This is the first in a series of articles this month about alcohol and addiction that are part of the American Humanist Association’s Dry January Challenge.
I spent more than ten years of my life sitting across from my affirming and highly skilled psychologist, Dr. Susan Clemons. Each session we sifted through the relational and environmental trauma I’d endured as early as the first three years of my life. Dr. Clemons, now retired, was an expert at cognitive and dialectical behavior therapy. Her acumen was critical to address the onslaught of ruminations I brought to every session. “But what if I am an alcoholic and I’m just fooling you,” I asked pointedly as she modeled slow and deep breathing. Dr. Clemons would give a slight grin and she would begin cognitive restructuring. It always started with a reminder of my history: “Jasmine, remember that you were forced to attend Alateen meetings when you were still an adolescent… this has led to cognitive distortion regarding alcohol and drugs…” I saw alcoholics and addicts everywhere, all the time, and especially when I was under intense stress. When my environment was overstimulating and my fight or flight response was activated, I would experience a deluge of intrusive thoughts about alcohol and drugs. The cognitive distortions socialized into me by state-mandated Alateen mixed with Evangelical religious indoctrination and became fodder for the obsessive compulsive components of the disordered behaviors I dealt with in my twenties.
My first Alateen meeting was court mandated. My father, a retired United States Army veteran who served in the Vietnam war, dealt with intense substance misuse disorders since before my birth. He arrived home from the brutality of the Vietnam war with intense and complex post traumatic stress disorder. With no social or psychological safety nets for veterans, especially working poor, African American veterans, my father found relief in cannabis, narcotics, and alcohol. By my sixth birthday he began to display severe substance-induced schizoaffective behaviors. The criminalization of his mental illness, along with the crime of being too poor to register his vehicle he needed to get to his job, resulted in multiple arrests. During one of his court hearings, he was offered a deal: plead guilty for his crimes and accept a mandated family sobriety program. He would be required, along with his wife and children to attend the “12 Step Program” with Alcoholics Anonymous. Knowing another prison sentence would keep him from financially supporting our already impoverished house, he accepted the deal. My father attended A.A., my mother attended Al-Anon (for partners of alcoholics), and my brother (barely 6 years old) and I attended Alateen. For a full year my father would have his sponsor sign the form proving our faithful attendance and return it to his parole officers. On top of the Judeo-Christian undertones of the meetings, our interracial family struggled with underlying norms of white supremacy, classism, and ableism embedded in the A.A. culture
I began drinking alcohol in my mid-twenties under the supervision of my psychologist as a form of exposure therapy. Prior to the completion of exposure therapy, I would drink alcohol and have a panic attack from the triggering effect and intrusive thoughts. I lived in terror that one drink, just as I was taught in Alateen, would turn me into an alcoholic who would destroy my life and the lives of others. On the other side of healing, I understand how inappropriate and harmful it is for states to mandate recovery and sobriety programs and refuse to allow for culturally responsive and non-religious options. Dr. Clemon’s excellent therapeutic care helped me to understand how being taught that my father and I were powerless to this “family disease” created fear-based schema and hypervigilance in an already traumatized child. I have spent the better part of my life rebuilding a sense of agency and empowerment that does not revolve around being the child of an alcoholic. I’ve swapped curiosity and compassionate self-inquiry for judgment, adaptability for rigidity and control. Many humanists have deconstructed from their social and religious indoctrination, but struggle to rebuild new thought patterns and behaviors.
This January I’ve participated in the American Humanists Association’s Dry January Challenge to bring awareness to non-religious options for recovery and sobriety. On the 18th of January, I hosted a discussion with Khadi A. Oluwatoyin (founder of Sober Black Girls Club) and Joe Gerstein (humanist and founder of SMART Recovery). We explored the nuances and intersections of addiction across race, class, and gender and trouble normative beliefs about addiction that shape so much about our society.
Humanist solutions can and do transform human problems.