[Warning: This article contains images and video of injecting drug use and self-harm. If you do not wish to view such material, please do not continue reading.]
Online spaces where people display stigmatized behavior are often scrutinized for their perceived promotion of harm—”Proa-Ana” websites and instructional suicide pages are perhaps the best known examples. At the same time, the internet has become a useful tool in empowering marginalized people to reclaim their narrative and assert their own identity to a potentially hostile audience.
On Instagram, the image-based social medium, people who use heroin and other drugs have created a notable subculture, occupying spaces on the spectrum between the glamorization of drugs and positive self-identification.
Hashtags such as “Jfam,” “JunkiesofIG,” “NodSquad” and “SpoonGoons” mark posts depicting handfuls of pills, spoonfuls of dope, and people who unabashedly consume them. Many of the profiles involved have hundreds of followers, and Jfam (“junkie family”) participants put estimates of the total community much higher. Most of the insiders’ pages are private to avoid being reported for breaches of Instagram guidelines or harassed by lurkers; they often post screenshots of follow requests in order to vet their subscribers and avoid any unwanted attention.
The uninhibited environment can allow for honesty about drug use that the shame associated with it typically prevents. Many of the images—including needles in the neck, abscesses from missed veins and bloodied limbs—would cause the squeamish to turn away.
But for heroin users who may be socially isolated by their use of an intensely stigmatized drug, these “disturbing” photos present a comforting familiarity.
“I would always go on hashtags and look up things, seeing if people were posting about drugs, because here I am shooting dope in my room by myself feeling so alone, like literally so alone, even though I know there are other addicts out there,” says Haley, who is 22. ”I had this sick need to see other people like me.”
When she found Jfam, “I was so interested, it was so sick,” she tells me earnestly, “but I just needed to feel like there were other people who were going through what I was going through, because my addiction, it brings me to some low places.”
Well-lit photos of stamp bags and loaded rigs could be considered “romanticized” depictions of drug use, and Jfam members certainly do not caption every photo with condemnations of drugs. Instead, they celebrate the score.
“I always didn’t want to admit that I find it does [romanticize drug use], but we’re all posting pictures making it pretty, filters and stuff, trying to make it as badass as possible,” says “Tweaker Chick,” who asks to be referred to by her middle name, Claire. “That’s one of the really unhealthy aspects of doing it: You’re taking a picture of your drug use, and people are like, ‘that’s fucking badass, like, nice meth piece.’ I like that feedback but sometimes I worry that it’s not really healthy for me.” She started using about five years ago, when she was 15.
[Tweaker Chick—AKA Claire]
“It’s definitely gruesome,” Claire says, “But I feel like in a way people would just be doing it anyways. I guess it’s comforting to hear about other people who are having a fucked up day like me. I don’t want this to be normal. I don’t think any of us do.”
While every post might not highlight the harms associated with drugs, their pages do not exactly depict an idyllic relationship with drugs, either. There are hospital wristbands, nasty infections and fall-outs from friends and family.
For a group supposedly “glorifying” their lifestyle, there is a lot of talk of suicide. Haley, whose feed includes a a screen shot of her Google search for “ways to kill yourself,” once attempted suicide in a psychiatric hospital by choking herself with leggings, her face turning blue. Taylor says he was also “on the verge of just killing myself.” Self-harm is also prevalent.
“There is a sense of being proud at one point, but I mean at the end of the day it’s just how it is. It’s just the raw and real life of a drug addict,” says Jfam member Taylor Reichelt, a 27-year-old man from California. “A lot of people judge. A lot of people don’t like that in their face, but I think that [right now with the current opioid crisis] if anything, I hope it would bring awareness to the problem, whether it’s being glamorized or not. It’s kind of in-your-face and people have to deal with it.”
“What I try to portray is just a drama-free place, kind of a family almost,” Taylor says of the SpoonGoons hashtag he coined, “My life consisted of sitting on a bathroom floor anywhere from 12 to 48 hours at a time, looking for a vein, and I was alone and I was stuck there and I couldn’t get out, you know?”
“I was basically stuck in my own hell,” he continues, “and I was hiding it from everybody else because of how horrible and disgusting I thought my life was. But that’s who I was at the time, and Instagram kind of gave me a community of other people who knew what I was going through, and who I could share my struggle with and who wouldn’t judge.”
“I could be myself there,” Taylor says of Jfam, “and actually had support.”
And that community is growing. “OG” members often differentiate themselves in their bios. Taylor started the hashtag “SpoonGoon” to filter out spammers who used fake photos to infiltrate the group and bogus offer to sell drugs.
Instagram offers a very different support network to the one you might get in a 12-step program. There is no mantra or instruction, and the peers are self-selected from an international base. They don’t use sponsors or schedules to address their isolation; all it takes is a glance at their phones, they say, and they can feel less alone.
Sometimes, the online connections turn into real-life relationships. One member, Crystal, met her boyfriend through Instagram, after his photos showed they were from the same town. Taylor went on a road-trip with two other Jfammers last year. They drove from California to Utah, where they planned to pick up—and meet for the first time—their friend Jakob, who was homeless. Taylor got to know him in jail after they got busted in a motel, playing cards and talking about their mothers. “He was a really sweet guy,” he says.
Jakob died last year; many Jfam profiles include #RIPJakob in their bios.
This support network may help to contribute to some outcomes that might surprise those who view Jfam as merely glamorizing drugs. While active users drive Jfam, quitting won’t automatically get you booted from the club, or immediately divert the newly sober away from potentially “triggering” content. Quitting drugs (and relapsing and quitting again) is often part of the lifestyle.
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When I first followed Haley, Claire and Taylor’s accounts a few months ago, they were still using; now, all three of them have stopped. Taylor has been off heroin for almost six months. And Claire says that in addition to the support she’s received from relatives, “the Jfam community has also been a major part of my recovery.”
Crystal, a 33-year-old who says she’s been with “Junkies of Instagram” since it kicked off three years ago, uses her page to speak candidly about how recovery does not necessarily feel good. “I have posted explicit drug use photos, but mostly it’s about the feelings associated with it,” she says, especially “the feeling of hating recovery and it not being what I thought it was gonna be.”
“I thought I was going to get clean and be magically happy and I would turn my life around,” she continues. “Most of the time, I find myself questioning, why am I doing this? And God, I really wish I had a needle in my arm.” She was candid on Instagram about her recent suicide attempt, saying that with so many people asking her for help, “If Im not completely raw or honest, I feel like I’m misleading them or lying to them.” She also officers advice on harm reduction measures likenaloxone, which she’ll even mail to some Jfammers, and medication-assisted treatment.
When I first began speaking with Haley, the daughter of a pilot from a well-off family in New England, she was shooting large amounts of heroin. And after dropping contact for a few days, she texted me to apologize, saying she was heading home to Connecticut before she would move to Florida, to move in with a friend from Instagram. The next day, she posted photos of herself on a plane with wine, on her way to rehab in Florida.
Two months later, she messaged me from a halfway house, “I’m out!!” We caught up on the phone a couple days later. Haley was non-stop, rattling off the story of the origins of her heroin use as a teenager in high school, the “codependent” men she’d dated, and the robberies and forgeries she used to pay for drugs. “It never was a choice,” she said. “I had to do these things. That’s what people didn’t understand. I didn’t wake up like, ‘I’m gonna rob your house.’”
“I had to survive. That was my mentality,” Haley said. She once used a lamp to smash through the window of a bathroom a man had locked her in, then called the guy out of dope-sick desperation later. After her sponsor kicked her out of his house for using, she moved into a dealer’s home, where bugs left bite-marks all over her body; she’d left other marks, too, by using a knife to pick away at freckles she thought were crawling on her. The guy was abusive; she then moved in with a sugar daddy, but continued to see her abusive dealer.
“He would just beat the shit out of me and I would feel like it was my fault,” she said. “To this day I’ll justify him pistol-whipping me, pushing me down a flight of stairs face-first—that was normal to me.”
She eventually “pretty much knew I needed to get fuck out of Chicago” when she crashed cars and struck pedestrians, leaving herself vulnerable to her sugar daddy’s threats to turn her in if she did not maintain contact. The first time, she was texting and driving “almost blackout drunk” when she rear-ended a parked car with two people inside. They got out and stood in front of her car, blocking her from driving off.
“I was like, ‘I’m gonna hit you. Please move, I’m gonna hit you.’ and they wouldn’t move and I started driving and I hit one of them,” she said, speaking quickly. “I could still drive my car, and that was that. I made it to [my dealer’s house], got what I needed, made it back to [my sugar daddy’s] house, parked the car in the garage, and that’s where it’s still at. The car will not turn on.”
A few days later, her sugar daddy bought Haley a new car, but it did only survived a few hours.
“I hit a person—they were in the road, I think, and I just straight-up hit this person,” she said. “And then I hit a car and the person like, cracked my windshield, like literally cracked the windshield.”
This time, her car wouldn’t move when she tried to flee. “I just hear people screaming,’Oh my God, oh my God! I literally just got out and started running like running.” The cops searched for her while she booked it, “leaving a trail of blood everywhere” from an injury incurred hopping a fence.
Later, her sugar daddy drove her back to her family’s home in Connecticut. When she showed up at her parent’s house, drunk and high, her mom took kitchen scissors to her hair and chopped it off at the shoulders. “You look like a hooker,” Haley says her mom told her.
When Haley’s parents had found out she was stripping, they threatened to cut her off completely. She shared the texts on Instagram, and a flood of supportive comments followed.
Those messages are painfully far from the light-hearted, goofy conversations Haley once posted to her other personal Instagram account, where her heroin use goes undocumented.
On her Jfam account, she can show the side of her life that she is usually forced to hide. More importantly, she can see the characteristics for which she is shamed in other people. She points to one Instagram user who posts photos out of hotel rooms, openly discussing her sex work. “Things I felt so ashamed about doing it, there she was just making it ok. So it just made me feel—not like what I was doing was acceptable—but, like, not alone.”
“We have this sick connection where we can say anything put out anything and someone out there is going to relate to it,” Haley says.”Other people’s Instagrams, they’re all like going on runs or hiking or whatever, but these are our hobbies. This is our daily life, and we’re just having someone to relate to about it.”
Active use is not a prerequisite for these relationships to continue. “The coolest thing about [Jfam] is there was no hatred toward people who were getting clean,” Taylor says. “It was kinda hope-based, you know? The hope that maybe as a community or as a group, someday we could all find that we deserved a good life, and right now I just try to be an example for some of my other friends on there that are still struggling.”
In Jfam, Taylor is a bit of a legend. His feed, once a hardcore depiction of a hardcore user, now shows a screenshot of a recovery app tracking his clean time. Before she, too, quit drugs, Claire marveled at Taylor’s transition: “He would always post pictures saying he just spent 19 hours trying to hit himself, lying naked in his kitchen, just trying to hit a vein. It was fucking scary.”
Yesterday, Taylor posted a photo of Claire above the caption: “SOOO FUCKING PROUD OF THIS AMAZING AND BEAUTIFUL WOMEN! #INSPIRATIONAL #BLESSED #MOTIVATION #WEALLDESERVETOBEHAPPY.”
Currently living in a halfway house, Haley still looks at Jfam photos, and even posted an old shot of a syringe.
“It is not glamorizing it by any means,” Haley says.“ I really don’t think it’s for anyone else.” She adds that she is not afraid to show her face. “I want people to see what I look like. Apparently I shouldn’t be this way, but I am.”