In 2008, I was doing daily battle with a debilitating pill and alcohol addiction — and I was losing. I was also in the middle of a high-stakes divorce and a mom to two young boys. I had made my world as small as possible so that no one could peek behind the curtain and see what was really going on.
For me, the idea of being “found out” was terrifying. I had just been asked to join the board at my son’s private school and I was the reigning parent association president, the first Black one since 1974. Some days, I was the model parent, waving to other moms in the pickup line. The next, I could be a complete disaster, secretly fishing undigested pills out of my own vomit.
In my head, it seemed logical that if I was exposed an addict, I’d be taking every other Black parent at my school with me into ruin. Not to mention that this habit of mine, if discovered, might reinforce all of the negative stereotypes that white folks have about Black people in general.
My desire to get a handle on my addiction without asking anyone for help was paramount. So I quietly did what I’d done ever since I’d learned to sound out letters on a page. I turned to books.
At first, I was thrilled with what seemed to be a treasure trove of addiction memoirs. Everything from Caroline Knapp’s “Drinking: A Love Story” to Augusten Burroughs’ “Dry” and Pete Hamill’s “A Drinking Life.” And while each of these stories spoke to the desperation and powerlessness that accompanies substance use disorder, none of them satisfied my cravings for affinity. Yes, I needed validation that I had a disease and wasn’t just a terrible person, but I also needed to know that people who looked like me got better.
I needed to know that I wasn’t alone.
After I got out of inpatient treatment that August, it occurred to me that I had never come across any recovery books or articles that were written by women of color. As an addict, I understood that the choices were “get well” or “die.” But as a Black woman, the path forward didn’t seem as obvious to me as it was for my white peers.
Nevertheless, I dove head-first into the alarmingly white world of recovery meetings. “Nurse Jackie” and other addiction TV shows starring white women became required weekly viewing. I rented Blockbuster movies to fill the hours of those dreadful, early-in-sobriety-weekend nights. “When a Man Loves a Woman,” “Gia,” “28 Days” and more. I devoured addiction and recovery books by white women, but ultimately ended up feeling that they were written for other white women.
“This is enough,” I told myself.
It had to be. It was all that there was.
During the summer of 2020, authors Isabel Wilkenson, Claudia Rankine, Ibram X. Kendi and Natasha Trethewey dominated the nonfiction best-seller lists. I remember marveling at the fact that, for the first time in recent memory, the majority of the authors at the top of these lists were Black.
This phenomenon was a response to the cultural reckoning that was happening in America and the rest of the world. White women were buying Black authors’ books by the cartload. Suddenly everyone wanted to learn more about critical race theory and how to be an “anti-racist.” The energy in the air was palpable and urgent. White supremacy was being discussed openly and white women were attempting to educate themselves.
Cut to 2023, and you’ll find that a subtle, all-things-Black malaise has settled over white society. White women have swiveled their considerable buying power toward books about other topics, including a new genre of storytelling that focuses on alcohol dependence. According to a Washington Post article from January, books targeting women who want to examine their drinking are numerous enough to have acquired a quippy category label: “quit lit.” When one looks up quit lit for women, you’ll find heavy hitters such as Glennon Doyle’s “Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life”; Holly Whitaker’s “Quit Like A Woman”; and “The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober” by Catherine Gray. Other notable authors that pop up immediately include Belle Robertson, Clare Pooley, Laura McKowen, Annie Grace, and Sarah Hepola.
“But where’s the list of quit lit for and about women of color?” I wondered.
Hint: It’s much, much shorter.
Adding insult to injury, not one Black or brown quit lit author comes up when one types in “quit lit authors” unless it’s followed up with the words “of color.” Additionally, when one searches this way, you’ll probably find exactly what I did. A single article that specifically recommends recovery memoirs for people of color.
I do realize that one is better than none. I also realize that there are several compelling addiction/recovery nonfiction books out there written by women of color. But you probably won’t find them at your local bookstore, because these books aren’t ranked in the top 10 or even the top 50. “A Piece Of Cake” by Cupcake Brown (which is a thrilling read) consistently pops up when I try to locate quit lit by Black women, but it was published in 2007.
Most white lady quit lit fails to acknowledge the impact of race on addiction issues at all. I rarely, if ever, recall these authors acknowledging that the very real problems they face as white women dealing with substance abuse would be compounded tenfold if they were women of color. For instance, I’ve often encountered the sentiment in white lady quit lit of gratitude that after getting sober, they no longer have to fear getting pulled over by the police. That is a privilege that doesn’t exist for me or others who look like me. Freedom from drugs and alcohol doesn’t equal freedom from fear for Black people.
For many of us folks of color, asking for help when it comes to matters of mental health and/or addiction can be a thing of great shame. In some communities, it’s viewed as a betrayal of the family or the culture. This can make getting sober while Black an even more isolating endeavor, which means that the stakes couldn’t be higher for making sure that there is a plethora of recovery literature for people of color. And not only the stories about sexual trauma, drug dens, and prostitution. What about women like me whose lives looked fine, even enviable from the outside, but they were dying on the inside? Like Holly Whitaker, I too drank until I passed out. Like Annie Grace, I too cried when I had to say goodbye to my drug of choice.
And even if there was one best-selling, uber-relevant addiction memoir written by a Black woman, it’s not enough. In fact, it’s not enough to have one extraordinary book by a Black author in any genre. Tokenization has never been the answer. What we need is true representation.
Representation is the only way to normalize Black addiction and Black recovery stories. For the next Black mom who discreetly scours her local bookstore looking for a story like hers, so she doesn’t slink away empty-handed, believing that sobriety isn’t for people like us. If she sees herself on the shelves, she will know that she is not alone, that sobriety isn’t just for white women. And, maybe, she’ll be empowered to seek out the help she needs.
“Stash: My Life in Hiding” by Laura Cathcart Robbins was released on March 7.
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