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Bottled Up

Contending with alcoholism, racism, and despair -- all at the same time

Seeing Double

There was something in the way. I can't tell you what, but it was something, lying in the road.

I was flying up Washington Boulevard, way past the hour when everything closes except gas stations, Eat'n Parks and hospitals. I was pretty "tore up" -- somewhere between (legally) drunk and completely wasted. "Tore up" is still functional, but not for long.

By the time I saw the something, it was too late. Coming around the curve on Washington just before Frankstown Avenue, I swerved, yanking the steering wheel to the left. The rain-slicked road and my balding tires didn't support that maneuver. I had to yank the wheel right to avoid flying into the opposing traffic lane. I lost control of the wheel and my car begun to swing its trunk around from the back. I slammed the brakes but they kinda just grinded before all but telling me, "We can't help you with this one, sonny."

When my car finally crashed to a stop, I looked over my left shoulder to see a huge utility post. The driver's side rear door was pressed up against it, just kissing. The front driver's side wheel was smashed inward, but not as bad as the rear one. A little more force and we would have been wrapped around that pole.

Facing the wrong way in the road lane, I looked forward to see what was in the street. There was nothing there.

I had been facing the wrong direction long before that ill-fated ride, though. Most of the time it was with a drink in hand, trying to swerve around problems. Screw getting help: What would the niggas think? How would my family take it? Who would try to use it against me? Wasn't I man enough to deal with my problems, and hold my liquor? I had enough labels -- "African American-this," "young, black that," "single black father," "alcoholic" -- I didn't have room for any more.

But there was something deeper and darker, drowning me in shame and angst. I couldn't put a name to it. I was afraid to find out if it even had a name. It's possible, actually, that the things I thought were holding me back from seeking help were never there at all.

I woke up bitter, mad, broken, scared -- and still drunk. Worse, there was still about a third of a bottle of Elijah Craig sitting next to my bed. That meant I had to finish it. I had reached a compulsive state where any bottle of alcohol in my proximity had to be cleared, emptied down my throat. I must have passed out last night before accomplishing this with Mr. Craig.

I knew I needed help. My near-fatality was enough to jolt me, but I was too drunk to be transformed by it. And too depressed. Darkness had consumed me. I slapped myself around, demanding myself to snap out of it, to muscle up, quit being sad, quit acting like a little bitch, be a man. You're a proud Black man, I told myself, act like it. Nothing was working.

I drank to numb myself, as I'd done innumerable times before. I resorted to medication exclusively sanctioned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (purchased at pharmacies called Wine and Spirits) due to insufferable depression. This time the medicine wasn't working, though.

Where were these blues coming from? Where could I start?

My relationship: tired of fights with my girlfriend about issues that both did and didn't concern our 21-month-old son, but were affecting him all the same. My job: I had a cover story due in a matter of days, and the coping strategies were going stale. The constant pressure of wondering if I was performing up to expectations was crippling me. My family: dealing with relatives who were indifferent to intellectual pursuits as a vocation. I had just tussled with some of them over Thanksgiving about my life's "direction." It wasn't the first time, wouldn't be the last.

Then there were the deaths, friends back home dropping like it was in style. Then came my Uncle Charles, then my Uncle Stan. Too numb to even feel for them, 'cause I was still drinking.

My own insecurities about all of these issues just stirred that pot faster, dizzying myself through anxieties and worries about how many others were seeing me, feeling me, smelling me. Trying to see if and how I measured up. The day before I had e-mailed my resignation letter to City Paper, while drunk:

"This is very difficult to write. You should probably fire me ... lost my best friend, a very close uncle and my girlfriend/my son's mother ... I've run out of answers and I need professional help. ... I wish I had the strength to move on, but I don't. I need to grow up. I'm sorry."

I now had only two paths ahead of me: fully engross my moonlighting gig as a drunk, or go get help. Of course, it would have been easier to just remain bitter and broken. At least then I could justify my drunk.

A week later, I was in bed at 6 a.m., struggling to believe how someone in my apartment building could find it fair to rehearse their drums this early in the morning.

Perfect timing.

In the past seven days, I'd had close to no sleep. Three of those days I spent in Western Psych. Mission: detox and rehab. Before that I was crashing from a binge for which I cannot determine an originating date. All I know is that the last five days of it, I spent drinking something like a whole bottle of whiskey ... a day.

My stay at Western Psych was less than resortful; I was babysat, basically, to make sure I didn't hurt anybody, or myself. I was fed the kind of drugs that seem most effective only in inducing sleep. Even when people walked the long institutional halls, they seemed asleep; when I talked to people, I felt like I was just talking in my sleep -- to people whose eyes were open but were no more awake than I was.

The next part of my rehabilitation would come through the Center for Psychiatric and Chemical Dependency Services in Oakland. Today will be my first day of what's called "partial hospital": an outpatient program of group counseling for addiction. I wasn't yet ready to get up for it but I was up to it. From what I had heard, it's a daily five-hour powwow with a team of social workers, clinicians, psychologists, psychiatrists and other addicts in attempt to get sober, and stay sober.

Martin Luther King would be proud. Our "partial hospital" group consisted of blacks, Italians, Poles, Jews, Baptists, atheists, punks, thugs, college students, white collars, blue collars, senior citizens, teen-agers, the well-offs and the well-baked. Here, in a room of people addicted to almost anything you can imagine, King's dream of racial harmony was realized.

Sessions began every morning at 9 a.m., promptly, and adjourned at 2 p.m. There's one 45-minute lunch break and two other 15-minute breaks, which most used as smoke breaks. Nicotine addiction, at least, was tolerated.

We sat cramped in a small windowless, white-walled room, our chairs in something resembling a circle, while psychologists and addiction specialists tag-teamed in leading discussions. Each session was as much an opportunity for us group-ees to rant and vent about our problems as they were lessons from the specialists on how to prevent relapsing and getting along in life sober.

We watched movies like When a Man Loves a Woman and It's a Wonderful Life, anything to keep our spirits up. When the floor opened up, though, the testimonies and war stories shared -- mainly by "group" vets, some of who had been in and out of here for the past decade or more -- could really blow you. They were enough to either completely scare you away from ever drinking again, or to go right back to where you started from.

I kept quiet most of the time, taking notes. I shared, but sparsely. My inability to express myself was part of the reason why I drank in the first place. What I learned is the language of addiction and depression. I was finally coming to terms with many things I'd experienced. Terms like: "dry drunk," a person who's stopped drinking but still craves alcohol; "insanity," doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results; "denial" -- I think a lot of us have denied knowing the definition of that word.

Then there were all these cute phrases like "Not bad people trying to get good, sick people trying to get well," or the classic "Death is forever, so you can wait another day or two." A lot of these lines people picked up from Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous and used them in here when applicable. Every day, I felt like I'd learned a bunch of new scriptures to add to this bible of sobriety.

The team of specialists consisted of both ex-junkie/alcoholic professionals and clinical academic-type professionals. The former were awarded the most respect. Everyone in the group had what's called a "dual diagnosis," meaning we each carried both a mental disorder and an addiction. Mine was minor depression and alcoholism; with a few other disorders pending. In the past, these things were treated separately; now they're treated as one. (See sidebar, "Seeing Double.")

The circle of addicts changed everyday as people dropped in and out. But whoever walked through that door, once they sat in the circle, none of that -- race, religion, politics, age, sexiness, ugliness or anything else -- mattered. There was only pain.

Then Tia came in. She stood out. The chatter amongst our motley crew, consisting of addicts of every brand -- alcohol, crack, heroin, sex, gambling, shopping -- was how gorgeous, how together, how normal Tia looked.

She came in like one of the voted-off America's Next Top Model contestants. Her complexion was that of tender, cooked lamb. She had long, silky black hair -- perhaps a little too straight for the African-American female head. She wore fashionable pencil-heeled boots, and the kind of garments that emphasized her curves and tones when everyone else was over-casually draped in just baggy sweats, jeans and sneakers. She wore professionally styled makeup, especially around her almond eyes.

Her siren-like beauty alarmed people. But once her small, Miss Muffet voice began talking -- with a sadness spoken as well from her eyes, which constantly looked just a moment away from tears -- it was clear she endured like us. Like me, she shared little. She was a "garbage can," as one of the people in our group referred to us: filled with thrown-away emotions and plenty of toxins, but unemptied for years. Her dual diagnosis: bipolar depression and alcoholism.

She can't remember exactly when her drinking got out of control, she later told me, but she started drinking heavily in college.

"I rarely went out, only three nights out of the week: Thursday, Friday and Saturday," Tia told me later. "To me that was just normal college behavior."

After graduating from Chatham, she worked a couple jobs as a caseworker, normally having to counsel others on how to get along in life. Meanwhile, she was seeing her own counselors and therapists, some of who were seeing shrinks themselves.

Days later, Tia and I were holding what we called the "Boston Beer Party," though we weren't in Boston. We were in Brentwood. Tia's apartment was in a forested complex overlooking the highway. It's a gated complex, with security in place who normally would keep a suspicious eye out for people like me and Tia. This was her home, though. A home that, although Tia was trying to get well, still accommodated two cases of beer.

We had fun, dumping 44 bottles of Yuengling down her kitchen sink. (Actually, we cheated, each of us drinking two in the process.) While doing it, we began to do easily what we found so difficult to do with others, including our counseling group: talk about our pain. Between us, it seemed so easy to share in our common pain. Around normal people, these kinds of feelings were much harder to pour out.

We share many of the same complex problems, and the same problematic complexion. However, our skin color has presented different sets of problems. For me, it was being too black, conscious enough about my blackness that it's creepy for me to even drive in Brentwood -- a place that before this I had only read about in connection with the death of Jonny Gammage at the hands of suburban police.

For Tia, it's not being black enough. She's gone much of her life being singled out for acting or talking "white"; the fact she lives in Brentwood is probably something she wouldn't want to announce in a crowd of black Pittsburghers.

It's been enough to make her pull her hair out -- literally. Take a close look at Tia and you find that her hair is way-too-perfectly straight because it's a wig; her eye-makeup is way-too-professionally-styled because it's beautifully obscuring the fact that she doesn't have any eyebrows or eyelashes. She's pulled them out. Since she was 7, Tia suffered from a condition called Trichotillomania, which causes people to pull their hair out as a pain- and stress-reliever.

And of course, she drank. The habit got worse for her just as she began a job she enjoyed: working at a residential home for teen-age girls who'd been through the criminal justice system.

After awhile, she said, "I couldn't sleep until having something to drink." She even needed to drink in order to go out drinking. "I couldn't go out to the bar, without drinking first, at home by myself."

When we first met in January, Tia had her job as a social worker, a 2004 Jeep Cherokee, a swank apartment in a gated community and a little bit of bank savings. Four months later she was jobless, on the verge of eviction, almost penniless. When she took medical leave for rehab back in January, Tia ended up spending a little more time than her job could do without. Now she gets by on food stamps and welfare.

At the moment, she doesn't even have her car.

Somehow Tia and I have found ourselves back in Oakland, at the building where we first met during addiction treatment. But not for admission: One of her roommates disappeared with her car last week; Tia believes the roommate may have driven it here to check in. Her roommate, she says, was struggling with drugs. An associate of hers relays the possibility that her roommate may have taken the Jeep and driven into a river somewhere. Tia finds this plausible.

"They're crazy," says Tia of the roommate driving her Jeep. "No, I don't want to say they're crazy; they're sick."

This isn't what she envisioned herself doing at 24. Tia was born to parents who'd done well for themselves. She's a Navy brat who was born in Hawaii and grew up mostly there and in California. She came to Pittsburgh to attend Chatham College, where she graduated with a degree in, of all things, psychology.

When she was a teen-ager, she says, "I figured by now I would be, like, married with maybe one kid on the way, have my master's. I always wanted to do FBI or CIA work. I thought I'd have a great husband, kids, a dog, house."

Well, she got the dog. A month ago she bought a small mixed dachshund/beagle and named her Kayla, who ended up becoming Tia's saving grace.

"The other day when I was really thinking about just ending everything the only reason I didn't is because ... I couldn't figure out who would take care of my dog. She's like my daughter, so if I'm not here to take care of her then who will be?"

Tia has no family on the East Coast. Her friends have been interchangeable, especially in the months since she began struggling to treat her depression and alcoholism.

At times she's been suicidal. Statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention say that black women are the group least likely to commit suicide, compared with women from other races. Why? In Lay My Burden Down: Unraveling Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis among African Americans, journalist Amy Alexander and psychologist Alvin Poussaint write, "[B]lack women ... built networks of family, religious, and social ties in the decades after slavery and Jim Crow that served as emotional and psychological buffers to life-threatening behavior."

I can think of many black women that would be true for, but not Tia. That theory is relevant only for black women living in a Brewster Place-type of community, where collective reliance is bolstered through an implicit black feminist solidarity. But Tia grew up in Hawaii. She was teased in high school for being "the whitest, black girl" her black peers knew. She did not grow up in the "typical African-American family," whatever that means. Yet she's surviving.

Unlike her, I did grow up in a "black community," the kind that hasn't yet formed a working vocabulary to deal with the kind of mental heath issues Tia and I suffer from. It lacks the language to confront drug and alcohol abuse, let alone an acknowledgment that the two sometimes go hand-in-hand.

"[A]n individual who reaches out for help or counseling from anyone other than close family, a friend, or a pastor might be seen by the larger community as showing signs of weakness or, even worse, as 'putting his business in the street.'"

-- Lay My Burden Down

That passage explains a sentiment felt in black communities. My extended family is probably the apotheosis of the "don't air dirty laundry" syndrome. If the world's first coin-operated laundry machine was found under Egyptian pyramids tomorrow and it had King Tut's dirty bandage draws still in there, un-cycled, black people would protest the discovery, and my family would probably lead the million-man march.

But I'd be naïve to think that it's just us.

In Standing in the Shadows: Understanding and Overcoming Depression in Black Men, written by former USA Today and Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter John Headstates, "Every ethnic group has some trauma in history. The ability to cope with the trauma may be handed down from generation to generation, but so may the vulnerability to that trauma's legacy."

For blacks, obviously, that historical trauma is slavery. Some argue that given all blacks went through in 300 years of chattel slavery, our souls and minds should be damn near bulletproof now. Wrong. That would assume that enslaved blacks conquered the mental demons that added further burdens to their labor.

We have no statistics on the number of slaves who suffered depression, or alcoholism, because slaves weren't admitted to see psychologists. To even acknowledge that there could be damage to a slave's mind would have defied the logic slavemasters used to keep them enslaved: Slaves weren't considered human; they were primitive beasts built purely for servitude so they couldn't possibly bear any pain in their minds, let alone their souls.

The slaves who were admitted to see brain doctors came as guinea pigs -- experiment subjects for the racist science performed to further justify their enslavement. Slaves who were found dissatisfied with their employment were diagnosed with "sable melancholy"; slaves who had a problem with running away suffered from "drapetomania."

No wonder we don't see shrinks.

Dr. Alvin Poussaint, co-author of Lay My Burden Down and former consultant on The Cosby Show, has determined that blacks suffer from a "post-traumatic slavery syndrome," the daily struggle of having to survive in a culture of oppression and racism.

"Hold up, Brentin. I was with you when you were pounding on yourself and talking about the girl pulling her hair out, but now you're trying to blame white people? Sorry, that's not gonna fly."

White people get real funky and disturbed when they hear the word "racism." Automatically, visions of neo-Nazis, hooded Klan members and ol' straw-hat slavemasters are conjured. Racism entails so much more than that. Events from America's Jim Crow past -- just 50 years ago -- informs blacks' paranoia, hypersensitivity, fear of invisibility, fear of not being taken seriously, fear of being spoken to like a child, fear of not being appreciated as a human being -- all conditions that are implicit with racism.

In Standing in the Shadows, Head speaks of psychologist Dr. Carl Bell's theory of the "micro insult," which is "the miniature cousin of an overtly racist comment." It's the kind of comment a white person could make with no intentional harm, but which subtly pricks the mental esteem of a black person. Those micros add up, says Bell.

I remember having a conversation with a colleague last year about how difficult it was to gain employment in print media in the Pittsburgh market. He hadn't been hired, he said, because being white, male and Jewish, he didn't have any "special qualities." For a second I internalized it as "So you're saying I got hired because I'm black, male and not-Jewish? Do you think I'm unqualified?"

I had respect for the guy and he had shown admiration for me publicly, so I wrote it off. I convinced myself he didn't mean anything by it. It was by no means racist venom, but it was a bit of a mosquito bite -- the kind you may not feel at first.

These "micro insults" may come from other blacks. Underprivileged, disadvantaged blacks are constantly being held up to the storefront mannequins of black success: Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Colin Powell. Why can't you be more like them? This adds pressure to blacks who are just struggling to get by. Cosby himself has engaged in what scholar Michael Eric Dyson calls the "Blame-the-Poor Tour," where poor blacks have been accused of not "holding up their part of the bargain." In Dyson's book Is Bill Cosby Right? he writes, "Cosby's position is dangerous because it aggressively ignores white society's responsibility in creating the problems he wants the poor to fix on their own."

It should be noted that in the subtitle of his book Dyson asks Has the Black Middle-Class Lost Its Mind?

We assume, though, that money cures all mental ills, especially where black men are concerned. Look at America's favorite $50 million black man, Dave Chappelle. When his Comedy Central show was postponed and he secretly exiled himself to South Africa, many in the media industry began to speculate that it was for mental or drug-abuse reasons. Chappelle admitted he wanted to make sure his race-jabbing show was "dancing and not shuffling," but Newsweek concluded "it looks like he's losing his balance."

Move up the aisle at Borders and you'll find on Sports Illustrated's cover America's unfavorite $75 million black man, Oakland Raiders wide receiver Randy Moss, with his quote as the headline, "I can't really have any friends. It's sad, really. It's lonely. But that's how I am."

Then Moss goes deep, "People don't think that I hurt? Well, they got another think coming, because I do hurt. ... I'm sitting here with a sad look on my face, but I don't ever want to let the world see that."

Black men are constantly under gag-orders. We're not allowed to talk about our cases with depression, for fear of contempt.

In our own black enclaves we carry a language of depression that's cute and colloquial but hardly ever productive. We read about a Chappelle or a Moss and we say, "He got issues," "She's spazzin' out," "He's trippin'," "She's schizin'," (yes, short for schizophrenia), or my favorite, "He need Jesus." What's worse, though, is that we'll leave it at that: to discuss these person's issues publicly is to "air our dirty laundry."

I was touched when my father revealed to me that there was a time years ago when he thought drinking would help him with his problems. He overcame that. And when he found out I was struggling with alcoholism he dropped what he was doing to come to my aid and help me through my recovery process.

Others in my family have struggled with drinking, but I'm not allowed to talk about it. I've been instructed by certain members of my family not to talk about it. Why?

Putting our business out.

But if we can't find a space in the public to talk about our problems how do we help ourselves and others going through the same --

We can talk amongst ourselves but not in front of them.


White folks.

What are we afraid of? That they'll find out black people are human?

It's enough to make me want to reach for a drink. But I've put a lid on that method, and found a way to reach closure without having to finish the bottle. I understand the cycles that entrap the depressed and the addicted. I started going back to church, renewing my faith in God and focusing on my spiritual experience. The "group" counseling worked for me, as does the psychologist I continue to see. I'm still undecided about the anti-depressants I was prescribed for a month.

My friend Tia, though, pretty much decided the sober life isn't for her. I don't blame her. The alienation you feel from others who don't understand or refuse to believe what you're going through while recovering is quite frosty. Stopping drinking doesn't necessarily make your problems go away. Stigmas don't dissolve. Alcoholism is never X-ed out of your life, it just gets "ex-ed" in, as in ex-alcoholic, ex-junkie, etc. Some will wonder why bother?

People always wonder what's on the other side of sobriety.

Is it lonely?


Can you still go out to the bar, to the club?

Yes. But if you're serious about stopping drinking you should probably put a moratorium on that.

Will my friends stop coming around?

Your friends won't stop.

What's my incentive to get help?

I can't answer that.

For me, it was worth overcoming the obstacles -- the self-imposed blockages, the stigmas, the racism, real or imagined -- just knowing that I wanted to be doing better than I was. I'd be lying if I said there wasn't added incentive: my precious son. I trapped myself in the cycle and made poor decisions about how to handle my problems. Here's to breaking the cycle.

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