My sister Karla was the first in our family to go to college. She chose Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. Dropping her off at school was a big deal — a family affair. I’d never seen my father more proud. Two years later, I was set to join her there, but the fanfare had faded. The day my sister and I planned to drive ourselves from our hometown in New Jersey to Boston, it was September 11, 2001, and two planes had crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. We waited anxiously for days until access to the George Washington Bridge was reinstated and drove northeast as fast as we could.
I was raised in a strict, dry household where alcohol wasn’t forbidden per se — my parents just never partook. I started drinking in college. I was 18 years old, and I carried two NJ state I.D.s — one real, one fake. I’d order amaretto sours, the Shirley Temple of the adult beverage market, aggressively pursing my lips to gulp the syrupy drink through the pin of a red cocktail straw.
I was an amateur drinker but an expert shape-shifter. Constantly surrounded by predominantly white people, my Honduran-Ecuadorian identity was not only denigrated, it made me a target. Growing up as the brown girl in a white town, the poor girl in a rich town, I learned how to make the pill of my presence easier for others to swallow — and alcohol helped me stomach the code-switching. My drinking escalated over the course of my New England education, though it appeared commonplace against the backdrop of my hard-partying campus. After graduation, already in substantial student-loan debt and blind to the onset of substance use disorder, I moved to New York City to pursue a career in fashion, an industry known for its allegiance to wealth, whiteness, and status — all of these adjacencies familiar to me.
Though my performance and work ethic were exemplary, my needs in regards to compensation and desire for comradery were perceived as burdensome and labeled ‘thirsty.’ Desperate to prove my worth, despite facing chronic instability, elitism, and sabotage, I often turned to men. Trapped in a cycle of toxic and abusive relationships, I repressed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression. The legacy of being outcast seemed to haunt me, and I self-medicated with alcohol and drugs, having moved up to cocaine and tequila — turning my rent-stabilized East Village apartment into a place my friends and I called “la factoria (the factory),” inspired by the glamour of Warhol-era New York. I wound up behind a receptionist desk at a finance firm while my white cohorts ascended the ladders at Harper’s Bazaar, Ralph Lauren, and Intermix, their lifestyles still subsidized despite the economic crash of 2008.
Lacking any clinical understanding of my maladjusted coping mechanisms nor having the language to call out the inequity of the systemic racism I was experiencing in my work life, I felt as though I was quietly going insane. It became impossible to ignore when, four years ago, I nearly died attempting to cross the West Side Highway in an alcohol-induced blackout.
“I have no secrets today,” I heard a woman tell a room full of strangers on the day I decided to get sober. It was an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, where I again found myself one of the few non-white faces in the room. This arresting statement was the most privileged thing I’d ever heard anyone say, and for the first time in my life, I felt entitled to it myself. I began to look at all the things in my life that shame had warped into secrets and found a terrified and misguided young woman. In these four years of being sober, I’ve grown up, confronted the myth of the model minority paradigm — following a set of rules towards assimilation in order to gain access and protection from discrimination — and become willing to be seen for more than my achievements. I’m here for my freedom, which is why I am most proud of being the first in my family to recover from addiction.
I learned how to make the pill of my presence easier for others to swallow — and alcohol helped me stomach the code-switching.
Substance use disorder is not a moral failing, though the poverty of mental health care in marginal communities conflates victimhood with misfortune and disease with weakness. The lot of the mentally ill and the downward trajectory of the addicted person is reduced to a cautionary tale. I never learned the true history of substance use disorder in my family — people just disappeared. My uncle, addicted to crack and deported back to Honduras, others in and out of jail, or dead like my grandfather who passed away due to an alcohol-related illness my mother called “diabetes.” Though hidden for fear of stigmatization and criminalization, many in my family had developed dependencies on drugs and alcohol to cope with the pain of their untreated trauma and minoritization in this country.
Before the arrival of Europeans, alcoholic beverages were brewed widely by Indigenous people across Central and South America, climbing north into some parts of what would become the United States as early as the 16th century. These homemade spirits such as balche, tiswin, and pulque were mainly used for rituals and religious ceremonies. While Indigenous people fought for their rightful sovereignty, white settlers introduced distilled liquor to the countless tribes, namely whiskey, which led to the theft of Indian land and the rapid decline of native communities across the region. According to historians, this created the first known epidemic of addiction in America — and the first sobriety movement, a story that is rarely told.
The Quakers thoroughly documented what they considered depraved behavior on the part of Native Americans while under the influence, though none mention the devastating effects of colonization. In a famous letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to prominent Iroquois leader, Handsome Lake, justifying the sale of whiskey, he said, “But these nations have done to you only what they do among themselves. They have sold what individuals wish to buy, leaving to everyone to be the guardian of his own health and happiness.” Here, Jefferson initiated the U.S. legacy of victim-blaming — one echoed throughout centuries. Jefferson added, “Spirituous liquors are not in themselves bad, they are often found to be an excellent medicine for the sick; it is the improper and intemperate use of them, by those in health, which makes them injurious. But as you find that your people cannot refrain from an ill use of them, I greatly applaud your resolution not to use them at all.”
Self-medicating for trauma is proven to be a key risk factor operating as a gateway for addiction. Colonization — the dislocation of land and culture — and subsequent generational trauma and poverty mutated the balanced and purposeful use of drugs and alcohol by Indigenous communities into devastation and ruin. Handsome Lake, a Native American man who by sharing his own heroic journey as well as a series of messages received through visions from the Creator, became a prophet for holistic sobriety. His teachings, known as the Gaiwiio (Good Word), and the tradition of “sobriety circles,” i.e. sharing one’s story of recovery, remain the universal bedrock of addiction counseling to this day, though his work is never credited.
Within the echo chambers of sobriety circles and wellness spaces, it might appear as if recovery is moving towards the mainstream, but not everyone can publicly claim sobriety with the same bravado. People’s voyeuristic appetite for media stories sensationalizing addiction drives a steady supply of salacious content but very little depicting recovery, much less recovery through the lens of Black and brown people, though we are frequently cast to portray drug abuse, trafficking, and trauma.
For a show known for its libidinous debauchery the latest episode of HBO’s Euphoria shocked viewers in a stunning revelation—casting sobriety as the ultimate liberation. While sitting in a diner in the aftermath of Rue’s relapse, the character Ali, Rue’s sponsor, threads the needle between racial trauma, systemic oppression, and addiction. By contextualizing the history and experiences of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., Ali explains the meaning of her recovery through the Civil Rights Act, “the first legislative steps granting you and I, the right to sit in this diner, to have a conversation about whether or not you want to stay clean from drugs,” Ali says. “Drugs that were given to your ancestors to keep them inebriated, inoculated, enslaved. Drugs that stripped them of their ability to not just be free, but to imagine a world in which they were free.” Rather than rehash the most cliché of AA/NA tropes — two 12-steppers talking shit over pancakes in a diner after a meeting — the groundbreaking scene evolved to give voice to the sober BIPOC communities.
Handsome Lake was known to preach nativist edicts and believed restoring his people’s pride in being Native American would save them. My recovery from addiction has required that I face my historical trauma — both generational and personal — to mend the roots of my cultural dislocation; acknowledge my behavior as symptomatic, not unprincipled; and know that I am entitled to imperfection, rest, and peace of mind. It’s also led me to examine the dehumanizing model minority narratives that are designed to increase Latinx visibility and leadership but that, in fact, pose a substantial threat to our mental health and generational progress. These ideals traffic in a mindset that judges our humanity by our output, cataloging brown life in binary columns of good immigrant versus bad hombre, essential versus deportable.
Nine months ago, early on in the pandemic, my younger cousin overdosed, and I made the decision to go public about my recovery. While the CDC reported the highest spike in overdose deaths in a 12-month period, I heard from so many people who, like me, feared openly discussing addiction with their immigrant families. My message captured the attention of an ABC News producer and I was interviewed about sobriety during COVID-19 by Robin Roberts for Nightline.
The only television programming that ever interested my father has been the news and two sports: boxing and fútbol. Being featured would surely make him proud, but when I called to tell him, I lied about why I’d been booked for the interview. “Vamos a hablar de salud,” (We’re going to talk about health) I said, glossing over the topic of addiction by calling it wellness. I sent him a link to the segment but he never mentioned it and I didn’t ask.
Months later, on my birthday, my father sent me the first text message he’s ever written to tell me that the segment and my work make him proud. He said that I am the last of his five children yet the first to break this generational curse. “Tu eres mi conchita de vino,” he lovingly — and ironically — says on the phone that night: “You are my final sip of wine.”
If you are struggling with substance abuse, please call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for free and confidential information.
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