In February 2016, 11 Alive News debuted its investigative report on suburban heroin use dubbed “The Triangle”: a geographical ground zero, if you will, of escalated opiate addiction and overdose concentrated amongst affluent Atlanta suburbs Johns Creek, Marietta, and Alpharetta. Lead journalist Jeremy Campbell kicked off the five-part series with a statistic: heroin-related deaths ascended 4,000% from 2010 to 2016.
Campbell looked through the camera into thousands of McMansion living rooms where former classmates and families drew personal connection to the “growing epidemic.” We were all affected: everyone invariably knew someone either seeking treatment for opioid addiction, currently still using opiates, or dead from an opioid-related death. Personally, I knew four or five of the people featured in the documentary, some dead and some alive.
Also in February 2016, I was coming up on two years sober and living in my first leased apartment in Roswell, Ga. I had a great sense of pride about this because the years prior were characterized and punctuated by the fiascos of my drugging and drinking. When I sought recovery for my alcoholism in 2014, an apartment of my own seemed like an insurmountable task. I couldn’t show up to a job, or life, without drinking in the morning. So by the time I was coming on two years, I felt extremely proud about my situation as it appeared and felt very well-versed (albeit arrogantly so) in the nuances of addiction, recovery, and the age old adage of “getting back on your feet.”
So when 11 Alive debuted its expose on the suburban heroin secret, I felt compelled to say something. I took to my soapbox, Facebook, as a white millennial from the suburbs and expounded on the viscousness of addiction and its impartialness to socioeconomic differences. I discussed the importance of destigmatizing addiction as a caveat in getting people help. In fact, I said: “An epidemic doesn’t check someone’s rank on the socio-economic spectrum. This disease lives in Honor Roll students as well as beggars on Pine Street; it does not make a distinction. So, please, recognize the humanity in each other, and understand that this particular battle is fatally isolating.” I cringe looking back at this, but on its face all of that checks out pretty well. It got a lot of likes.
A disheartening and sobering realization: my experience in sobriety was largely predicated by the privilege I’ve enjoyed as a white man, and my journey before and into sobriety has been significantly dissonant from that of people of color in recovery. While I never liked heroin all that much, I did rejoice in the wonders of my friends’ parents’ prescribed opiates in high school. I probably found these more appealing because they were foraged from safes in giant walk-in closets and scrapped from marble countertops beneath lovely bay windows overlooking the Chattahoochee River. We would abuse these medications all warm, fuzzy, and anesthetized in Sotheby’s-eque living rooms of Southeastern corporate giants, athletes, and entertainment executives. We threw parties in multi-million dollar mansions, and across all of that square footage, we all generally looked the same. And by that I mean we were all white.
Although that may sound glamorous in a spoiled brat kind of way, the party eventually stopped. Rich white kids started developing drug habits, things got ugly, and people started dying. This has become an increasingly common path and because of that, the progression from pills to powder is widely understood.
However, the juxtaposition of the perceived foulness of heroin and the false invincibility of immense wealth finding its great megaphone in white privilege has subsequently turned it into a trending topic. While the damage was always around, it became scary and urgent because “that kind” of stuff isn’t supposed to happen “there.” Opiate addiction wasn’t a problem or dinner party fodder when it was contained in certain parts of the city, but when it started infiltrating the suburbs, it got a five-part news series.
The inherent privilege of “The Triangle” operated in two ways. First, it insulated these affluent communities from experiencing the vast array of socioeconomic factors that underlie widespread drug addiction. Second, when the exclusion from these disparities failed to uphold its end of the deal in immunity, the whiteness of the afflicted communities galvanized the issue with its disproportionately favorable equity to bang its gavel louder than people of color can.
Chief among the considerations of the intersection of race in recovery is the delineation of equality and equity in the cultural lexicon and the misappropriation of the two definitions. In a general sense, equality refers to equal treatment while equity refers to proportionate support. Equality is wonderful when you get there, but if we aren’t starting out with the same resources, it’s likely that we may arrive at different times, nearly miss each other, or that those who had more barriers to face may never get there at all. This is an important concept while framing recovery resources as both the journey and the destination.
What I failed to recognize and inherently implied in 2016 is the false correlation between proximity and urgency. Is heroin an epidemic? Some would say so. I would say that addiction, as a disease, could be considered an epidemic. For “The Triangle,” heroin is both its vehicle and its contaminant. But why were we, the collective consciousness of some of the richest cities in the country, so shocked? It’s not like we didn’t know about this problem in our communities before it was coupled with syndication.
There are many, many factors that inform this dynamic. One is the irony in characterizing “The Triangle” as a community, because its very essence is the composite of not being other communities. Other than its setting-as-character tree and river-lined beauty, it has no distinguishable traits. When a group of sameness is predicated by its dissonance with otherness, its barriers are fallible as its constitution is only a reaction to that which it is repelling. When the needle moved closer to white suburbia (pun intended), they didn’t know how to act. Within the cultural conversation of our country, police brutality, access to health care, and mental health have been at the forefront of discussions concerning equity and human rights. In the national lens, these topics find footing in policy debate and campaign declarations, but on the ground—at least on the ground I’ve walked—I haven’t particularly experienced the disadvantage that people of color have vehemently conveyed.
This is a problem.
When considering my own experience, I often think about my relationship with law enforcement and the justice system. In my first run-in with the law, despite possessing drugs, alcohol, paraphernalia, and driving while under the influence, my friend and I were granted the ability to call our parents to pick us up instead of going to jail. In a different instance, some weeks after, I actually bolted from the scene. I was eventually apprehended with guns drawn and was handcuffed standing up. I was given a stern talking to about how I was throwing my opportunities away before being allowed to call my father as I was taken to jail. A couple years later I was accused of a violent crime and was peacefully removed from the premises. In total, I’ve been to jail seven times. Not once did I spend more than two weeks there, before or after trial. Most charges were dropped or dismissed. I think about how those situations would’ve gone had I been a young black man. I don’t have to look far.
This is not a new conversation. “The Triangle’s” grappling with heroin is a micro-manifestation of a much larger issue and plenty have commented on the media’s coverage of drugs smacking with racism. When heroin was an inner city struggle, it was criminalized. When it became a suburban goliath, it began to inhabit the disease model, met with compassion and fundraisers. Only when heroin was finally viewed through the gaze of white privilege did we begin to see the application of humanity as a necessary step in reconciliation.
I am also not the first white man to try and level up equality and equity through identifying and explicitly admitting my own white privilege. I bring up these moments in my life because when I stumbled into my recovery program in 2014, I frequently heard the sentiment, “Lots of us came here for different reasons, but we’re all here now and that’s all that matters.” Similarly to my wide-eyed Facebook post, it sounds right—but it surely glances over a lot of incredibly important contextual narratives. How we got there, and the circumstances that inform how we stay there, undoubtedly matter. When one looks at my history on paper, it’s chock full of circumstances in which I’ve benefited from and been protected by the fruits of uninhibited privilege due to my whiteness, even though the contexts in which these experiences devolved are categorically tragic. Whether we realize it, admit to it, or not, much of our experience is shaped by how the world and its systems perceive us and our place in it.
Recovery is a process that each afflicted individual has the right to pursue. But just because we all have the right doesn’t mean we are allotted the same access. This is where the equity vs. equality discussion really matters. Typically, white people suffering from addiction in the lens of the law statically enjoy wider access to rehabilitation than people of color suffering from the same thing. Despite facing the same charges or chemical dependencies, statistics show that white people are usually sent to treatment and black people are more often sent to jail. When treatment is an option, most facilities require insurance or its patients are required to pay exorbitantly expensive costs. The implicit bias in our healthcare system is the result of decades of institutionalized racism that makes access to insurance much harder for people of color in America. As redlining, neighborhood zoning, eviction procedures, and racial profiling (to name a few structural discriminations) have hindered people of color’s access to help, health insurance is undoubtedly among the resources deprived. If you can’t pay, you can’t stay. The uninformed may account for this in circumstance, but the undeniable truth is that this is the result of deliberate disenfranchising.
Today I look around in my regularly attended recovery meeting. Normally there are around 30 to 40 attendees. Of that group, only about eight to 10 of them present as people of color. I keep in mind that the meeting’s location is in Buckhead, a historically wealthy and racist area. I’m also aware that there are meetings in more fervently diverse areas of the city where that ratio is flipped. Herein lies the issue with equity, again. It is not enough that there are meetings in historically black neighborhoods when areas heavily populated by white people enjoy three to four times the frequency of said meetings. Equality would argue that the mere presence of recovery meetings in these non-white areas debunks disparity. Equity points out those meetings’ frequency, ease of access, safety, and service from local judicature.
So, what do we do? Assuming you’re well intended, you’d like to do something about this. There are a couple stern and valuable guidelines to keep in mind in your pursuits. First and foremost is the disemboweling of the white-savior complex. If you are unfamiliar with this, especially if you are from “The Triangle,” do some shallow digging on your various social media accounts. More recently is the social media trend, #MyWhitePrivilege. It’s important to remember to not use these experiences to create yet another space that is solely intended for white people through self-serving documentation that only further perpetuates social inequality, all in an attempt to assuage white guilt. It is important that we consciously seek to confront and deconstruct those barriers we never experienced and seek to improve the conditions that produced those barriers in the first place.
Another key point is eradicating our monolithic interpretation of a person of color’s perspective. Maybe you feel motivated to seek the counsel of your non-white friends for deeper understanding. The thing is, one black person does not speak for all black people. And this applies to all demographics. To call upon your non-white friend or acquaintance’s stance with intentions to grasp the entire spectrum of people of color’s experience is lazy, ineffective, and implies that you think anyone who isn’t white thinks the same way.
It’s time that white people do some heavy lifting. Start on a personal level: ask questions to different people and listen intently. Go places you don’t normally go. Research our nation’s candidates on every level and seek out their sensitivity to these issues as well as their plans to address them. Implicit bias, in 2019, thrives in white apathy.
Above all, understand that this is our problem to fix. While we own the problem, we step aside for fresher, more diverse, and equitable representation in the arenas we amend. In recovery, hold close that the salvation we seek in desperation undoubtedly meets hurdles we’ve never known.
Our unfettered grace is the antagonist in our own reckoning.