During my last stint in rehab, George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. When I came out of treatment, there were Black Lives Matter actions in every city in America. I am Black but I present as white.
My family only consists of Black individuals. My grandparents? Black. My mother? Black. My stepfather? Black. My half-brother? Black. Although my fair skin, blue eyes, and bleached blonde hair lead most to identify me as white upon first glance, my upbringing was Afrocentric and Black dominated. But I do not know the individual who contributed the white genes to my genetic makeup.
At my treatment center, there was a young woman who I will refer to as Jen, and we became very close. Jen was in her early twenties and had an energetic personality combined with an eagerness to be loved and admired. She told big stories about trapping out of motel rooms and hanging out with gangsters, many bordering on the fantastic. We sat together at lunch every day, and we disclosed secrets to one another, as you do in treatment. She knew all about my family woes, my children, and my experiences with addiction. I knew a lot about her ex-boyfriend’s arrest, her troubles with her dad, and her relationship with her sister. It gets personal.
Treatment is a place where you make fast friendships, and these friendships become meaningful quickly. You are with these people around the clock, and you sit together in groups where it’s likely that you will disclose very personal information. We don’t volunteer the details of our traumas to casual friends in the real world, but this is a place where you can. The other thing about treatment is that you may develop close relationships to people you wouldn’t encounter in the real world. You cry together. You recount trauma from your past. You connect on a level of pure desperation, pure intimacy. But it gets tricky here when you encounter them on the outside.
Treatment is a place where you make fast friendships, and these friendships become meaningful quickly.
I left treatment and I moved into a sober living house in Chicago and, within a few days of my discharge, I got a call from Jen. We made plans. Jen came to my house a few days later, and we walked to a meeting together. A young man from the meeting offered Jen a ride back to her house, and I decided to go along for the ride if for no other reason than not to let my young friend ride home with a strange man. And on the ride home, the conversation shifted to Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter actions that were happening all over the country. As it often happens when I find myself in the company of Only White People, our driver decided to bring up Floyd’s criminal record. Then Jen came in with, “there are Black people and then there are—–”
I cut her off. “I’m Black, by the way.” Jen actually knew this, but apparently needed to be reminded, and it was new information to most of the people in the car. My Blackness is a novelty to many white people; I often pull up Facebook pictures of my family, and show them off to appease skeptical ears. “Wow, I never would have guessed,” people say in dismay.
I’m not unaccustomed to white people saying things to me without realizing that I am Black. But I will say that the majority of the time it’s happened to me, it’s been with people who are in recovery. Perhaps it’s because when we are in recovery, we often find ourselves in the company of people with whom we would never really cross paths with outside of this shared experience of fighting substance use disorder. We don’t really have the opportunity to screen our friends for certain prejudices until later on in the process. At this point, we are presented with the dilemma of whether or not to continue to associate with these particular individuals. It can be tremendously painful to cut ties with someone who has helped you immensely in your personal recovery. If you are newly in recovery, you’ve reduced your network of people already, and it can be hard to make further cuts.
I’m not unaccustomed to white people saying things to me without realizing that I am Black. But I will say that the majority of the time it’s happened to me, it’s been with people who are in recovery.
As I’ve hung around these fellowships and built my recovery network, it’s afforded me the opportunity to be more choosy about the people with whom I do and do not associate. I’ve met more individuals who share my values. Those are the people whom I have kept close. I haven’t reached out to Jen for a while. It’s not that I wouldn’t answer my phone if she called me, but I don’t see a need to have a close friendship with someone who does not see Black people as people. Jen is very young, and I think that she could learn. No one is capable of educating someone who is not teachable. I will let her come to me.
It’s a delicate balance of keeping people close who have been helpful to your personal recovery, while also deciding who you need not spend time with outside of the program. It teaches me to strive for unity in our common goal of recovering from substance use disorder. After all, you don’t have to befriend everyone with whom you spend time.
My light skin, however, does give me an opportunity to see people for who they really are and how they act when they think they are surrounded only by other white people. I am grateful for this opportunity to screen my circle to build a safer and more viable “we.”
I’ve recently made the decision that just because someone has been helpful to me in a meeting does not mean we need to have a connection outside of the recovery fellowships that we frequent. I have ceased friending people from recovery fellowships on social media if they post anti-Black content, and have stopped reaching out to them on a personal (non-recovery level). I no longer schedule coffee-dates with people who are anti-Black. Being able to set these boundaries has enabled me to form healthier and more sustainable friendships — which is ultimately what’s best for my recovery in the long run.