Three years ago, I experienced a drug-induced mental health crisis during which the police were contacted by a close family friend of mine. I was subsequently beaten up by the police, tasered three times, and psychiatrically hospitalized against my will for six days. I identify as a survivor of police brutality and the mental health industrial complex.
I have “swept my side of the street,” as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and I fully acknowledge my behavior of acting “erratic” while intoxicated and undergoing psychological instability.
Some of you reading this may think, “Well of course you were beaten up by the police for being drunk and disorderly. You should have expected that to happen.” The tone and assumption underlying this comment implies that people who experience mental health and substance abuse issues should expect violence to be inflicted against their person.
Many people in AA actually undertake this type of thinking when it comes to dealing with addiction.There is a growing conversation regarding the intersections between mental health issues, substance abuse, and state violence. We hear the stories of police murdering and assaulting folks with psychiatric disabilities or experiencing mental health crises, specifically Black folks and dark-skinned people of color. If it was not for this conversation about mental health and state violence, I would be overwhelmed by shame and guilt. I would think I “deserved” to be physically assaulted by the police.
But I am not obligated to think this way.
Yes, people do experience crises wherein they may pose a serious harm to themselves and others. However, this does not negate the existence of mental health oppression: an oppressive society that beats down and terrorizes people so that they literally go “insane”, are “warranted” state interventionism, and institutionalized into a system which will label them, not society itself, as “crazy”.
You Are Only as Sick as the Secrets You Keep
Social science research is presenting more how people who experience trauma and oppression throughout their lives are predisposed to substance abuse and mental health issues. My recovery from drugs and alcohol is related to my recovery from other toxic substances, like cis-heteronormativity, white supremacy, and patriarchy. They say you are only as sick as the secrets you keep.
When I went into substance abuse treatment this last time, I had to relinquish three secrets to my family: that I was an incest survivor, bisexual, and non-binary. I remember I coordinated a family session with my drug counselor where I “came out” to my mother. I told my mother that I wanted to wear women’s clothes and makeup.
After “coming out” to my parents in different ways over the course of three years, and when I was finally serious about socially transitioning, they told me I had to move out in three months.
They told me that I had already put them through enough with my addiction. But in my mind, all I heard was, “We don’t care you are a incest survivor, or that less than six months ago you were waking us up in the middle of the night because you were having images of cutting your wrists.”
So, I moved out.
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A Vow Against the Colonizer’s Tools of Oppression
The two most consistent things in my life were activism and addiction. But I never really put the two together until I went into recovery this last time. The movie Malcolm X had always been one of my favorite movies, and one specific scene came to mind. Malcolm X made a commitment to never drink or drug again as a vow of abstinence against the colonizer’s many tools of oppression. Right then and there, a light went on in my head.
It was from this moment that I began to research the intersections between drugs, trauma, political oppression, and capitalism. I learned about the Opium Wars; the creation of crack-cocaine by The Central Intelligence Agency to fund the contras in Nicaragua; how the drug war in Third World countries is utilized as a pretext to displace indigenous peoples from their lands to invade space for corporations to appropriate resources; and how The War on Drugs was utilized as a pretense to politically suppress the liberation movements of communities of color in the late 60’s, such as the Black Power Movement.
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Circles of Radical Recovery
It was around this time that I was introduced to a AA fellowships for people of color and queer people of color. I had become estranged from AA fellowships in general because I became aware they were increasingly composed of white cis straight men and unwittingly reinforce many systems of oppression simply by not acknowledging or talking about them. Racism and sexism are considered “outside issues” in AA.
It was also through activism that I became acquainted with other people in different forms of recovery. Within these new circles of radical recovery, I was able to speak openly about mental health oppression, gender, sexual orientation, substance abuse, and capitalism. They accepted all parts of my identity. I could share in an AA people of color meeting about my ambivalence with getting to know white men in AA because I could not relate to their experience. When I speak of my surviving police brutality in radical recovery spaces, it’s seen the context of state violence, and not simply as an incident where my behavior was“needed to be tamed” by the police. In an AA queer people of color meeting, I am able to speak freely about how I used drugs and alcohol to suppress my feelings of being queer or being gender non-binary, and not be seen as attention-seeking.
I am able to speak to all of my identities and not feel pressured to compartmentalize myself out of fear for the white-cis-straight-male gaze. I can now talk about my experiences and not feel ashamed because the people most closest to me understand how individual experiences are contextualized within larger forces which color my circumstances.[Feature Image: A photo of a person with their dark hair pulled back, large sunglasses and large silver earrings. They are outside in a crowd on the street. Source: Eric Parker]