Someone Like Me

This is the second in a series of articles this month about alcohol and addiction that are part of the American Humanist Association’s Dry January Challenge.

I used to think I had no connection to substance abuse or addiction. I was wrong.

I was born a daughter of two Nigerian immigrants in a small borough in New York. A borough so small and often forgotten about that folks squint, thinking hard about where it is in proximity to Brooklyn or Harlem, whenever I mention it.

I was born the daughter of two Muslims, and like most Muslims, my parents prayed five times a day, fasted during Ramadan, and didn’t drink. Consequently, growing up, I had no experience and very little knowledge about alcohol—let alone addiction.

What I did know came from watching my favorite sitcoms. Like the episode in Family Matters when Carl Winslow gives his son, Eddie Winslow, an ultimatum to stay off the bottle after he repeatedly comes home drunk from college frat parties. I was too young to recall my initial impression of the episode, but I could have never foreshadowed its relevancy in my future.

I had my first cup of alcohol in college. My dad and younger brother drove me eight hours from my hometown to Upstate New York, where I would graduate four years later with a Bachelor’s in Political Science and a concentration in International Relations. Shortly after my folks helped me settle in and we said our goodbyes, I heard a knock at my door. It was a frat boy who also attended the college. He invited me to hang out and I agreed. Later that night, we drank some cheap liquor. That moment marked the beginning of my relationship with alcohol.

Throughout the next four years, I focused on school and work during the week and partied hard on the weekends. I was a sorority sister and a resident assistant. I worked morning shifts at a local hotel and evenings at the college’s computer lab. I served in multiple positions on the student government council and consistently held a grade point average above 3.3. When the weekend rolled around, I was at whatever club the hype was at with a drink in hand. Sure, my drinking caused problems like arguments with my then-boyfriend and embarrassment when I listened to my friends’ recollections of what I did and said the night before. But I was a hard worker and a great student so I thought nothing of it. I was young and deserved to live a little!

I started law school in 2014 and throughout the next three years studying, on and off-campus jobs and alcohol still centered my life.

I noticed a change in my drinking habit in 2018—a year after I graduated from law school. I worked at a mid-size law firm while living in a waterside apartment. I drove the car of my dreams and made a decent salary, yet I was unhappy. Nothing felt good enough. I drank to manage my thoughts and numb my feelings. I self-medicated with alcohol until I physically couldn’t and sought help soon after.

I made an appointment with a therapist, and during our first appointment, she suggested that I had a drinking problem and recommended that I stop drinking. I was experiencing depression. Alcohol would only make things worse.

Her comments about my drinking infuriated me. Me? Have a drinking problem? That’s impossible, I thought. I am funny, smart, and pretty, and didn’t have a family history of substance abuse or addiction.

I left the therapist’s office, ignored her advice, and continued drinking. A year or so later, when my life went completely south, I surrendered to the idea that I did have a drinking problem and needed to give up alcohol. To my surprise, I couldn’t and I checked into a rehab.

When I left rehab, I searched online for sober communities and noticed that many pro-sober platforms talked about sobriety as if it was a luxury. Though sobriety can be a luxury for some, it wasn’t for me. Pink hats, heart shaped lattes, and yoga are cool but I needed more.

I needed to understand how someone like me—someone who works so hard and had accomplished so much—could end up in addiction.

When I turned to in-person, traditional organizations for the answer, I felt underwhelmed, annoyed, and out of place. I could no longer afford my dream car, and it took me two hours to get to their meetings by public transportation. Oftentimes I was the only Black attendee there. Speaker meetings consisted of folks with years of sobriety talking about all of the tangible things they were able to obtain because of their recovery. Then, there was a rule that we couldn’t talk about “outside issues.” This meant that I couldn’t talk about my experiences as a Black, queer woman.

I was told I had a disease even though my primary physician told me my vitals were perfectly normal. I was told that I lacked willpower even though it was my determination and grit that got me through the most trying times and helped me accomplish so much in my twenty-seven years of life.

Hoping to get to the bottom of my addiction, I went back to therapy. In therapy, I learned that my earlier depression stemmed from having low self-esteem and a lack of self-awareness. For years I based my identity on awards and accolades. My self-worth was intertwined with my accomplishments. I took pride in working multiple jobs and holding multiple positions while tackling a rigorous course load. I had no concept of rest, self-care, or peace. My entire life consisted of being the best (or at least trying to be) in my classes, afterschool programs, dance company, gymnastics team, soccer squad, sorority, school organizations, and places of employment.

I craved validation from my parents and other authority figures, who innocently, but mistakenly, raised me under the white gaze. I was to be seen but not heard. I was to look, act, and perform a certain way so that white folks wouldn’t view me as dangerous, stupid, or lazy.

My sense of identity was shaken when I graduated from law school and entered the 9-5 workforce. For the first time since I could remember, my life focused on a single event—work. It felt dull and uninspiring. I was a new attorney and spent most of my time writing briefs for more experienced attorneys. I hardly went to court, and when I did, it was to file paperwork. I typically went to happy hour after work. If I was too sad to drink with other people, I went straight home and drank alone. Drinking seemed like my only option. Looking back, I could have picked up a hobby, but (at the time) the thought of doing anything that didn’t bring me tangible awards or acknowledgment was unfathomable. The idea of going home to “rest” was, too.

In an attempt to share my journey and connect with other Black folks practicing sobriety, in recovery, or curious about it, I created Sober Black Girls Club. Despite experiencing more consequences, Black people start drinking (and eventually abusing alcohol) at a later age than other demographics. From my experience, this is due to the realization that no matter how hard we try to impress our parents, teachers and those we were taught to look up to, we will never feel “good enough” when white supremacy, patriarchy, sexism, and other damaging societal and cultural practices are at play. This understanding brings on a feeling I thought only alcohol could make go away, but the true solution was to go within and get to know, accept, and love who I am, even when I am not creating or accomplishing.

In the beginning, Sober Black Girls Club was just a blog. Today we run a newsletter and mentorship program and host support meetings and events. We assist members in paying for out-of-pocket rehabilitation expenses through our medical fund and believe in the power of community, inclusivity, truth-telling, creativity, and social justice.

Sober Black Girls Club is not a sector of any one program. We are simply a group of people in sobriety coming together to share our experiences and hopes with one another. We honor each member and understand that no two paths are exactly the same.

And as far as a family history of substance abuse and addiction was of concern—I did have one! The danger(s) of alcohol has been known for decades. Alcohol has caused so many problems that it birthed an entire movement in the 1800s—the Temperance Movement. Even abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass struggled with alcohol addiction. Yet, I thought I was untouchable. I thought that a person like me could never be associated with addiction. Meanwhile, I was born and living in a country with an extensive history of it.

Understanding that I wasn’t different and that my addiction was not just a “me” problem was life-changing for me and my recovery. Alcohol was doing to me what it had done to hundreds and thousands of other people before me, ruing a life. I wasn’t unique, but my path to sobriety was.