Substance use disorder (SUD) impacts every racial and ethnic group and region of America. Dare I say the world.
It is ubiquitous, but most of America’s attention focuses on the “opioid crisis” and the overdose deaths among white users, while the Black community goes unrecognized.
The lack of discussion of Black SUD marginalizes Black people and further frames their addictions as criminal rather than worthy of medical treatment — or non-existent.
We need to understand how racism impacts treatment options and how this understanding plays out in Black communities.
My friend Rayna Momen said, “ Treatment can’t be equitable if it isn’t accessible, and it can’t be sought if it isn’t trusted.” I agree.
Community leaders, friends, and neighbors need not be so quick to offer anecdotal evidence and make statements that often dismiss addiction in the Black community.
Addiction is no less real when people who struggle with it are part of an underrepresented group, often relegated to a lower class.
Black people are suffering from addiction on the West Side of Charleston, West Virginia, and across America.
There is a stigma attached to addiction in the Black community – as are other conversations: like mental health, suicide, and transgender safety.
Often discussion around these issues fosters apathy and dismissive anger while the opportunity to build life-saving mutual and direct aid to the Black community is missed.
We need to normalize recovery with grassroots efforts like SOAR that offer education and compassion to dispel stigmas and guide people to resources.
Conversations around harm reduction should include the barriers to SUD treatment for Black people by Black people, not just criticism.
The barriers must be defined in context with the 1970’s “War on Drugs” that is responsible for the mass incarceration of people of color.
Black people have neither forgotten nor escaped the unfairness and trauma of this ongoing “War.”
Forty years later, Black people still wonder when the lack of help for crack addiction will be acknowledged. This unacknowledged pain is exaggerated in the attention to the opioid crisis that wears the face of white Appalachia.
The truth is nobody won or is winning the war on drugs when terms like “dope addict” are used, which only serve to reinforce negative stigmas, bias, and inaccurate beliefs about SUD from any era, or when addiction is seen as a moral failing, instead of a treatable disease from which patients can recover, with or without religious repentance but almost always with access to healthcare and community.
SUD conversations can help eliminate barriers people are facing to receive the medical care they need.
This is the simplest form of harm reduction, offering language that seeks to educate, not opinions that condemn.
Recently the local conservative radio program 580 Live show with HOST? And guest Pastor Marlon Collins and Woody Woods discuss needle exchange programs in Charleston, WV.
One caller stated
The caller acknowledged that he was “.. clean and sober nine years” and then said,” Who cares about the spread of disease among them (addicts).”
His comments were met with a polite thank you from the host and guests.
I stood in silence. Perhaps the host and guests were as shocked as I was at the caller’s open death wish.
I listened intently to the rest of the program that called for accountability in needle exchange programs.
I thought about responsibility for the Black community in these moments to provide resources for those suffering from addiction.
Do these prominent men know about resources of hope like PAAC – Partnership for African American Churches SUD programs, AA, NA, or helpWV.com?
To my knowledge, there are no open recovery meetings specifically for Black people on the West Side or perhaps anywhere, West Virginia.
But the negative conversation around the needle exchange in the West Side is easily found, and so is the stigma that impacts the willingness of individuals with SUD to seek treatment or, worse, it gaslights Black people not to see themselves in the addiction crisis.
One day at a time, soon, I will celebrate three years sober.
When I was early in my recovery, attending meetings daily across the valley where the rooms were primarily white, I thought recovery was a “white people thing” and tried to use the lack of BIPOC people to wiggle out of the program.
Read more about my recovery here: In Appalachia, the face of addiction is white—and so is the story of recovery.
I didn’t wiggle long. I found a Black woman with over 35 years sober — she told me her recovery was online to avoid the white rooms. I, too, found online communities of Black recovery. It’s made all the difference to see and share with Black people in our different shapes, sizes, hairstyles, and skin colors, sharing diverse SUD experiences with an anchor in our collective Blackness, not just in America but the world.
The book Chasing the Scream shows that the opposite of addiction is a connection, which makes getting sober so hard.
You have to disconnect from what gives you a false connection to risk experiencing an authentic connection.
Early in my sobriety, I shared with a friend that I was attending recovery meetings daily and that if they wanted to stop by my house to sleep on my couch (I still had compassion for all night dehydrated partiers).
My old partying friend people suggested we go to the bar, and I “not drink.”
This was a pivotal moment for my recovery.
I had already taken the first step toward recovery, admitting my problem. I knew I was suffering from SUD, and I knew that to have the greatest chance at recovery if I distance myself from people who didn’t support my recovery or, worse, didn’t understand recovery — I decided to follow a strict recovery program that suggested I change people’s places and things.
A place I changed — besides the local bar — was social media. Facebook was and is a gathering place of old habits and often lousy information.
So when I was recently asked my opinion on a Facebook video by Pastor Collins on the needle exchange. I was relieved, I don’t live there. There— being Facebook. I didn’t have to read negative comments about SUD that I was told about.
I didn’t see the video.
I was relieved to hear in the WCHS radio program that the Pastor deleted the video and did so in compassion as he did not want his words to be misunderstood.
I’m fortunate to be alive today and full of gratitude when I share that because someone invested words of encouragement in me, offered practical resources, and help in how to access those resources — I found recovery.
It’s time to stop the stigma surrounding treatment for substance use disorders for all, but especially in the Black community, which suffers greatly in all the West Virginia suffering categories.