangerous situations, not to save a life, help humanity or even to make money. They are addicted to the “natural” high created in their body by the release of adrenaline, serotonin and dopamine.
It was the same addiction Justine faced when she posted her absent-minded tweet.
During a positive social interaction the chemical oxytocin is released into our blood, which triggers the release of, you guessed it, serotonin and dopamine. When Justine made the stupid joke on Twitter it wasn’t a brutal racist opinion from a cold and uncaring person.
It was an attempt for one more hit; one more high from an addict.
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