PERSONAL ESSAY

What Joe Biden needs to know about addiction, drug rehab and whiteness

For Black people struggling with addiction, as I have, the approach of many rehab systems is a recipe for relapse

By Darryl Robertson
Published November 28, 2020 7:30PM (EST)
Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Joy stared into my eyes with enough enchantment to transform a man's sandbox-like insecurities into an iceberg of god-like ego. Naked and sitting upright in bed with me and another woman, we shared jolts of sexual chemistry upheld by ice cold lines of cocaine.

My coke sniffing debut unfurled over ten years ago. The spoken words that detonated my self-destructive actions were never analyzed or critiqued. The lyrical prose that formed my life was too complex, and too numerical for my left-sided brain. So, I abandoned the very listening sessions which held ammunition to a healthy lifestyle. Flat surfaces topped with mountainous piles of cocaine substituted positive reaffirmations and strenuous yet appropriate conversations with myself and loved ones. The tangled psychological complexities were further knotted with every line of coke that I inhaled.  

Joy rarely sniffed coke. Our time together was sexually and intellectually exciting. The hope that stirred our conversations provided, for the time being, a bridge to our uncertainties. Our platonic freestyle sessions also added to the euphoria of our sexual adventures. Behind the dark walls of bliss, Joy saw that pieces of Darryl were lost in blighted areas of history. There were times when Joy would just stare into my eyes; no words, no movement, only invisible energy. "I'm just trying to connect to your soul. I can tell that you're far from home " she'd say. Her attempt to dissect the unfinished project before her was met with Jerome Bettis-like stiff arms. 

Once the sex was no longer satisfying, and cocaine failed to get me high, a violent full-blitz of emotionally painful episodes imploded my soul. For days, everything that had ever caused me hurt, and discomfort played on repeat. Literally, a three-decade long motion picture dubbed: "Here, Hold All of This Hurt" rolled on a reel for 24 hours a day. It's maddening and stifling  Depression would last for days. Hopelessness so thick that I would contemplate suicide, or invite enemies to fight.  

Addiction will rock your world. 

* * *

Hunter Biden, the son of President-elect Joe Biden, has been open about his struggle with addiction. During a 2019 interview with the New Yorker, Hunter admitted that he struggles with alcohol, cocaine and cigarettes. "Look, everybody faces pain. Everybody has trauma. There's addiction in every family. I was in that darkness, I was in that tunnel — it's a never-ending tunnel. You don't get rid of it," Hunter said during the interview. 

In an effort to combat drug abuse, Biden plans to invest $125 billion in treatment, prevention and recovery services. Biden is also continuing the fight to make sure that everyone has access to health care. 

Rehab facilities have been instrumental in combating addiction. But there isn't one shoe that fits all when it comes to fighting addiction. And for Black people especially, drug rehab facilities can be problematic and discouraging. Rehab programs speak from a POV that says drug addiction is caused by poor emotional management and underdeveloped self-reliance skills. And part of the rehab process is getting clients to submit to the idea that they are mentally and emotionally cracked, split and broken into a million pieces. 

The broken-self narrative has been used to uphold white patriarchy, slavery and other hierarchal institutions. Adopting a morally bankrupt narrative can be an huge obstacle for Black addicts, even if it means saving ones' life. It's dispiriting to enter a rehab facility only to be met with rhetoric that says, "you aren't capable of functioning in society without guidance," or "you are emotionally and morally broke and you need someone to manage your life." Mobility of Black life hasn't been limited to racial segregation. Disturbing rhetoric, even symbolic language, places barriers on ones' mobility. Racism is so layered, and has been part of America's fabric for since colonization, it's damn near impossible to discern between rehab employee offering sincere rhetoric or speaking from a racially historical viewpoint. 

Studies have shown that most Blacks in rehab fail to complete treatment because language barriers proved to be too discouraging. Research also shows that white men are more likely to accept the "broken-self" label, enabling them to complete rehab.  

* * *

Less than three hours after being released from a three-month stay in a court mandated rehab, I was alone in a Harlem hotel with two grams of cocaine piled onto a book. Not being able to get inside my apartment (because my keys were locked inside of an office during COVID-19 lockdown) combined with the heaviness of early recovery, and trepidation of living sober encouraged my relapse. So, I disappeared. For three days, I ran my nose over lines of cocaine until the piles of coke turned to dust. 

My confidants were accustomed to the disappearing acts. Sometimes I would vanish for weeks. They didn't fuss, deny me access to them, or flood my iPhone with disparaging text messages. They listened to my silence, and hugged me with space and warm words, sent sporadically through text messages: "Darryl, pick yourself up. Get up." and "Yo fam, holler at me. You don't have to go through this alone. I love you, bro" and "Yo bro, I love you. When you come back, I'm here and ready to continue fighting with you." and "Hey Darryl, checking on you. Call me when you get up." Their love and understanding stirred the pot that simmered with ideas of sobriety. By day three of my relapse, I made the decision to get up. For me, a three-day binge was progress. 

Rehabs aren't in the business of giving agency to clients. A three-day relapse can result in a jail sentence or an increased stay at an institution. There's a hierarchy within institutions, and everyone has a job to do. Situations do arise where a client's recovery progress doesn't align with an employee's job. This happened to me. 

The job of my former lawyer and court advocate was to police me through rehab and post-rehab and keep the judge informed. White men employed by the state of New York parading over my life did not sustain my recovery process. Heavy policing further convinces white men that their whiteness equates dominance. Whiteness relies on controlling  subduing, and harming. Me not answering my phone was an act of rebellion against being controlled. This was a jab followed by a vicious right hook to my lawyer's whiteness, and enough disrespect to encourage him to send the police to my apartment, disguised as a wellness call. My lawyer said he thought I was dead. 

As a lawyer, he's fully aware that had I been home when the police came to my apartment, one of two things would've happened: there would've been a murder, or I would have gone to jail for possession of cocaine. America has fooled white men into believing that it's cool to subdue Black life for not answering the phone, talking a walk to the store, going for a jog, or selling CDs. 

Blacks also recognize the power of whiteness. A former associate was upset with me, because, according to her, I manipulated her by withholding "pertinent" information about my addiction. She was well aware of my legal troubles. My attempts to have a conversation with her about our issues were met with her calling my lawyer and court advocate asking them to intervene in our relationship or she would call the police on me. My former associate asking my lawyer for "help" validated his whiteness, leading him to cuss at me. 

* * *

"You are so interesting, but I can tell that you are a long way from home" — Joy

After realizing that my lawyer's job came before my recovery, and he declined my invitation to fight, mentally I traveled to my high school bedroom where I first began wrestling with lyrics, metaphors, feature stories and books that gave color, and guidance to my life. Home is where I first began using hip-hop as conduit to rewrite my narrative. 

I began visualizing Gucci Mane and Mike Tyson's breakthrough with addiction, which they detailed in "The Autobiography of Gucci Mane and "Undisputed Truth," respectively. Following their examples, I developed an exercise and writing schedule, and began reconstructing the sentences and thoughts that led to my addiction. I studied Royce da 5'9''s "Book of Ryan," an album which dubs as a working draft of his addiction and eight years of sobriety. I sat with Jay Electronica's "A Written Testimony," which reintroduced me to Islam, and my relationship with God. 

For the first time since my addiction, I could actually see myself living life without cocaine. I fought through intense urges. Urges so intense that I'd curl into a fetus position and cry. The emotion — emotions that I never felt before — which came with battling urges were like reading incomplete drafts sent to an editor. It's embarrassing and brings forth the realization that I've been on a suicide mission. But I kept rewriting, analyzing, and fighting through urges — even if me fighting  urges interfered with a deadline or a meeting. I was determined to have a smile like Guwop,  the quiet happiness and sagaciousness of  Mike Tyson and Nickel Nine, and the confident mystique of Jay Elect. My system and support group ushered me through three months of sobriety. Three months of sobriety through sheer self-will is different than being sober because of a court mandated program.  

"When you an addict, it's easy for a motherfucka to bring you down" — Royce da 5'9" 

Three months into rewriting my life's draft, and giving an honest ear to the lyrics that created my addiction, whiteness decided to show its face again. My lawyer wanted to talk about sending me to another rehab. I asked him not to contact me unless the judge specifically orders me to do something. I told him that his energy activates my urge to relapse. My court-appointed therapist also asked him to "ease off of me" because I was focused, sober, and doing everything I needed to do. But the construction of whiteness is strenuous in its effort to strip peace from Black lives. Under his attempts to talk about other rehab options, I relapsed. I binged on cocaine for two weeks. Once the coke-infused depression set in, I again invited him to fight, and wished sexual assaults on him and his wife. Mike Tyson used to talk like this. Tyson later admitted that his horrific verbal assaults occurred while he was coming down from cocaine. 

Shortly after my two-week binge, I received a long email from my former associate who admitted that she only involved my lawyer and court advocate and threatened to call the police on me because she understood that "as a Black man" police officers are my Achilles heel. Police violence, or the threat of police violence, is how America responds to Blackness. Blacks are not allowed to express honest emotion, watch birds, or play hip-hop in their cars. I believe she knows this. Her energy, attempting to have an electronic conversation with me, and her willingly using whiteness to control my Blackness rolled out a bloody red carpet of unwelcome emotions. I relapsed again. I couldn't stop. And for the next 30 days I used cocaine every single day. During my depression, I fired off a fusillade of texts telling her that I hated her for seeking help from white men when I have never disrespected her, called her out of her name, or made her feel unsafe. Then I futilely asked to fight her brother or one of her male friends. I can't square-up with a woman, so her innocent brother was the next option. 

Can you imagine using cocaine everyday for a month straight, and not being able to stop? 

You can imagine knowing that cocaine can, and will destroy your career, schooling, relationships, and even kill you, but you still can't stop? 

Cocaine addiction is like serving a life sentence in prison where you are surrounded by 100 men on the cellblock. No space. No privacy. Every second of your life is chaotic and crowded, leaving no room to breathe.  Biden's plans to combat addiction is encouraging, but the rhetoric and heavy policing used within  rehab has proved problematic for many Blacks. It would be of great service if Biden were to implement a plan, and explore alternative ways to combat addiction.  

If I tell you that I haven't relapsed since bouncing back from my month-long binge, I'd be lying.  However, the two relapses since my month-long binge have been so small that I refuse to count them. They were akin to one misspelled word in the final draft of a 2,000 word story. Yes, it's a typo, but a very minor one, and doesn't take away from the story of progress. In rehab, small relapses can send you to jail, or increase your stay at an institution, or met with police violence. This interruption, which follows the tired history of social constructs, can discourage the authentic progress of a recovering addict.  


Darryl Robertson

Darryl Robertson is a Harlem-based writer, and J.I.E. Scholar at Columbia University. His research interests include hip-hop and understanding how the Black Panther Party serviced its communities. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, Black Perspectives, VIBE, XXL, Ozy, among several other publications.    Follow him on Twitter @dvrobertson88.

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