How should we respond to co-occurring addiction and racism? (Guest post by Alexa Johnson)

August 2, 2021
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Alexa Johnson is a friend who is early in her career and reached out for my thoughts on some important questions she had been contemplating. She shared a written reflection on the issues involved and I encouraged her to turn it into a post. I admire her combination of conviction and willingness to keep asking questions of herself and others, tolerate dissonance, and make adjustments. Hope you enjoy!

I work with people seeking recovery and we have a saying that goes, “We never know who’s going to walk through our front door.” When I first heard that, to me–a brand new “normie” with zero knowledge on addiction or recovery–that meant people from all walks of life like people with felonies, sex workers, and doctors. What hadn’t occurred to me was that it also included racists

Working at this treatment center, we serve a majority of white clients. As a Black and Latina woman and the only brown counselor working in the detox facility for a while, I quickly became the person that BIPOC clients confided in when situations surrounding race came up. I made it my duty to call out and hold everyone accountable that put BIPOC clients in harm’s way- staff and clients alike. I made sure that no racist stone went unturned. I fiercely and consistently advocated to take clients to more Narcotics Anonymous meetings because they are typically more representative of the Black community, and also outreach efforts to bring in more people of color to create and re-establish a culture of recovery that everyone feels safe in. 

…this could be a dialectic. This man could be very racist and still deserve to live a life free of the suffering that addiction brings.

Over the course of my two and a half years here, there were several clients that I believed should no longer be able to receive treatment with us. One client in particular was involved in a harmful situation, and although it was brought to the appropriate person’s attention- nothing came of it. I was pissed, the Black client was scarred, and the white client walked away unscathed. 

Two years, multiple situations, and a 6-hour anti-racism training later, that same white client returned to us for a level of care assessment. Confused on what to recommend due to this client’s past acts of racism, his therapist consulted another therapist and he came to the conclusion that he should have the opportunity to return and address his behavior in treatment. I was confused and angry. How could this even be considered? This client can absolutely not come back to our services. A couple months later, I revisited the idea- could that therapist have been right? 

I’m blessed to work at an organization that hires people in recovery. Over my few years with them, the amount of knowledge I’ve received has been invaluable. So, why didn’t I believe that this therapist (who is in long-term recovery and an MSW graduate) knew what he was talking about? To be honest, it was very difficult for me to wrap my head around the idea that this could be a dialectic. This man could be very racist and still deserve to live a life free of the suffering that addiction brings. We are not in the business of turning bad people good, but helping sick people get well. 

As a woman of color, I struggle daily with this idea. In no way, shape, or form do I condone racist, homophobic, or sexist actions. Advocating that the BIPOC community, my community, deserves equal treatment (in regards to recovery as well as respect), reminding folks that racism is a sobriety threatening issue, and trying to create safe spaces- while also advocating that even racist people deserve treatment and focusing on principles over personalities is… confusing to say the least. 

We call addiction a disease, I would call racism the same. Meaning it’s chronic, progressive, often fatal, as well as cunning and baffling. Outcomes of conversation or self-reflection such as an urge to be anti-racist or having the courage to change are desired, however, not always achieved. As a professional in this field, sharing the burden and walking alongside an individual as they unpack a lifetime’s worth of biases and trauma becomes the primary purpose of our work. There’s an amount of labor that goes into learning about recovery and I believe the same goes for racism. With this being said, recovery is possible. 

I think it’s imperative that we as addiction professionals and aspiring recovery allies keep in mind the harm of turning away or kicking out individuals who have been racist and also weighing the harm of racism for our clients of color. Choosing one over the other feels negligent and life-threatening for our clients and patients. We must consistently ask ourselves, what can I do to be less performative and more restorative?

A blurb from the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book that keeps me looking forward is, 

Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” He forgot to mention that I was the chief critic. I was always able to see the flaw in every person, every situation. And I was always glad to point it out, because I knew you wanted perfection, just as I did. A.A. and acceptance have taught me that there is a bit of good in the worst of us and a bit of bad in the best of us; that we are all children of God and we each have a right to be here.

AA Big Book p 417

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