The First Step: Why Do African-American Families Struggle With Admitting Addiction?

February 8, 2015  |  


There’s something about the innocence of childhood that thankfully protects us from ugly situations we may witness early in life. As I look back on my childhood it blows my mind to realize how many relatives I’ve had that have struggled with drug addiction and alcoholism. After a certain point my mother shielded by nine-year old eyes from the altercations and arguments between family members. But before then there were plenty of birthday parties and summer BBQ’s that started off innocently enough, but ended in punches and police reports when the liquor allowed resentment between aunts and uncles to brew to the surface. As a child, you don’t know what addiction looks like or that Uncle So and So is coming off a coke binge, you just know that he just flipped over the coffee table and you want to go home.

As I reflect on the Houston family’s battle with drugs and addiction, I’m reminded of what seems to be African-American’s resistance to deal with addiction and alcoholism openly. I can’t ever recall my family sitting down and having a conversation about drug abuse or giving a clear explanation for some family members’ erratic behavior. So when I tuned in for “The Houstons: On Our Own” what I witnessed was a familiar situation where everyone seemed to talk around what seemed to be a very obvious problem. In the Lifetime reality show that chronicled the Houston family coping with life without superstar, Whitney Houston, it seemed no one wanted to admit if Bobbi Kristina abused drugs, recreational or otherwise.  Bobbi Kris is often filmed stumbling around aimlessly, slurring her words, clearly inebriated and sickeningly co-dependent on partner/step-brother Nick Gordon. But her troubling behavior was often dismissed as exhaustion or illness by her aunt, Pat Houston. In fact in one episode she says she refuses to “ride her” although she comments, “She’s either with Nicholas or she’s ‘sick’.  I’ve been hearing that line a little too often.” So with the recent report of Bobbi Kristina being found unresponsive in a bathtub eerily similar to her mother, I can’t help but feel like the situation wasn’t as much as a matter of “if” as it was “when”.

It hasn’t been confirmed whether Bobbi Kristina’s condition has been caused by drug and/or alcohol abuse, but the point is that there is a problem and it seems The Houstons, like many African-American families, are refusing to deal with it. There’s stigma attached to drug abuse in which our society sees drug abuse as a flaw on someone’s family tree. No one wants to talk about addiction because it means that someone has to be to blame. But just like schizophrenia or cancer, no one needs to be at fault when it comes to drug abuse and we have to be more willing as a society to own addiction as an illness.

For African-American families especially, there’s a need to portray a false image of perfection. The denial that accompanies drug addiction only makes the disease more pervasive. By refusing to admit the problem or being ashamed, it is never brought to the surface to be properly dealt with. So it lingers, and does damage to anyone within its reach. It’s one thing to protect your children’s innocence, it’s something completely different to lie to them. And when it comes to drug addiction it teaches them to hide or dismiss problems instead of working through them. I can’t comment on what goes on behind the closed doors of The Houston family, but I can’t help but thinking maybe what she needed is someone to ride her. Maybe she needed a “scary” uncle to be all up in her and Nick’s business or an auntie to give it to her straight instead of telling her to pray her problems away.

My thoughts and prayers are truly with the Houston family at this challenging time. I can’t pretend to imagine the pain they are all experiencing, but I’m hoping that this situation can be an example to our culture about how important it is for families to be honest with one another about the personal battles they are facing. My mother used to always tell me, “I can’t help you if I don’t know there’s a problem.”  Family is meant to support and love one another and that’s impossible to do if we can’t be honest with the people we share blood with about both the good and bad.

Toya Sharee is a community health educator and parenting education coordinator who has a  passion for helping  young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health.  She also advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about  everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee or visit her blog, Bullets and Blessings.

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  • rainbow

    This is not based on race. Many white people do drugs as well.

  • J Russ

    just because you are black, and something happened to you and another black person you know doesn’t mean the whole entire race of black people have this problem. nobody likes to admit addiction.

  • frances

    We got caught up in the idea of not airing “dirty laundry” about a variety of issues, largely because of the negative stereotyping black folks have always been subjected to by the larger community. That in turn led to being in denial about unpleasant realities that continuously stare us in our faces. While denial is not unique to any racial group, it has been especially harmful for us because too often, that denial has been in the name of so-called “black unity.”

  • hanalei

    It is common for families, regardless of race, to keep family problems especially addictions a secret. Most people feel their family member will be judged and if you love that person you do not want the world to know this “secret”.

  • GymJunkie43

    I think celebrities or any person with money is in a different category from “regular” drug addicts. Whitney Houston was paying car notes, mortgages and tuitions so of course so of course nobody was going to truly step in. But I do think there is an issue of admitting any bad habit. How often have I heard “Well white people do it too”.

  • urbancitygirl

    Here’s a better article title: “Why do Black blogs always run down Black people as a whole?”

    • Walter Hampton

      Grow Up!…and face the facts!….This article is VERY TRUE!…and it seems the truth is very painful for some of us to admit!

      • in.disquis

        People seem to think that black people have to mention white folks when we discuss the ills of our community. We can’t say, our community is shambles without mentioning that it happens to white folks, too.

      • urbancitygirl

        Grow up? I’m older than you. And old enough to know that self-hate impedes growth. So you keep being you and believe this nonsense. Our paths will never cross.

  • Music

    I never viewed it as a race thing. I’ve seen denial in various races. I will admit that there are issues that are more prominent in the AA community, but lately its as if everything has become a race thing.

    • Marisol

      I agree with you 100% Music. I don’t think that blacks are anymore in denial regarding addiction than any other race. Good ole white folks like Rush Limp will deny addiction to the day they die. But you will not find someone writing an article about whites being in denial. Sick and tired of it always being the blacks that are under the scope…Who wrote this fuggN article?

    • guest

      Yes. Especially here and I use to love coming to this site.

  • lulubear

    I’ve always admired what the people in Britney spears’ life did when she started having problems. But that’s hard it’s hard for any race.

    • eestoomuch

      I am not sure if its true but the lowdown was that brit brit found out she was hiv + and that is why she flipped out. Looking back…it may or may not have been true but whatever it was that made her shave her head and have to call 991 down to the house…seemed like she shouldve been in therapy for years, not put back out on the track to make more money, hell, the heffa prolly makes more money from perfume than she ever did singing…her family is just greedy…conservatorshup or not!!! Same as Whitney’s fam….sing! We need our money!!! Smh.

      • eestoomuch


  • HmmmIJS

    Its Taboo..

  • eestoomuch

    Basically because we refuse to admit any “issues” gayness, pedophilia, obesity, mental illness, infidelity, side children, paternity…i honestly think its ingrained in us from our start in this country…we had to be in denial to survive. Well, we survived…its time to wake up.

    • Neva

      Thank you! Especially us black women. Black women can be the queens denial (no pun). Its like you could tell a black woman her house is on fire, and she wouldn’t want to hear it smfh. How did get like this?

    • in.disquis

      DON’T JUDGE! Isnt this the black community’s anthem.

      Perfect response! Everything you mentioned is in my family – including thugism, deadbeatness…ha! And no one says a word. If you mention it, you’re told not to judge.

    • fromanotherplanet


  • NewYorkBunny

    Is any race proud of addiction? I don’t know any family that sits children down and explains to them what’s really going on with the erratically behaving family member. People shield children for as long as possible.

    • fromanotherplanet

      Admitting you have a problem doesn’t mean you are proud of the problem. You just proved the author’s point smh

      • NewYorkBunny

        I’m referring to the FAMILY explaining to a CHILD that a family member is struggling with addiction. That doesn’t occur readily in any race. And the first step of admitting one’s problem is a struggle that occurs in every race. Whites and Asians don’t magically have better willpower and are able to address and tackle their addiction more efficiently than Black people. No one wants to be confronted with their problem. An addict is an addict. Denial is apart of the addiction. No family entrusts children with that sort of information. Every addict struggles with the first step.

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