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Why Substance Abuse Is More Life-Changing Than Racism.

I used to think being born a Black man in America was my worst nightmare. For seven decades, dating back to the 1950s, I've experienced social changes that shaped our country's future and my identity. I've endured years of racial slurs and insults, discrimination, and police brutality. From pre and post-segregation, the political and social impact of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Huey Newton's Black Panther Party, I've lived in fear of being lynched, beaten, or shot to death by white supremacists or white police officers. However, nothing, not even encounters with racism, prepared me for the twenty-year period I was buried in drug addiction. Addiction and mental illness struck within me. Racism attacked from outside of me.

I attended a Black student demonstration at the Philadelphia Board of Education offices when I was sixteen. Our purpose was to protest against discriminatory policies. The protest was peaceful, and yet, without warning, white Philly cops sprayed the area with tear gas and rushed in with shields and bully clubs, violently beating us down to the ground. I was struck in the head, chest, and back; blood from my head wounds tickled down my forehead into my eyes, blurring my vision. I required ten stitches.

Even so, as violent and brutal as the beating was, addiction proved to be the most horrific experience in my environment.    

Nowadays, it is generally accepted that addiction is a generational disease that is passed on from parents to their children. My grandmother wasn’t a drinker; my mother was a casual drinker, but my father was an alcoholic for most of his life. My brother was an IV substance abuser who died from AIDS. I never met my father. Even so, his alcoholism affected me in adverse ways, subjecting me to a lifetime of psychosocial traumas.

My mother never knew she gave birth to a kid predestined to substance abuse.

I often wonder if my mother would have aborted me if she had known that I was carrying the genes of an alcoholic father. But then, she couldn’t have known because she had met the guy at a nightclub in Philadelphia while he was on leave from the military and had never seen him again. In other words, the relationship was a one-night stand.

I was a heavy burden for my mother to carry. She was a 17-year-old high school student whom my father and his family rejected. She was stressed by loneliness, low self-esteem, and uncertainty. As a direct result, because of her trauma, my mom never bonded with me. Her detachment from me began in her womb and continued long after I was born: Throughout my adolescence, young adulthood, and adult life, she has never shown me affection. Even today, she cannot hug me as if she means it. 

My father never acknowledged me because he abandoned my mother, who didn’t bond with me because she had been deserted. Whenever anyone tries to get close to me, I bolt. Consequently, my relationships suffer because of this. Whenever anyone tries to get close to me, I bolt. Consequently, even today, my relationships suffer from my inability to be affectionate, particularly with girlfriends and friends. I am uncomfortable with intimacy. I have never married, even though there have been opportunities. There have been remarkable women in my life.

To fully grasp and understand the impact of the emotional trauma I experienced as a child, we must know that what happens during the prenatal period and the earliest months and years of a child’s life has a lasting impact on the life course journey. In my case, my mother’s struggles with rejection and abandonment disrupted my normal cognitive development, enabling me to experience empathy, compassion, and intimacy. Although it might never be too late to improve health and well-being, what happens during infancy and toddlerhood sets the stage for the passage through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

Moreover, through using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), we now know the human brain develops far beyond early childhood into adolescence, meaning that during my adolescent years--as noted scholar and researcher  Elizabeth D. Hutchison points out-- “there is no doubt that the brain changes a great deal during adolescence. Going a step further, TED lecturer and researcher, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, says “the adolescent brain undergoes quite profound development, and this has implications for education, rehabilitation, and intervention.”

Fortunately for me, through the intervention of my maternal grandmother during my adolescent years, my mother’s influence was counteracted. My grandmother migrated from the cotton fields of Georgia to urban Philadelphia in the 1940s, having only a six-grade education with my young mother. In the 1950s, the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood in North Philadelphia shifted from Jewish to African American. My grandmother, with the help of her church, bought a three-story, six-bedroom house where I was raised. She was among the first Black women in Philadelphia to become a property owner. She was also a licensed beautician. She took the state examination three times before she could legally open a hair salon bearing her name, Eunice Beaty Shop. This was her moment of resilience, her transition, her trajectory, and her turning point leading to her middle-class status at a time when most African Americans were dependent on state welfare.

Then there was my stepfather, an entrepreneur who owned businesses and real estate and who also countered my mother’s traumatized effects on me. He was a good, attentive, loving, and caring provider who desperately tried to raise me in his image.

My grandmother taught me how to live a Christian life, and my stepdad taught me the value of hard work. Through my grandmother, I learned to pray, lean on faith, and regularly attend church services, which served as my source of redemption from substance abuse in later years. My stepdad coached my interest in entrepreneurship, business ownership, setting goals, and developing a solid work ethic, helping me reach professional heights I never imagined in my later years.

Substance abuse ripped through the fabric of my existence, my stability, my relationships, and my spiritual beliefs in 1982, but thankfully, through memories of the values of my grandmother, Christian faith,  and stepfather, I found the resilience to rebound from twenty years of substance abuse.  

Today, I embrace spirituality, Narcotic Annymous and Alcoholic Annymous, Christianity, my career, and my relationships with my granddaughter, family, and friends. My interest in reading, writing, movies, and the performing arts has been restored. Despite this, however, the outcomes of childhood and adolescent traumas have a lifetime of irreversible effects on me that no amount of therapy, medications, or 12-step meetings can fix. I am powerless and cannot control or change the racism I experience in my environment, but I can manage what’s inside me. I only have the power to change myself.  I chose to be sober and clean.  

Works Cited

Adolescent Brain Changes Perf. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore. 2012. Ted Lecture.

Hutchison, Elizabeth D. Dimensions of Human Development. 2023. Text Book.






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