The Psychological Impact Of Drug War On Black Communities

This post is gonna be HEAVY, y’all. It would probably be helpful to read my Drug Use: When Is It A Problem post to get a sense of my professional stance on drug use before we get into this. If we aren’t on the same page about things like harm reduction, what makes people use drugs, the different types of relationships to drugs that people have, etc., you might get a little lost.

I’ve spent the last few years of my life working clinically with mainly Black and Latinx people from ages 12 to 80 with histories of drug use and that’s not even counting the years of non-counseling jobs/positions I’ve had where I’ve worked with people from this background. I personally have had to unpack a lot of my own biases, my assumptions, and the myths that society teaches us about drug use and the kinds of people who use drugs. We’ve all been socialized and fooled into believing straight out lies and myths. But now the climate is changing with this recent opioid epidemic. Now, there’s the performance of compassion in the media, in the government, and by some medical professionals. Suddenly everyone is expected to ditch all that socialization and all those lies about “addicts” that we were taught. The script is now publicly changing. It made me reflect on how Black people (and other POCs, but this is about Black people and our communities) were treated while our communities were/are ravaged by chaotic substance use and the messages we internalized because of it. We are blamed for a lack of morals and are punished for “weakness” through drug laws, arrests, prison, ineffective treatment programs that shame people and swipe their insurance cards instead of helping them heal, etc. And we as a people internalized this message while so many of our own have been abandoned. The jig is up though. This post is not about the intentions of the government or analyzing why things are the way they are. That’s not my lane. This post is a letter to Black people reflecting on some of the psychological effects that the War on Drugs has had on our communities and how we can unlearn the lies we’ve been taught by White supremacy in order to make our communities stronger.

What’s Going On?

Now, Black people, I know I don’t have to explain the stigma/judgment around crack and heroin in our communities, right? Y’all peeped that already? There’s no way you haven’t. We’ve all heard “crackhead” and “dope fiend” jokes. What’s so wild to me is that we know the government put crack in our communities to destabilize us. We know the War on Drugs was a set up and an attack on our communities, but we still crack jokes, disrespect people, judge them, etc. for having a drug use that got out of control. It’s cruel as hell and doesn’t make any kind of sense to blame the people who got caught up instead of the ones who set the trap. Especially when we all got at least 1 person in our families who got caught up in the War on Drugs on some level at some point. It’s a straight numbers game at this point. Local and federal governments treat Black people who struggle with chaotic use of drugs any kinda way with bigoted policies and we as a people let it happen because we generally don’t think they deserve better. Drug laws and policies are already known to have racist roots and the laws are enforced differently depending on the color of your skin. We all know white people get away with using and selling drugs in ways that would get us locked up forever. We don’t need research and news articles to tell us what we see with our own eyes. And it has changed how we think about and treat people in our own communities. Suddenly, he’s not your uncle or your neighbor. He’s dehumanized and turned into a “dope fiend” in your eyes. We’ve been fooled as a people by White supremacy to abandon whole people and forget about them. In my work, I’ve seen clients abandoned by their families: sometimes living right down the street and being outright ignored or some people never seeing their relatives again. We’ve been brainwashed into thinking chaotic substance use is a sign of moral failure or a sickness that means the lives of those Black people don’t matter anymore. The lack of community support is deadly for so many people because these kinds of social services for our own are usually 1 of first to get cut.

And because life ain’t simple, all this stigma is added by other types of bigotry. Many of the Black people who our communities have abandoned for chaotic drug use also happen to be LGBTQAI and/or are living with HIV. This isn’t a coincidence. We are all spoon-fed homophobia/homomisia from a young age. And the sex education in this country is made terrible on purpose. The same people in power who want you to think Black people are criminals and gay people ruin families also want you to be uneducated about sex and sexual health. It shocks me on the regular how many people don’t know the 4 body fluids that transmit HIV or don’t know what a “window period” is. But will seriously think you can get HIV from drinking a cup, sharing a bathroom, or that only gay people get HIV. Just loud and wrong. There is a reason they want you misinformed. Misinformation and racist laws/policies are DEADASS killing our communities. If we all actually knew the truth and used this knowledge to make informed decisions, we’d be stronger as a people. We are struggling as a people when we are willing to let each other die off some “Say No to Drugs” nonsense. Again, we are for real listening to values and policies created by the people who put drugs in our communities in the first place instead of healing ourselves.

The struggles that come with living with HIV and/or being LGBTQAI in a bigoted, ableist society adds to the burden of being Black. Not only are you dealing with a system that is killing you (if racist individuals don’t get to you first), many of your own people don’t even see you as a part of the community or as human. When someone tells you the same thing over and over again, you eventually believe them. If people are being told that they’re dirty, useless, sinners, lazy, will always be an addict, etc. over and over again, eventually they internalize that mess. There have been so many of my former clients who believe using drugs and having a history of “chaotic use” (again check my Drug Use post for a definition) means they “deserve” whatever people do to them or whatever dangerous policies/laws are passed. This sets up the environment for a cycle of poor mental health. Depressive, anxiety, trauma, etc. symptoms can be triggered and made worse by being exposed to bigotry and being abandoned by their families/communities. Living with systemic discrimination and prejudices can lead many people to cope with those psychological burdens with substance use. And that’s not even counting the lack of consistent quality medical care, systemic racism in medical and mental health spaces throughout history and now, and the lack of public health education/awareness available for many Black people. Ultimately, many Black people slip through the cracks and our communities are weaker for it. We talk about revolution, but how can we get free if so many in our communities are being left behind?

Where Do We Go From Here?

It’s time for us to look in the mirror. It’s time for us to start to heal as a community and unlearn all the lies. We gotta rebuild the bridges burnt down by believing in white supremacist lies about drug use. What can we all do to make sure people aren’t forgotten? Beyond laws and relying on people outside of our communities to make policy changes for us. Y’all know good and well that we can’t rely on this current political climate. So what can we do?

Some Suggestions:
  • Unlearn myths and stigmas about people who struggle with their drug use (Again, my intro to drug use piece is a great place to start).Where do those “crackhead” jokes come from? What values are they based in? Who taught you that? Are those values worth keeping? Once it really hits you that we as a society shame these victims of the War on Drugs while the ones who instigated it are still in power…the jokes are a lot less funny.

  • Give money, food, clothes, etc. to people who ask for help in real life and on crowdfunding apps. Why donate to companies when you can give directly to people?

  • Pro Bono services/volunteering – what skills do you have or what services you could provide for free to members of your community who need it?

  • Maybe you could reach out to abandoned family members and see what’s good with them (Again, boundaries and self care are important here).

It’s been so wild watching the media suddenly seem to find all this compassion for white people struggling with chaotic use of opioids. It’s a clear slap to the face after years of criminalization, judgment, and abandonment of our people. We need to let go of the biases and the lies we were told about drug use and people who have chaotic substance use. Leaving our own people behind because they use drugs to cope with whatever they’re going through is cruel. Black people have always been denied the same compassion and access to support and we have suffered as a result. We don’t get access to the same treatment professionals, methods or programs. Most of the time, we have to make due with barely the bare minimum. Now, imagine doing that when even other Black people don’t consider you to be fully human. When you’re not factored into the “coming together” or into the revolution plans. That stigma, on top of others like I mentioned before, leaves so many of our own incredibly vulnerable. We as a people will be stronger if we pushed the lies aside and had more compassion for people in our communities who are going through it. This is part of community building and part of revolutionary work.

Thanks for reading. The next post will be about socialization: what it is, and how it affects how people see themselves, other people, and the world.

How to Set Boundaries

Boundaries are the limits a person can set on what they will accept and how people treat them. Knowing how to set boundaries for yourself is one of the most important life skills to learn. In an ideal situation, your parents and/or the other adults in your life showed you how to set boundaries through their actions and words. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, this doesn’t happen. And setting boundaries becomes a skill that people spend most, if not all of their lives trying to figure out on their own. Basically like playing the same video game level over and over again, trying to learn this same lesson. Setting boundaries can be hard or even feel impossible. Especially if you are used to your boundaries being laughed at, ignored, pushed aside, or not even acknowledged (this is common in child emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse, child neglect, intimate partner violence/domestic violence, systemic racism, etc.). People in these situations learn to live with the fear that if they set boundaries, even really small ones (like needing alone time or a safe space), they will be punished for it. In the face of danger and/or fear, people mainly talk about fight and flight, but another common response is not resisting. The person begins to belief that no resistance = no pain. This also happens on a society-level. Society sees marginalized people setting boundaries as rude. Having no boundaries allows people full access to you and oppressors feel entitled to the bodies, cultures, etc. of others. That’s why setting a boundary like kneeling for the National Anthem can cause so much outrage. Laws and society’s expectations respect the boundaries of certain people while dehumanizing others to many different degrees depending on race, gender, ability, etc. In this post, I’m going to talk about what boundaries do and how to start setting solid personal boundaries. Firm solid boundaries are so necessary for good mental and physical health, for interacting with the people in your life, and for community-building.

What Do Boundaries Do?

Setting boundaries is a way to take care of yourself and your emotional/psychological needs (Check out this post explaining self care). Firm boundaries protect people from emotional harm, burn out, feeling drained, etc. Like how the skin, skulls, rib cages, etc. protects important organs in our body. Setting boundaries is a part of having good mental health and living a more satisfying life. Making solid boundaries gives everyone involved the opportunity to make sure their emotional needs are taken care of and to continue to enthusiastically consent to dealing with a given person/situation. When you trust other people to respect your boundaries, there’s a freedom there. You feel more comfortable being relaxed and being yourself because you don’t need to worry about any threats. Also boundaries are not hard and fast rules. They change as you change and as your needs and the situation in your life changes. Boundaries are not about setting limits on other people’s behaviors. You can’t control other people. You can only change and control yourself. Boundaries are ultimately for you, not for other people. They are guidelines for yourself so you can figure out what’s best for you in each situation.

Examples of Phrases Used to Set Boundaries:

  • I already said No. I’m not repeating myself.
  • I don’t want to talk about this right now. Give me an hour.
  • If you keep doing this, I am going to leave/block you.

Notice that these boundaries focus on what you can do for yourself and your own behaviors. Again, boundaries aren’t about other people’s actions. Boundaries aren’t “You can’t say that so stop it”. That’s trying to control someone else’s behavior. What you can do is separate yourself from people: block them, stop doing business with them, stop giving them money, etc. Setting boundaries requires a realistic awareness of yourself and compassion towards your own psychological/emotional needs.

Some people have a hard time with setting boundaries due to feeling guilty or anxious. Like I mentioned before, someone feeling guilt and/or anxiety when setting boundaries could come from trauma and/or multiple experiences of people and society telling you that you don’t get to have respected boundaries. That right there is definitely grounds for self-reflection and/or working that out in therapy. Like I mentioned in the self-care post, taking care of mental and physical health is not selfish. You will be a stronger and happier person in the long run if you protect your whole body and self. And on the other hand, if you think other people setting boundaries is rude, it really says A LOT more about you than it does about the person setting the boundary. Self-reflection is important here. What is making you feel like you deserve access to this person in this way? Who are you really? Check that entitlement.

Setting Boundaries

I’ve noticed that many conflicts and issues come up because at the end of the day, many people don’t know how to set clear, firm personal boundaries. It can be hard for many people to know where to start. I’ll help.

Some tips for setting boundaries:
Start To Own It:

One place to start is coming to a place where you internalize and truly believe that you have just as much of a right to boundaries as anyone else. Trauma, etc. could have you feeling like you don’t need or deserve protection, but everybody will burn out after awhile without taking care of themselves. Wearing a coat in cold weather doesn’t make someone weak, lazy, or selfish and neither does taking care of your mental and emotional health.

Self-Reflection: 

Know yourself and your limitations. If you don’t know yourself, you’re not gonna be able to communicate that to someone else. For the record, having limits isn’t a bad thing. It’s a human thing. Nobody is limitless and knowing your personal limits is another way of taking care of yourself, prioritizing yourself, and helping yourself grow.

Try Mindfulness:

Being more mindful of yourself is very helpful in learning how to set firm boundaries. Finding the right mindfulness technique(s) for you can increase self-awareness, help you manage anger and/or cravings, make it easier to understand your own emotions, etc. Check out my post here on mindfulness for more information.

Ask For Help:

Individual or group therapy could help you work through the deeper things possibly going on for you. It isn’t wrong to need professional help with figuring out how to make setting clear, strong boundaries easier and managing any related emotions, thoughts, and/or traumas that may come along. People need backup. That’s real.

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen a situation turn sour between people because of paper-thin boundaries, my rent in NYC would be covered forever. For many people setting clear, firm boundaries is something that was never really taught. Boundaries don’t always feel nice, but they’re always necessary. Getting to a place where you really believe your mental, emotional, and physical health deserves to be protected and that you’re not weak, rude, etc. for setting boundaries is a struggle for many. Using self-reflection, mindfulness techniques, and/or therapy can help you learn your personal boundaries and be able to communicate them clearly to other people. Firm, clear boundaries will completely change your life and the way you engage with people at school, work, home, etc. And you will be in less and less complicated, vague situations if that’s not what you actually want.

 

Thanks for reading. The next post will be about the psychological impact of the War on Drugs on our communities.