Author: Ryan Brown, URMND Founder
I remember my first dabble with drugs outside of the usual keg stand at a college party on Friday nights. This is coming from a guy who has yet to smoke a cigarette and never really had any experience with alcohol until first semester freshman year. Alcohol was never tempting before college out of the sheer fear of my parents. Not to mention alcoholism runs relatively deep in my family which has been thoroughly discussed in our house. Then you strike out on your own as a self-described 18 year old man and the rules change. All of them.
From my first experimental trial with unprescribed Valium to help cope with high anxiety, I was soon scraping together coins to get a shared bottle of Jack Daniels with my roommates and that eventually branched into a daily 40mg dose of Adderall habit to help study.
When it comes to dealing with a large number of negative factors from birth to adulthood, African American men tend to internalize their issues of racism, socioeconomic status, physical and mental health on a regular basis. Black men have a steeper slope to climb when it comes to even being equal with white counterparts when it comes healthcare access and pay. So self-medication with drugs and alcohol has been a comfortable go to for people of color when it comes to dealing with anxiety-inducing life situations.
As African Americans we sleep less than white people. We have higher levels of psychosocial stressors than other races. We also have a lower life expectancy and infant mortality rates that are twice as high than those experienced by white people in the US.
We are poorer when compared to other races. We get paid less for having the same college degrees and are more likely to be treated differently in the workplace. Being poorer means black people live in worse neighborhoods where we struggle to find adequate employment, housing, and even grocery stores.
So for others that leads to frustration, which leads to coping in a negative manner and sometimes acting irrational. Even when we are not acting violently, the color of our skin gives off the stereotype that we will, which leads to consistent conflict. Black people count for half of the homicide victims in this country and we are only 13 percent of the total population. When adjusted by population, we are also three times more likely to die in the hands of law enforcement.
So we drink obsessively. We do our drugs. We don’t process our pain. We make fun of each other for wanting to go take care of ourselves in a proper way and the cycle of unhappiness, low productivity and abuse lives to see another day.
When it came to self medicating, the wildly popular medically-prescribed promethazine and codeine cough syrup (or “lean”) was extremely easy to obtain when I was in college. Mixing syrup with Sprite and Jolly Rancher candy became the drug of choice in the mid-2000s as Houston-based hip-hop artists such as Three Six Mafia, DJ Screw and UGK. Before long I had an alcohol, lean, prescription pill problem and a coke-addicted girlfriend before I even had my first cigarette.
Drug addiction is not a new concept, but when it comes to dealing with the pressures of being an African American man in this current climate, that makes things even trickier. Being the drug dealer used to be what was cool, but now being the addict is what is being glorified in urban culture.
Lean and pills continue to be wildly popular in the music scene, but the toll that it is taking on African American entertainers have been widely documented. Pimp C, DJ Screw and most recently beloved Chicago-based artist Fredo Santana have all had significantly abused promethazine and codeine-based cough syrup which has led to their deaths. Rappers Lil Wayne and Rick Ross have also had life-threatening seizures more than likely from their lean usage.
Even looking back at that pressing time in my life when drugs were regular, self-medicating did not even seem like a real thing. I did what I could, what I knew and what felt comfortable. That all started with easing pain, guilt and frustration with whatever I could get my hands on. Severe anxiety, an A on a test, hearing my grandmother’s voice after she passed away, not being able to pay rent, were all problems being dealt with the same way.
Even though those days are long gone for me personally, I continue to see clients, friends and family who continue to self-medicate to help deal with life and struggles. For some, self-medicating is the only life they know. It’s an ongoing generational battle that unfortunately isn’t going anywhere until we are able to not only seek professional help and learn to love and want more for ourselves and the people we surround ourselves with. We are only given one body and mind in this life and we should be doing whatever is possible to take care of it.