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How Being Black Can Shape Your Recovery Experience

Updated: Jun 14, 2020

Recovering while black is complicated. Here’s how to get the support you deserve

by Jocellyn Harvey | 3.28.19

With hashtags like #MelaninPopping and #BlackGirlMagic, more TV series being helmed by black actors, and the fact that more black women made it into the House of Representatives than ever before, it’s clear that representation is starting to matter. But that doesn’t mean race relations in the United States are even close to being smoothed over.

We’re living in racially hectic and hellish times. Getting sober can bring those issues, and your blackness, into a sharp and oftentimes uncomfortable focus. For me and many other black people, our race adds another complex layer onto what it means to recover and live a life where you don’t want or need to turn to an addictive substance to simply exist.

“Our race adds another complex layer onto what it means to recover and live a life where you don’t want or need to turn to an addictive substance to simply exist.” Here are three ways being black can shape your experience in sobriety:

1. You might be the only black person in recovery meetings so at times you might feel alone or misunderstood.

For many black people, recovery is often another arena where you’ll be the odd one out in the melanin department. It’s both a rarity and a delight when I run into another black person in recovery meetings here in northern New England. When it happens, we exchange the nod and low chuckle that convey thirty things in just a few seconds. For anyone who isn’t a minority, this might not seem like a big deal but the truth is that all humans like to see ourselves reflected in others. Just as we enjoy seeing our gender or body type being represented in the media, we also like to see people with a similar skin tone in our recovery groups. It doesn’t mean we all have the same stories or have dealt with the same exact racial traumas, but we do have a lot in common and just “get it” on an empathic level.

2. It can be a struggle to find ways to heal from race-related traumas.

Every one of us has dealt with fear, shame, ridicule, and loneliness. It’s part of the human condition and no one is spared. But when you’re a minority, there are other difficult and painful dynamics that are layered on top of whatever else we’re going through.  Here are just a few examples:

  • When we are dealing with shame, we’re also contending with black shame. This is because of the stereotype that being black means being lazy, that being black is somehow dirty, or simply that being black means that you are lesser-than, or just flat out wrong. We may also feel shame about our need to address our mental health. Some of the things we are made to feel bad about come from within our own communities while others are systematic, cultural shaming that has been perpetrated against black people for centuries.

  • When we talk about feeling isolated, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are literally and physically alone. It’s that when we attend events we can feel different because we are darker and don’t look like everyone else in the room. This is the case even if we’re partaking in the same activities as our white friends, eating the same foods, or laughing at the same movies.

  • Our resentments in the professional realm cover the gamut, from tone policing to having our resumes overlooked because of names that signal we may be black.

  • We have to work twice as hard to be perceived as almost equally good. The microaggressions that black people must field every single day feel like little stabs. (Pro-tip for the non-black reader: Don’t tell the black woman who just spoke at a recovery meeting or presented at a work event that she’s “so articulate.” You likely don’t mean it to be crappy but it is. You probably wouldn’t say it to a white speaker and it suggests that you didn’t expect a black speaker to sound a certain way because of the color of her skin and ingrained stereotypes.)

I didn’t only drink because of these heavy reasons; I also drank because I was bored, sad, or wanted to keep the good feelings going. In recovery, we learn tools that we can use to cope when we’re feeling sad. Our peers in recovery advise us on how to stave off boredom without resorting to a beer. Those great ideas about what to do when we need to go to a work event where liquor will be flowing are fairly universal.

But when you’re black in recovery, and it’s hard to find someone who looks like you and understands being black, that means it’s hard to find someone who can give you the tools to work through the racism and microaggressions. This is important because racism and microaggressions are things we deal with every day. If we don’t know how to handle them in recovery, at worst it can be tempting to want to reach for a drink to numb out the harsh noise and realities, and at best it creates an unsettled life with few options for healing.

“When you’re black in recovery, and it’s hard to find someone who looks like you and understands being black, that means it’s hard to find someone who can give you tools to work through racism and microaggressions.”

If you’re not in a diverse area, it’ll likely be a challenge to find another black person in recovery or get to safe spaces where you can fully discuss your blackness and how it intersects with your sobriety. You might have to turn to online resources, like Instagram or Facebook. If you’re doing in-person recovery (like meetings and programs) or therapy work, it’s paramount that the non-black individuals you work with can hold space and validate your emotions and any traumas. This is possible, but it takes time to assemble your “team.” Sometimes, you will brush up against people who unfortunately are not willing to see your race-related struggles and will minimize or talk about being a victim. Those people aren’t for you and it’s best to walk away with your sanity.

3. We have to contend with news and media that can be emotionally triggering on a daily basis.

I had just gotten a year of sobriety under my belt when the Obamas left the White House and the Trump family moved in. Like a lot of people, I had that sense of dread in my stomach. While many of my white, female friends had appropriate concerns about women’s rights and reproductive health issues, I had all of those — and also fears for my physical safety as a black woman. I was already very scared because, a few months earlier, a KKK member had left a Klan flyer on my door and there was a big, public court case surrounding this man’s hateful actions. He was sent to jail but the higher courts, unfortunately, overturned the sentence a year later and removed the hate crime language from his charges.

Not a week goes by where my blood doesn’t boil or my heart doesn’t break when I see the overt or coded bigoted speech or read comments where people are just so stubbornly unwilling to see racist acts or admit privilege. If you’re a non-black woman and you’re wondering what holding all that rage and sadness and anger might be like, imagine watching the Dr. Christine Ford testimony every week.

During 12-Step meetings, we are advised to stay away from “outsides issues” such as these and, for the most part, I get why. I don’t think meetings are an appropriate place to open up about politics. But when you start working the steps one-on-one and talking about life in recovery with your sponsor, you cannot erase what it means to be black in this political climate or forget that some of your daily triggers have to do with your race. With the right sponsor, you can have these talks and feel heard. With the wrong sponsor or fellow meeting-goer, you can feel like your worries, fears, and questions are inappropriate, a sign of being “spiritually unfit,” and shameful.

“If you’re a non-black woman and you’re wondering what holding all that rage and sadness and anger might be like, imagine every week is like watching the Dr. Christine Ford testimony.”

This issue of having your experience as a black person dismissed is by no means specific to the 12-Step rooms. In spiritual, gratitude-based practices this dismissal often comes through in “love and light” platitudes, discussions about the victim mindset, and people’s open refusal to read or hear about negative, political news, lest it lower their positive vibe.

The unfortunate truth is that being black in recovery means we cannot turn away from the racially-charged events in the world. We don’t get to post a photo on Instagram and forget about it the next week. We know it’s out there even if we turn off the news or don’t scroll through social media. We have to live it day in and day out. It’s draining and it can bleed into our recovery and mental health. This is why representation matters in sobriety and why, if you don’t have anyone in your recovery group that looks like you or can hold space, you need to seek them out. Whenever I’m going to an out-of town-meeting I’ve never been to before, reading posts on an Instagram recovery account, or chatting with a person who I’ve just learned is also sober,  I immediately feel this exciting, kindred bond. We all learn things from each other but, just like women might turn to other women to discuss certain aspects of their recovery, black people in recovery need others we can lean on for support and guidance.

This can feel like a frustrating extra step we have to take but, since the default for this country is whiteness, we owe it to ourselves to have a rounded recovery that can address the race issues we might feel every day. It’s okay, even necessary, to make recovery fit our needs.

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