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

February 8, 2015  |  

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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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