For Black Families Like Mine, The Drug Epidemic Isn’t New

I’m happy to see our culture beginning to take a more sympathetic view of addiction. But for me, progress is bittersweet. And, for all four of my mother's brothers, it’s too little too late.

Two of my mother’s four brothers died before her 14th birthday. She still talks about her oldest brother Man, remembering the time he picked her up from school in one of the 18-wheeler trucks he drove and took her to buy tampons, after she got her period. While trying to get sober, Man was taking methadone, an opioid used to taper heroin addiction. He died in his sleep, at 30, and was discovered by his 6-year-old daughter and wife.

Man was the oldest son, but my uncle Van was actually the first to die, in 1970. A bellhop and father of two, he overdosed at 19 in a hotel room across from the Fox Theatre on Peachtree Street, in Atlanta. Hearing my mom’s stories throughout my childhood, I’ve thought of Van every time I’ve attended a play or a concert at the theater. In 2016, my mom and I saw Prince there, in what would be his last concert before he fatally overdosed on the opioid fentanyl.

Of course, their deaths were very different. My uncle Van wasn’t rich or famous. His death didn’t affect nearly as many people as Prince’s did. And it took place during a very different opioid epidemic.

According to a 2014 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the current generation of heroin users is predominately white middle class men and women living in suburban and rural areas, while the heroin epidemic of the 1960s largely affected young minority men in urban communities. By the 1970s, the decade in which both Man and Van would die, Nixon had launched his war on drugs, attributing high crime rates to drug users and posing incarceration as a necessary solution to saving innocent, sober Americans and their property.

In a 2016 article in Harper’s, Nixon’s domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman was quoted admitting, in 1994, that the administration had used the heroin epidemic to “vilify” black people, although other Nixon aides have since denied this. "The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” Ehrlichman said. “We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities," he said. "We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."

There was very little sympathy for men like my uncles. 

In recent years I’ve read countless articles about the opioid epidemic, many of which center around sympathetic, middle class white people who have become addicted to pain pills and, eventually, turn to heroin as a cheaper alternative. These articles have allowed people to see and empathize with the faces of the current drug epidemic.

But decades before President Trump declared this ongoing crisis a “health emergency,” my family directly felt the effects of the heroin epidemic in the 1960s and the crack epidemic in the 1980s — as well as the effects of the way they were framed in the public imagination. Those epidemics, which were largely talked about as problems affecting low-income minority communities, weren’t met with sensitive coverage or forgiving policies. The victims weren’t portrayed as complex humans. Instead, they were more often demonized and ostracized, disparaged for having low impulse control and no morals. There was very little sympathy for men like my uncles. My family internalized these messages, and we still grapple with the aftermath today.

I don’t want to minimize the current epidemic, the deadliest overdose crisis in US history. As someone who has seen the negative effects of drug addiction up close, I’m happy to see the conversation around it change. But I also mourn for the people who have been excluded from those conversations.

I’m the only grandchild who refers to my mother’s mom as “grandma.” All of my cousins call her “MaMean,” a portmanteau of “mom” and “mean.” Grandma raised seven kids, and she didn’t have much patience. If one kid misbehaved, everyone was getting a whooping. But that was long before I was born; all I got were winks and hugs.

Born in 1929, my grandmother met my grandfather as a teenager. By 18, they’d married and she’d given birth to my oldest aunt, followed by four boys and three girls. One of the babies never made it home from the hospital. My mom, born 17 years after her oldest sister, was the youngest. That oldest sister was the person who raised my mom, but no one in my family talked about why. I eventually pieced the stories together to figure it out on my own: My grandmother was an alcoholic.

By the time I was in preschool, she’d gotten sober, following a health scare. “MaMean” was now just a regular ‘ol grandma. I grew up spending summers at her apartment off of the northwest end of Martin Luther King Drive, where she made me cheesy grits every morning and cut my grilled cheese sandwiches into perfect squares each afternoon. I played with her Cabbage Patch doll while she watched Maury. Sometimes we’d take a trip to the grocery store on MARTA, the public transportation system in Atlanta. I witnessed my grandmother raise her voice only when she was arguing with my uncles; she was always sweet to me.

Spending time with my two youngest uncles was one of the best parts of visiting my grandmother’s apartment. My uncle Eggie would come upstairs from the basement and lie on the hardwood floor in the living room, patting his round belly. “Want to play the drums?” he’d say. I’d sit on his lap, tapping on his belly and humming until I grew tired.

Eggie was a handyman and always around our house as well, helping my mom. He painted my wall Barbie pink and built a silver doghouse for my black Labrador puppy, Silver. He knew I liked music, so he bought me a bootleg of Usher’s 8701 album from the flea market. He went to church with us sometimes, and came home singing his favorite gospel song, “Jesus is Love,” (off-key) while fixing nail pops.

This was the uncle I knew, but the adults in my family saw a more complex man.

My mom knew him as the high school football player who begrudgingly took his little sister along on his dates. She knew him as the independent older brother who worked in construction until the 1990s, around the time of my birth, when he slowly started to go the way of the brothers who’d died before him.

It’s hard to know exactly when Eggie started using crack cocaine, but my mom says it was easy to recognize the signs — disappearing on pay days, suddenly being unable to pay his bills — because she’d seen them before.

I was 14 years old when my mom picked me up from high school with my aunt in the passenger seat. At that age, the worst possible news that I could imagine was that I wasn’t going to get a new laptop for Christmas. But this was far worse: My favorite uncle was dead from a cocaine-induced heart attack. He was 47.

In 1986, the New York Times reported that 500,000 people in the United States were addicted to heroin, but the popularity of a different drug — crack cocaine — was on the rise. Before the turn of the decade, the crack epidemic that would claim both Eggie and his older brother, my uncle Teddy, had begun. As with the previous heroin epidemic, it was easy to write off “crackheads.” Congress enacted strict drug laws, such as the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established unfair mandatory minimum sentences. The bill notoriously carried tougher sentences for crack cocaine than powder cocaine. Media coverage focused on “crack babies” and ran stories with headlines like “Cocaine: A Vicious Assault on a Child,” posing drug use as a moral issue. The war on drugs proved to be as damaging to minority communities as the drugs themselves.

During my visits to grandma’s, uncle Teddy, who had previously worked in a mailroom for a health insurance company, let me jump on his bed and sat on the porch as I rode my bike up and down the sidewalk. As I got older, he grew increasingly distant.

Most of my memories of Teddy involve disagreements with my aunts. He felt like they were talking down to him. They felt like he was lazy. He avoided coming around as much as possible. When we’d visit my grandmother, he’d come out to speak, stammering over every word. “When he stutters, he’s high,” my aunt would say. She was annoyed. He was ashamed.

I couldn’t understand why the men in my family refused to get clean and stay that way. Could it really be that hard? I was angry with them for choosing drugs over their family, and upset with the women in my family for continuing to allow it. Why didn’t they want to get jobs and be independent? Why didn’t they take the previous deaths in the family as a warning?

It didn’t occur to me that no one chooses a life of addiction. 

Unlike the families of people suffering from opioid addictions today, I didn’t grow up hearing stories that humanized those affected by addiction or seeing advocates argue for sympathy and rehabilitation over stigmatization. It didn’t occur to me that no one chooses a life of addiction. I didn’t yet realize that my relative’s addictions were a result of both the epidemics that engulfed their community and their genetics. Before my grandmother lost her four sons to drugs, she was an alcoholic. Her father struggled with alcoholism, too. Decades after Man’s death, my family members now worry his daughter might meet a similar fate.

After Eggie died, Teddy was more and more isolated in a family without the brothers who could best understand him. He died of a cocaine-induced brain aneurism less than four years after Eggie’s death, when I was 17 years old. He was 52.

By then, my family was accustomed to these deaths. At my grandmother’s urging, I went to my senior prom the day after Teddy died, and a few days later we buried my last uncle. My grandma never shed a tear. She’d long lost the ability to cry, she said.

I learned quickly not to talk to many people about my family’s struggles with addiction, although it is something I think about often. I don’t stop to admit, in the middle of a party, that the reason I typically don’t drink more than a glass of wine is because alcoholism and addiction run in my family. I don’t casually mention that the reason I don’t like to be around people who are using drugs is because it reminds me of my uncles, and I’m terrified that someone might die in my presence. At the same time, not revealing that part of my family history to friends feels like I’m hiding something that’s essential to understanding who I am.

I rarely talk to anyone in my family about the deaths of my uncles and the way drugs and addiction have affected us. We all just suffer in silence. My mom keeps a picture frame with childhood photos of her brothers, along with a military photo of her dad, on a pedestal in the dining room.

Recently, my therapist asked me to reflect on how the men in my life have affected me.

“They haven’t,” I said. “They’re all dead or not around.”

“Exactly,” she said.

When President Trump declared the current opioid epidemic a “health emergency,” I felt the same way I often feel as a black woman during discussions of feminism: overlooked.

The shift over the past few years in the way we talk and write about this crisis does give me some hope that the stigmas around addiction are finally giving way to empathy. I genuinely hope that the conversation we’re having now means that people who struggle with substance abuse will be able to get the help the need — the help my uncles, in the end, couldn’t find.

But the truth is that my uncles were poor and black, as were many of the people affected by the previous heroin and crack epidemics. And there’s no denying that the way other people felt about their poorness and blackness shaped the laws and the public narrative around drug addiction in our country. That narrative, in turn, shaped the way my mother and her sisters looked at their brothers, and the way I looked at my family as a whole.

I loved my uncles, but I’ve also grown up witnessing the impact of their addiction on other people I love. My grandmother, now 88 years old, has had to bury all of her sons. I am the product of being raised by tired black women who have unfairly carried the burdens of an entire family — once a large family, that will only continue to get smaller — for decades. And those women couldn’t teach me to be empathetic, because the idea that their brothers were willfully choosing a life of addiction had been ingrained in them by society. I grew up being taught to both shame and enable.

It’s only recently that I’ve been able to see the real tragedy of my family’s losses with clearer eyes. So for me, progress is bittersweet. And, for some, it’s too little too late. ●

Jewel Wicker is a freelance reporter covering entertainment and culture, and formerly an arts and entertainment reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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