What A Stint In Rehab Taught Me About White People’s Feelings About Black People’s Pain
(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Every time I read about or see a news story on the opioid epidemic, I greet it with a resounding “So what?” It’s an admittedly vindictive stance that I am in no way ashamed of. When I see that whole towns are languishing under the tyranny of the needle, I couldn’t bring myself to care less and you don’t need to have an advanced degree in Why People Don’t Give A Shit About Something to understand why.
When white people befall the same tragedies as black people have, the narrative becomes different. The words change subtly to achieve the desired affects. White people get an “epidemic” while black people get a “plague.” The word plague ever so delicately indicates that the inky black pestilence slithering its way through black neighborhoods is our fault while an epidemic…well, an epidemic could befall any innocent bystander.
Vann Newkirk recently articulated this distinction in The Atlantic
The article is an exemplar in a field of public-health-oriented writing about the opioid crisis—the most deadly and pervasive drug epidemic in American history—that has shaped popular and policy attitudes about the crisis. But the wisdom of that field has not been applied equally in recent history. The story of Jamie Clay and Jay’la Cy’anne stood out to me because it is so incongruous with the stories of “crack babies” and their mothers that I’d grown up reading and watching.
The term itself still stings. “Crack baby” brings to mind hopeless, damaged children with birth defects and intellectual disabilities who would inevitably grow into criminals. It connotes inner-city blackness, and also brings to mind careless, unthinking black mothers who’d knowingly exposed their children to the ravages of cocaine. Although the science that gave the world the term was based on a weak proto-study of only 23 children and has been thoroughly debunked since, the panic about “crack babies” stuck. The term made brutes out of people of color who were living through wave after wave of what were then the deadliest drug epidemics in history.
And when I see these stories, I remember whole black neighborhoods blighted by crack and the toll that it took and is still taking in black neighborhoods.
And then I remember…
Few years back, a friend of mine hit me upside the head and told me I needed to get it together. My life was falling apart and, whether you believe it or not, there comes a certain time in every person’s life where being high all the time ain’t cute no more for you or anybody else in your life and off to rehab I went. Reluctantly.
In many ways, rehab is a lot like how it’s depicted in the movies. You wander white hallways in your pajamas and there are endless group therapy sessions and tedious meetings with counselors about “getting to the bottom” of your problem. But, mostly it’s boring. After the novelty of the free Jello wears off, you don’t have much to do except not get high and this is the time when you really get to meet people. My rehab was a United Nations of junkies. We had good ol’ boys, and debutante Beckys. We had Jew, Gentile, and Heathen. White, black, brown, and undeclared skin tones from different backgrounds and different economic brackets. White trophy wives whose “wine with lunch” took on a life of its own and consumed them and we all got along. We all talked. We all became fast and intimate friends. We all got to know one another and we all helped one another and ugly cried in each other’s presence. Everyone had an ugly story. My roommate was a white yokel from way back and we talked about our problems until the wee hours and I liked him. You make temporary but deep friendships in rehab because you are at your most desperate. Your saddest. And when I raise my middle finger to all the white people overdosing across the country, I am forced to remember this. And then I have to think and allow my memories to soften my position. “Not all of them are bad” I have to tell myself.
It doesn’t seem like most white people think like this, though. No matter what happens to them, they allow their delusions of superiority to take over. They’re addicted to it. It’s more comforting to them than lunch wine and more powerful than Oxycontin. They don’t reflect because they don’t have to. I am the one who is stuck having to think things through until my basic humanity takes the wheel.
After rehab, I have held on to all my friends of color from that period in our lives. All of them. I have had to dump most of the white ones due to their support of Trump and have come to the realization that rehab was the great equalizer. White people have to be brought low in order to exhibit humanity and I have no doubt that if I stepped on to an elevator with one of those trophy wives today she would snatch her purse to her bosom and cradle it like it was a bottle of Malbec. And I’ll have to be the one to remember and know that centuries of deluded and hateful thinking are far more powerful than any drug could ever hope to be.