In light of the raging opioid epidemic, as well as an uptick in suicide and alcohol-related deaths — all disproportionately centered in white communities — I thought it might be valuable to revisit a subject about which I’ve written before; namely, how addiction and self-harm may be related to the frustrated expectations of members of dominant social groups.
Scholars have noted how oppressed groups often respond when conditions improve, but not fast enough: with rebellion and rage, frustrated by the gap between achievement and newly-enhanced aspiration. But if this is so, what happens to those who have always had high expectations, only to watch their lives fall flat? How does one deal with unfulfilled entitlement?
Though I speak and write about this often, with reference to data and scholarly analysis, in my book, White Like Me, I discuss the issue in a more personal way. Here is an excerpt, which explores some of the social determinants of addiction and self-harm.
* * *
It was late May 1985, and the school year was winding down. Though only a junior, I was suffering from a pretty severe case of premature senioritis, limping to the academic finish line, and looking forward to summer.
The party for Saturday night had been promoted heavily the previous week: an end of the year blowout to which all were invited. Even as an introvert who was often uncomfortable in large gatherings, at this particular moment I needed the release.
The week before I had learned that my father (an actor and stand-up comic for most of my life) was having an affair with an employee at the theatre where he’d been doing the warm-up and running lights for the current production. I’d learned of it by accident when one of the other employees mentioned their relationship to me after a show, assuming I already knew.
I’d gone home that night from the theatre angry, less about the affair than the fact that once again, as had been the case often and for many years, my father had been so drunk he could barely function. He had mumbled his way through the warm-up and made several lighting mistakes during the play. I was upset about the fact that he was cheating on mom, of course. But I had always figured he was, so confirmation of my long-standing suspicion was hardly a shock to the system.
When he stumbled in later that night, he woke me to apologize, not for being three sheets to the wind, but for the affair. He assumed that was why I had stormed out of the theatre parking lot, rather than stick around for a while as I had often done following previous shows.
I didn’t say anything. It was late, and I didn’t want to discuss the real cause of my anger. I just wanted to go back to bed. My dad asked if I was going to tell mom about the affair. I said no. That wasn’t my job, it was his, and I thought he should do it soon if he intended to continue the relationship. But, if it was over, I said he shouldn’t tell. In that case, his honesty would only hurt her. It would do nothing to make amends. It would be for the expiation of his guilt and little else.
He didn’t bring it up to her in the days that followed, and I kept it to myself, as I had promised I would. By the time the week ended, I was all too glad for the ability to blow off some steam.
As it turned out, the party was pretty sad and hardly worth all the hype: lots of people standing around drinking punch made with pure grain alcohol, listening to music played from a single speaker connected to a turntable.
I had one cup of the house cocktail and was immediately reminded of the last time I’d made that mistake.
It had been several months before when having consumed five such glasses along with two beers and a rum and coke, I had puked in the car of a stranger who’d offered to give me a ride home. Aside from simply embarrassing, I’d been forced to clean up the mess with whatever I could find, which is how I discovered that a loaf of white bread — and I’m still not sure why such a thing would be in the back seat of a car — is not nearly as absorbent as a decent paper towel.
Reminded of why I had sworn never to drink that shit again, but not wanting to leave the party quite yet, I volunteered to go with a few other people, get some cash, and make a beer run. Such was the benefit of a fake ID, without which I could never have managed to buy alcohol. I was 16, claiming to be 21 while looking at about 12. Lucky for me, I’d been operating a fake ID mill as a side hustle, helping to supplement my paltry income bagging groceries at a local market.
From where the party was located, the closest ATM for my bank was about three miles away, in the shadow of St. Thomas Hospital, which sat upon a hill off-West End Avenue in Nashville. So a bunch of us piled in one of the other kids’ cars and headed down the road. I hopped out when we got there, inserted my bank card, and punched in my PIN. As the machine spat out $20, I heard a car honking in a staccato frenzy as it sped down the road behind me.
I turned to see what the ruckus was about, just as the car, hazard lights flashing, passed the bank and entered the turn lane for the hospital.
Although I couldn’t put my finger on why, something about the honking, speeding car gave me an odd feeling as I stuffed the money in my pocket and we headed to the store to grab the beer. I wondered about the story behind the car, its driver so desperate to get to the hospital that they had been unable to wait for an ambulance to come and get whomever it was in need of attention. Had it been someone from the party, a bit too enamored of PGA punch? I tried to put it out of my mind.
We delivered the beer, of which I proceeded to drink one, and then, tired and still largely non-conversational, I decided it was time to go, got a ride from a friend, and headed home.
As I walked down the hallway of our building at the apartments where I’d lived since I was three days old, I began to grow dizzy. Considering how little I’d had to drink, I was confident it wasn’t the alcohol. I reasoned that I must be getting sick, as I put my key in the lock, turned the handle on apartment E-7, and entered.
The only light was a small lamp in the living room, putting off just enough glow to allow me to make out the presence of my mother, sitting on the sofa. She was propped up on a small pillow, her left elbow up against the back of the couch, her left hand nestling her head.
Upon my entrance to the apartment, she had neither moved nor said a word. She wouldn’t look at me, reminding me of the last time she had greeted my presence this way: five years earlier, after one of my close childhood friends had been murdered, and she had struggled with how to tell me the news.
Fuck, this can’t be good.
“What?” I asked.
“It’s your dad,” she replied.
“What happened?” I followed up with a sigh.
“He overdosed after the show tonight,” she explained. “He’s at the hospital.”
And with that, we hopped in the car and headed out in silence, not knowing at that point whether he was alive or dead.
The overdose hadn’t been an accident. He had taken over two dozen anti-depressants, on top of a fifth of vodka; but almost immediately, he had decided he’d rather not die. Panicked and regretful he told his colleagues what he had done, at which point they had rushed him to the nearest ER.
It must have seemed like forever, making the long, nine-mile trek to the hospital up on the hill, overlooking the bank and the ATM where I would learn, I had been making my withdrawal at the very moment the car carrying him had passed by, lights flashing, horn honking.
When we got to his bed in the ICU, he had a tube down his throat and was in an induced coma. The doctors thought he would make it, but it had been closed and he wasn’t out of the woods yet. They had pumped his stomach, but the long-term effect of the drugs and alcohol on his body, and especially his brain function, was uncertain.
On the side of his bed, sitting in plain sight on the table was a small strip of paper ripped from the printout on his heart monitor. It showed roughly 10–15 seconds, during which he had died: a flat line punctuated on either end by shallow heartbeats. It seemed a bizarre thing to place next to a patient — like a grim souvenir in case we might like to take it home and put it in a scrapbook to commemorate the day — but I left it there, after contemplating what it signified for several minutes.
The doctor was explaining things to my mom as I snuck a glance at my dad’s chart, hanging on the cabinet outside his room. When he arrived, his blood-alcohol content had been 0.41, to say nothing of the pills he’d swallowed. That’s four times the legal limit at that time, five times the limit today. The booze alone had been enough to kill most people. It would be his alcoholism and the tolerance that came with it that likely kept him alive. The irony wasn’t lost on me.
Within a day, my father would leave the hospital, and the truth would come out about why he had attempted to take his life. His girlfriend had broken up with him. Distraught over the end of his affair — and recognizing the rest of his life wasn’t going that great either — he had opted to check out, only to chicken out in the end. So now my mother knew. It hadn’t been the way I had anticipated him telling her, but at least there were no more secrets to keep.
On the surface, this story might seem out of place in a conversation about race. It might seem unrelated to the subjects about which I normally write and speak. And yet, as I pieced together an understanding of my father’s addictions and suicidal ideation, I came to understand how racial identity (and male identity and even Jewish identity) had all been a part of the larger picture.
Once my dad got clean, we would occasionally talk about what he was learning in AA. For the most part, he seemed satisfied with the AA approach — it was keeping him sober after all — but there was something about it that seemed inadequate to me. The AA paradigm seemed overly individualistic, as in the addict is powerless in the face of the disease, the addict needs to make amends, and the addict needs to give control over to some higher power. There was very little discussion about the social determinants of addictive behavior and how individuals exist not in a vacuum but in a social context, which can make addictive behavior more likely.
After all, there must be a reason the United States has a higher rate of drug and alcohol abuse than most other nations, including other wealthy and industrialized ones. And there must be a reason that, according to the available research, white Americans have a disproportionate rate of binge drinking and substance abuse relative to persons of color — contrary to popular perception — and why rates of suicide are higher among whites than people of color, especially African Americans.
Though none of this was covered in AA, I began to see it the more I thought about my father’s situation, and what I came to understand was this: To be an American and to be white is to be told in a million different ways that the world is your oyster. It is to believe, because so many forces suggest it, that you can do anything and be anything your heart desires. Although people of color and folks in other countries have rarely had the luxury of believing that mythology, white Americans have. And when one’s expectations are so high — especially if you add the expectations of a Jewish man seeking to make it in a heavily-Jewish industry like comedy — and yet one’s achievement falls short of the aspiration, what happens?
In such a situation, in which the society is telling you that your failings are yours, your inadequacies yours — and America sells us this notion in many different ways — what could happen is that one might well capitulate to a self-destructive rage.
This is not to say that all or even most addiction is the result of frustrated expectations — social pathology has many triggers, of which this would be only one — but we can’t ignore the way such a phenomenon may be part of the larger mix, about which we need to be aware.
Unless we address the way privilege can set people up for a fall — can vest us with an unrealistic set of expectations — we can’t be surprised by elevated rates of addiction, suicide, eating disorders, or other forms of self-harm among those who have long possessed these relative advantages. When the promise of privilege falls flat, or at least flatter than one expected, we are confronted with our failure to live up to some idealized type we were told was ours to achieve. And we are not prepared for it.
Unless we rethink our addiction to these expectations, we’ll keep creating for millions of families the pain that I’d grown up with, and the physical embodiment of that pain, which lay comatose in the bed that night, that little strip of paper at his bedside reminding us all how close he had come.
Perhaps privilege has a downside that renders it toxic, even for those who reap its benefits. Maybe that which white folks, and white men, in particular, fight so hard to maintain — our edge — is the very thing that is killing us.
Now, that would be ironic.
And funny were the consequences not so tragic.
* * *
I’m an antiracism educator/author. I Facebook & tweet @timjacobwise, podcast at Speak Out With Tim Wise & post bonus content at patreon.com/speakoutwithtimwise
Previously published on Medium.com.
Have you read the original anthology that was the catalyst for The Good Men Project? Buy here: The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood
If you believe in the work we are doing here at The Good Men Project and want to join our calls, please join us as a Premium Member, today.
All Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS.
Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.
Photo credit: istockphoto.com