Recovery From Addiction Is Not Linear & That's Okay

Her Voice

I remember the first time I thought my dad overdosed.

I was eight years old and home alone. I pushed him over and sat by his side until he eventually threw up. When I saw that he was going to be okay, I got up and went into my room, and we never talked about it.

Growing up, I saw very few examples of Black love outside of the home of Cliff and Claire Huxtable, or even the acquired loves of Whitley Gilbert and Dwayne Wade. I grew up in a community where black girls like me were expected to be second-class students to the white kids in the classroom, where we were more expected to be a teen mom, strung out on drugs, a high school dropout, or standing on street corners to make an extra buck. I grew up in a family where women stood by their men, not because they were weak, but because they were in fact strong and determined to hold a family together. I have a mom who I adore more than life itself, a mom who made every sacrifice for me to have as healthy of a life as possible with minimal reward for her. She's someone who I always commended for her courageousness, and most importantly, her huge heart. She is undeniably my best friend, the one person whose love I truly can't live without.

I don't remember my dad ever telling me he loved me, but in my heart, I at least felt he did.

I remember working hard in school, determined to not become a statistic, or a byproduct of a society formulated to destroy black people through systemic oppression. That's one thing he did stress: Education. Education was everything to me, and it gave me the wings to dream outside of the confines of my situation or my scenario. My dad was stubborn as an ox, but one of the smartest people you'd ever hope to meet. And it was that faith in him, in understanding that behind those eyes was someone whose intellect I wanted to mirror, that kept me when I realized his alcoholism was coupled with drug use.

When the news broke of Demi Lovato's hospitalization after an apparent heroin overdose, I felt my body freeze.

It was a feeling I knew all too well, one that's riddled with doubt, fear, stress, questions, and prayers. You remember, just days prior, them being okay, and then, this. I scrolled down social threads, reading comments that ranged from prayers and concern to judgement and doubt. How could she just break her sobriety after six years? Doesn't she want better for herself? Why wasn't anyone there to stop her? Doesn't she love herself? I knew in that moment that people just wouldn't understand.

First things first: Addiction is not a choice, it is a sickness.

Repeated drug use leads to brain changes that alter the person's self-control and more or less forces the urge to take drugs. As the brain alters itself, the high feeling diminishes, which is why there is a constant need for the "next" hit. For some reason, people have an idea that one can just put a drug down and resume life normally, almost as if drug usage is a daily choice like which pants to wear or what TV show to watch. I don't know anyone who makes a constant decision daily to hurt themselves and those around them. Most times, I'd talk to my dad the next day, asking what he remembered from the day before. His blank stares proved that it was a blank page in his book of memory, a memory only those who felt his impact would actually remember.

Addiction is not a linear thing — there is no clear beginning, middle, and end.

Like almost anything else, relationship patterns and retention rates for prison systems come to mind, those who have had a previous addiction are inherently predisposed for it to happen again, easier than someone who may not have previously had one.

There can be periods of time where everything is up, and other times where everything is down. There can be moments that it circles back around, and other times it just feels like it's fleeting. I remember moments in my life where it seemed like my dad and I were finally mending our relationship: Laughing, joking, hanging out, almost like nothing had ever happened. Then the next day, he'd become someone I didn't recognize but knew all too well: Argumentative, violent, and self-serving.

The person who would leave me in the car and go into buildings for hours at a time, the person who wouldn't come home and then would text me the next day, the person who would knock everything off the walls when he did come home, and I'd wait until he went to bed before picking everything up and hanging it before the sun came up.

To explain love to someone has always been a hard thing for me, mostly because I undeniably know what it's like to love someone for better or for worse. It normalized trauma for me, making me feel like that type of ride or die love was healthy or commendable. To love someone in spite of themself, in spite of apologies you will never get and time you will never get back. To love someone, just hoping that this time, the high lasts a bit longer, and if they fall, they won't be down as long.

While I have no authority to speak on behalf of every person who has ever had a family member suffer from addiction, I have learned a few things along my journey. First, programs and counseling for the person are stepping stones, but they are not an end-all-be-all. These are programs that are put into place to help with sobriety, but also for people to learn healthier coping mechanisms and, hopefully, how to identify triggers.

Passing judgement on someone who is struggling, whether you think they are trying to help themselves or not, helps nobody.

Condemning someone who has previously gotten help but who has relapsed is also not helpful in any situation, and is no more likely to yield results. Also forgetting the grieving of family members, or the questions of why we "allow" someone to do this to us, is completely dismissive. I'm willing to bet my money on an idea that nobody wakes up wanting to be addicted to a substance, and no family member wakes up hoping they stay that way. We don't "allow" people to be who they are, but we would rather be supportive guides than the alternative, and in Demi's case, I feel the pain on both ends of the spectrum.

Addiction is never a pretty thing, but idealizing some happy fairytale or wondering how a person could relapse isn't just unrealistic, it's totally unsympathetic.

When I have felt pain and anger, I have practiced love onto others and onto myself. I have understood what a peace that surpasses understanding looks and feels like, and I extend that onto others as I pray for their healing and wellbeing. I practice an idea of selflessness and support, and encourage those to the best of my ability without risking my own personal health or safety. While I may never have those childhood memories I once wanted, or even the father that came to every game and showed healthy love, I've learned how to love myself to not become a byproduct of my past.

I've learned what it's like to be a beacon of God's light in a world filled with pain and turmoil, and what it means to not hold judgement towards the people in my life still working to get it right.

My heart goes out to Demi and her family, and for all those who were quietly reminded of their own past during this moment.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use disorder, text Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or click here.

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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