I was among the 73 million people who watched Tuesday night’s debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. It was a debate, I might add, that had all the decorum of a “Real Housewives” reunion show (no shade to all you Real Housewives out there).
As a Black woman, I was stunned and demoralized by Trump’s refusal to denounce white supremacists. But when Biden brought up his late son Beau’s military record and Trump countered by attacking Biden’s other son, Hunter, saying he was thrown out of the military for cocaine use, I had to get up and walk away from the television. Ouch.
I circled back, though, when I heard the tone of Biden’s swift, loving response.
“My son, my son, my son ― like a lot of people you know at home ― had a drug problem. He’s overtaken it, he’s fixed it, he’s worked on it, and I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my son.”
Thank you, Joe.
Even the Real Housewives know that kids are always off-limits. Around 20 million Americans ages 12 and older have a substance abuse disorder, according to a 2019 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. When Trump took a shot at Biden’s son on this prime-time stage, he was also firing off at them and at the tens of thousands of family members who have an addict in their lives.
With roughly 70,000 people dying per year from accidental overdoses and with alcohol use skyrocketing during the pandemic, it feels wildly callous and irresponsible for our president to “go in” on people who are struggling with a disease formally recognized by the American Medical Association.
On April 22, 1978, then-first lady of the United States Betty Ford bravely announced to the world that she was addicted to prescription medication and alcohol. Later on, she famously created the gold standard in treatment centers, the Betty Ford Center. And up until her death at age 93, she worked tirelessly to remove the stigma that many people associate with alcoholism and addiction.
Last week when actor Dax Shepard opened up on his podcast Armchair Expert about his drug use after claiming 16 years of sobriety, he spoke about being scared — not just of having “lost his time,” but of being stigmatized. Shepard spoke candidly about how his ego was his own worst enemy, saying he had been afraid of what people would think of him if he confessed.
In 2019, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said, “The biggest killer around drug and alcohol abuse isn’t the overdoses. It’s the stigma. Stigma keeps people from asking for help.”
I know a little bit about that.
In 2006, I was fighting a monster of an alcohol and pill addiction, and I was losing. Like Shepard described on his podcast, my tolerance was also off the charts, meaning I had to take larger and larger quantities to feel even just kind of normal.
I was hiding my addiction from everyone I knew, keeping up with a wild schedule and suffering through daily bouts of withdrawal and shame. Even though I knew that the quantities of pills and booze I was downing on a nightly basis could kill me, I was determined to keep up appearances. I’d just been named president of the PTA at my kid’s school. Later that year, I was asked to join the Board of Trustees. And I had been at countless meetings and lunches with other committee moms and heard the way they trash-talked other parents who fell from grace.
“Did you hear that Parker’s mom is having an affair with Mr. Todalski?” Or, “I heard, Bryce’s dad lost his job. He may have to switch schools.” But the most scandalous subject of all, the one that they huddled around to discuss in excited, hushed tones? Rehab.
“Did you hear that so-and-so went to [the addiction treatment center] Hazelden? Her poor children. Her poor husband. I heard he had to hide her keys so she wouldn’t try and drive the kids to school drunk.”
Gulp. How could I tell anyone that I had this horribly destructive disease if admitting it meant that I would become the drunk mom de jour on the next PTA gossip menu?
Checking into rehab on July 14, 2008, was frightening. I was scared to leave my kids, I was scared of what was sure to be a gnarly, painful detox, and I was terrified by the possibility of facing life without a cocktail (or seven). But it was boarding that airplane to return home 28 days later that was really the most terrifying thing I’d ever done.
To me, it was the equivalent of walking into the lion’s den. I returned to an ex-husband who had no doubt discovered all of the bottles I had hidden around the house. I returned to a group of women who had probably been coached on what they could and couldn’t say to their fragile, alcoholic friend.
But the most petrifying thing was driving to campus that first day back to drop off my kids. I briefly thought about switching them to a different school but decided instead to don the required uniform of any disgraced addict — dark sunglasses and a baseball cap. Parking on the ramp to wait in that line was agonizing.
It’s taken me years to learn to hold my head high after rehab. When appropriate, I identify as an alcoholic, but more often, I identify as a woman in recovery. I write openly about my journey in sobriety, and for the most part, the responses I get are lovely, filled with inspiration and gratitude.
Until Tuesday night, I had started to become hopeful that the nation was indeed coming to a point where the stigma of addiction was becoming less and less significant. That could possibly spare the lives of countless folks like me who might be reluctant to admit to having a condition that some people believe is a matter of choice or a weakness of character.
In a strange way, I’m glad that Trump attacked Hunter Biden’s addiction and recovery onstage that night. Now there can be no doubt about where he stands. And I’m glad that Joe Biden was allowed that moment — not just to defend his son, but to come to the defense of addicts all over the world.
People in recovery have labored under this stigma long enough. We’re not bad people trying to be good. We’re sick people trying to get better. And as singer-songwriter Jason Isbell tweeted the day after the debate, “Recovery lessons really come in handy when you’re trying to rebuild something that’s in extreme disrepair.”
Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.