My father is always the first person to wish me a happy birthday. He sends Valentine’s, Christmas cards weeks in advance. He prides himself on commemorating milestones, upholding traditions — even those foreign to him, adopted after emigrating from Ecuador to the United States. At 77 years old, he’s still the best timekeeper in the family. I take after him in this way.
A few weeks ago, I celebrated four years of sobriety but I didn’t hear from him. No card in the mail. He knows I quit drinking and is proud of me for that. “Tienes carácter fuerte como yo,” he boasts, explaining that I inherited his strong character. But the concept of recovery and the term “sobriety” rings hollow to him. For my father, when you say you aren’t going to do something, you just don’t do it.
But the concept of recovery and the term “sobriety” rings hollow to him. For my father, when you say you aren’t going to do something, you just don’t do it.
Traumatic stress is proven to severely affect the development of the brain, causing lasting social, cognitive, and emotional distress. Historical trauma impacts our present-day lives most frequently as a result of avoidance, the most common symptom of traumatic stress and the hallmark of immigrant families. The instinct to refuse to look, think, or talk about what happened in our past was praised as resilience; it still is. Therefore, the harmful effects permeate and are passed down epigenetically — changing the coding of the DNA.
The correlation between self-medicating for trauma and substance use disorder has drawn much investigation. One-half to one-third of drug use issues can be traced to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). These include abuse, neglect, household dysfunction, and parental separation largely perpetuated in BIPOC communities due to systemic oppression. One in 19 Black children has an incarcerated parent. In 2019, there were 70,000 migrant children held in detention centers across America. And, according to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, at least 5,600 Native American women were reported missing last year.
Though my parents were well-acquainted with the damage of substance abuse disorders, they themselves had not adapted this coping mechanism. “You didn’t learn it from me,” they said when I confessed my drinking had become deadly and decided to quit. In my slow and thoughtful process to recover, our entire family has been forced to face the sacrifice of our interior lives in the task and toil of surviving as poor, brown immigrants in America weighted by generations of high-impact trauma.
On August 23, 2016, I was hiding from an ex-boyfriend at the home of my soon-to-be-ex-husband with a magnum of Belvedere. Cops had been called at the apartment I shared with my ex and, even through blinding inebriation, I knew it was over. Later that night, I received a DM via Instagram from a stranger.
“Hi there Jessica my name is Claire. I helped you on Thursday night. I’ve thought about you since and I want to check-in and see how you are doing. I’m not sure you remember me but I’m really glad you are OK. What I witnessed was really scary and dangerous and why I jumped in to help. If you’d like to know more this is my number. I think it might be good for you to know. I say all this with zero judgement, truly. I only want you to have awareness around the night.”
Claire’s recollection of that evening was shocking. She rescued me from being hit by oncoming traffic as I tried to cross the Westside Highway in a blackout steps away from the Whitney Museum in New York, where she’d been enjoying a summer evening with a friend. She gently explained what she observed happening to me while under the influence of alcohol and shared that her mother had been sober for 33 years.
I was 33 years old and reading the word “sober” for the first time as I finally began to comprehend the true role of alcohol in my life and its impact on my mental health.
I was 33 years old and reading the word “sober” for the first time as I finally began to comprehend the true role of alcohol in my life and its impact on my mental health. Sobriety felt like the pathway to the kind of spirituality I’d been seeking all my life. And while it was liberating to hear the afflictions that plagued my family for generations defined clinically, and to confirm that my mechanism for survival was not a consequence of weakness or lack of morality, I still wondered why it had taken me so long to receive this life-saving message.
I heard many in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous describe their awakening as a “high bottom.” The term frequently triggered a twinge of shame, operating as the most subtle, possibly subconscious, dog whistle within the movement, particularly in AA where the discussion of identity and race-related trauma is dismissed as a false projection of self-centered ego.
In his work, psychoanalytic critic Antonio Viego contends that the “notion of the ego in psychoanalytic theory pathologizes people of color in and through legal and clinical processes in the United States” and does not consider the effects of assimilation in the construction of theory or mental health practice. The late scholar José Esteban Muñoz explained in his seminal essay, Feeling Brown, Feeling Down: Latina Affect, the Performativity of Race, and the Depressive Position, that Viego sought to “translate notions of traditional Latino maladies — los nervios and attaques — into ethnically named translations of disorders analyzed as depression and anxiety disorder in English and North American institutional formats.”
My mother and father immigrated to the U.S. in the 70s from Honduras and Ecuador, respectively, both having endured lifelong adversity from birth. The dysfunction that occurred within their homes were microcosms of the corrupt environments they faced outside their doors. With little hope for progress, safety, or survival, my parents clung to the propaganda of the American Dream like a liferaft. Once here, they resolved the issues they faced in their home countries first and foremost — food insecurity, lack of education, and work. The physical trauma had ceased, the imminent danger removed, and they considered the exploration and care of their interior lives a luxury. As members of their extended families lacked similar responses, what they perceived as fortitude, my parents distanced themselves from the stigma and consequences of those suffering from substance abuse disorders.
My parents imagined they could prevent a similar fate for their children by providing what they lacked, instilling an upstanding moral code, and modeling by their own example lives without drugs or alcohol. But I began lying, hiding, and pretending as soon as I learned to read and write, which proved a gateway for me as potent as the binge drinking I picked up in college. When I suffered similar trauma in the land they fantasized as promised, I buried it all inside.
I began lying, hiding, and pretending as soon as I learned to read and write, which proved a gateway for me as potent as the binge drinking I picked up in college. When I suffered similar trauma in the land they fantasized as promised, I buried it all inside.
The truth regarding my drug and alcohol abuse arrested my family, forcing us all out of avoidance. Together, we embraced language that defied cultural norms and expectations, support that offered a path forward without placing blame but invited an honest examination of the risk factors we each experienced and how they manifested differently in us all.
“Fear is the cheapest room in the house,” wrote the poet Hafiz, “I would like to see you living in better conditions.” The task of first-generation descendants is often perceived as improving conditions externally — the accumulation of wealth, the acquisition of status, and academic accreditation — laying the blueprints for upward mobility for future generations. As I witness the legacy of substance abuse continuing to claim the lives of my relatives, the generational task that I have set for myself is to no longer settle for the shadows. Fear can only be extinguished through liberation and our liberation requires the whole of our humanity.
This year, unlike in the past, I didn’t wait for my father to call on my anniversary. I FaceTimed him. I told him what the day meant to me and he smiled brightly, proudly. “¡Felicitaciones mija! Eso está bien,” he congratulated before joking he is certain avoiding alcohol all his life is what has kept him young, handsome, and spry. Humor and irreverant vanity remind me of the boundary between us — the one I am eager to trespass, though I know my father will never celebrate my recovery in the same way he prized my bachelors degree.
I never imagined sobriety to be my legacy in the family. The fact took me years to reconcile, particularly as a woman of color and the daughter of pious, Latinx immigrants. A framed certificate will likely never appear over the mantle of my father’s home, but it will ensure not only our survival, but our liberation.