A particularly grueling morning which followed another night of binge drinking led Sober Brown Girls founder Kirstin Walker to find her way toward sobriety.
In hindsight, she realizes it was shame that had kept sending her back to the bottle.
"Guilt shows up in so many different ways in addiction, I would wake up every morning with this heavy — like a whole body was laying on me — sense of guilt, because I couldn’t control myself," Walker told Blavity. "What in the world is that all about? You can control yourself. You have power here. But there was that profound sense of guilt of letting my family down."
Walker, 39, says her problematic relationship with wine dominated her weekends until, one day — the morning of her mother’s doctor’s appointment — it left her helpless.
“That fear is what changed the tables for me, because then I did start to think ‘What if something happens to the kids and I can't get out of bed, or I'm stuck on the toilet, or I’m sick? What would really happen? This is out of control. If you can't get out of bed to take your mom to a scheduled appointment, what would happen during an emergency?'" she said.
The mom of two said she founded Sober Brown Girls last February as both a safe space for other women of color who may be struggling with addiction, as well as a means to hold herself accountable as she documented her own journey towards recovery.
In fact, Walker told Blavity, she launched the Instagram page before she even shared her sobriety with her husband.
“It’s very important, especially in early sobriety, to get your community of people who understand you. I have a very amazing friend and she didn't know half of the secretive drinking I was doing, or how sick I was all the time. I was very good at hiding it. But I can be vulnerable with this other set of people because they understand. They get this disease. I can be vulnerable on a whole ‘nother level,” she explained.
But Sober Brown Girls encapsulates a more nuanced mission than sobriety alone. For Black women, Walker says, the road to recovery is paved with microaggressions.
“Our traumas are very unique as Black women. When I'm in a group of white women — and they do dominate the sober space — there are certain topics, certain nuances of my addiction that they won't understand,” Walker said. "But I know if I get in a room with Black women, or I have a Black counselor or a Black lead, it makes a world of difference to me.”
Indeed, sober spaces are not exempt from the harmful, dark-cloud stereotypes that often trail Black women. In conversation with Joy Sutton at American Addiction Centers (AAC), Walker explained that Black women are oftentimes preceded by a singular stereotype in sober spaces: crack addicts.
“What really hit me in speaking with Kirstin, was when she spoke about going to a meeting and people touching her hair,” Sutton, the Director of Corporate Communications at AAC told Blavity. “Even in everyday life being a Black woman, you have to explain yourself. So not only coming into a space where you have to explain yourself and deal with what you're going through, Kirstin talked about going to meetings and having to explain that it was alcohol and not crack. Just all of the stereotypes.”
The crack epidemic of the 1980s encapsulates a criminalized way of thinking about addiction now considered archaic by the sober community, which generally approaches addiction as a chronic illness today. With the adoption of supervised injection sites and the expansion of emergency responders’ training on how to reverse an overdose, the U.S. response to the opioid crisis is marked by a measure of compassion and support that was not extended to Black Americans victimized by the crack epidemic.
“Well, it was Black people who were doing it,” Walker said. “The messaging was: ‘Control yourself, get yourself together, pull yourselves up by your bootstraps.’ But now we get it. This is a huge chronic illness that needs treatment. This isn't just because I'm a bad person and I just want to feel this way. I didn’t want to throw up three to four times a week. That didn't feel good. I would start having fears, knowing the vertigo is coming. What if we had the conversations we had around opioids, with crack?”
Sutton says the science-informed approach to addiction treatment as a chronic illness, rather than an issue of crime or morality is the result of society’s evolved way of thinking — and that we’re better for it.
“We’ve learned more about addiction, and it's unfortunate because so many people in the Black community suffered, and were stigmatized and shamed,” she said. “It's sad that it took the opioid crisis, it's sad that it took an epidemic happening within another community for us to have a wake up call, but I'm glad we’re here now so that people like Kirstin can understand that they're not alone, and they’re not bad people.”
Today, more than ever, Sutton says it's crucial for those battling addiction to remember that they are not alone. AAC chose to keep its doors open throughout the pandemic as people across the nation found themselves isolated from their coping mechanisms, and tempted by their former vices, Sutton told Blavity. The center has started an online support program, with membership reaching over 1,000 online users.
The group's virtual Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings are intended to provide a sense of safety and support. They're offered in place of the conventional 12-step meetings that the pandemic has left so many feeling isolated and vulnerable without, the AAC Facebook page explains.
“Anxiety, stress and isolation are triggers for relapse. So in this pandemic we have had the perfect storm,” she explained. “People are losing their jobs, are isolated in their homes, so people that had that supportive community, could go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and be around other people, now all of a sudden found themselves in isolation. When you had that, coupled with the stress, it led people to start drinking again, to start doing drugs again.”
Walker’s own struggles with alcoholism speak to the power of isolation. She says her addiction was marred by feelings of shame, and maintained by secrets: tools she picked up in a household governed by a code of silence.
“When I was growing up, not only was it ‘What happens in this house, stays in this house,’ but when you were vulnerable, there was a possibility that someone else would find out this information that you've entrusted in confidence,” Walker told Blavity. “This environment makes you scared to be vulnerable and come out and say what you're feeling. It's hard to feel that you're in a safe space.”
Walker says this aspect of her upbringing has guided her in her own motherhood, as she remains fiercely committed to fostering feelings of openness and transparency with her children. What’s more: it’s informed her approach to supporting others in sobriety.
“Just trusting people is something that is still very new for me. As far as everything being secretive, that wasn't gonna be a part of my household, no way,” Walker said. “With Sober Brown Girls, I want people to know when they come here, it's safe. I'm very honest on the page when I'm having a rough day — or what a craving is like — when I'm having a good day, what tools I’m using. We laugh, we cry. I want them to know this space is real and it's safe, and you’re welcome here.”
While Walker arms her fellow sober brown girls with the tools to cope with life and chronic illness, at AAC, the path to recovery is pronged by other avenues of wellness and self discovery. Untreated mental illness is often an unidentified companion to addiction, Sutton told Blavity.
“With the majority of people who come into our treatment centers, we’re not just treating them for addiction. It’s also anxiety, PTSD,” she explained. “There is a strong correlation between mental health disorders and addiction. But it’s no wonder because when you're struggling, you're trying to find a way to just feel normal. What you'll find people often say when they're dealing with addiction is ‘I wasn't even drinking for pleasure, I just wanted to feel normal.’”
For Walker, this pursuit of "normalcy'' amid anxiety and depression came without context or explanation. Yet again, the answers she needed lay hidden behind the veil of secrecy.
“Who knows who in my family could have suffered from anxiety, depression, postpartum depression, the way I have?” Walker posited. “It could have been generations and generations, but because we don't talk about these things, we don't know. I couldn't turn to a family member because we never had those discussions. They may have thought it was something completely foreign or wrong with me. I didn't want that judgement. Therapy is not a bad word. I love my therapist. I love my medication, that's not bad either. It was actually what I needed instead of the alcohol.”
Still, Americans’ problematic relationship with alcohol is not driven by feelings of secrecy and shame alone.
In her sobriety, Walker says she has become aware of the predatory nature of industry advertisements — especially in their targeting of women consumers.
“Alcohol is the only drug that you’re judged for not using. That just comes from our mindset and the role that it plays when we celebrate, when we're down, the way we see it on TV,” Walker said. “The alcohol industry is kicking out these commercials, most recently a Tropicana one, where they target moms: ‘Go hide in the bathrooms and make a mimosa.’ That is not what she needs. She needs support and compassion. She needs some self care, some me time, she needs to delegate and get the rest of the family involved so she doesn't feel like she has so much on her back. Those are the tools.”
What’s more insidious, Walker finds, is the chasm between her own experience with the painful consequences of overconsumption, and that which is portrayed in the media.
“It's pretty irritating to watch a movie and see the amount of alcohol they are drinking, and then in the morning see they're bright eyed and bushy tailed,” Walker admitted. “In what world? How are you binge drinking and just getting up and living your life? Show us what it really looks like to be hungover.”
The Alcohol Rehab Guide reported that the portrayal of alcohol in television programming and advertisements does in fact have an impact on viewers, as this portrayal is intended by alcohol companies to trigger cravings for certain alcohol brands as well as deepen social acceptance.
The impact, Sutton finds, is further normalization.
“This culture of binge drinking allows people to continue to be in denial. If society is telling you that over drinking is fine, people end up thinking: ‘I don't have a problem, everyone does this,’” she explained. “When we have an industry that normalizes excessive drinking, it's hard for people with an addiction to come to the point of realizing ‘I have a problem and I need help,’ because people are telling them ‘You need this, you deserve this.’”
But the media’s propagandic depiction of binge drinking is not limited to romanticizing the morning after. The general understanding of alcohol’s potential deadliness is also largely lost on Americans, Sutton finds.
“People think opiates like heroin are the deadliest to come off of. The truth of the matter is, it’s alcohol. We tell people to be careful if you're trying to detox at home, because depending on how long you have had this toxic relationship with alcohol, you may find yourself having withdrawal symptoms and even seizures. If that happens, you need to get yourself to the emergency room. I think because we’re in a culture where it's kind of like ‘Oh alcohol is safe, you can drink’ people aren’t fully aware that dependency and detox can be deadly.”
While the general public remains blissfully unaware of the true dangers of detoxing from alcohol, a hurricane of fear stood in the eye of Walker’s unchecked addiction — fear of not drinking, that is.
“What was I gonna do with all that time? What was I gonna do on the weekends? How were my friends gonna take this, when our whole interaction, before Corona, was centered on alcohol?” the questions buzzed through Walker’s mind, a steady and discouraging taunt.
Today, Walker is one year sober and enjoys the long stretch of weekends that reach for miles, unclouded by the haze of alcohol and hangovers.
“I’m crafty now, who knew at 39 that I'd be crafting?” Walker said. “There are so many different tools and hobbies that I've started to lean on. I love reading now. I have so much time on the weekends, which is crazy because i used to always feel like my weekends just flew, because i was sick half of the time. Now it's like my weekends are forever. I can get into my coloring, I can get into my crafts, it's been really fun. It's taken a while to get to this point, to find these different tools, because my only tool used to be alcohol. It’s really an awakening.”