Rehab Confidential Interview with Amy Dresner and Joe Schrank

Get to know Amy Dresner and Joe Schrank from the podcast Rehab Confidential and find out what inspired them to be advocates in the recovery space.

1. For those who may not know you, can you intro yourselves and give us a little background about yourselves?

Joe Schrank: I’m a clinical social worker and recovery advocate. I’ve done a bunch of things in the space, some of which I am proud, others not so much but I’ve worked in various areas of addiction and recovery for many years. I’ve been sober for 23 years 

Amy Dresner: I’m a freelance writer and the author of the addiction memoir “My Fair Junkie”.  I also do some speaking gigs.  I’m sober for about 7 and a half years. 

2. How did you two meet? What made you want to start a podcast together?

Joe: We met through my older baby’s mom, Laurie Dhue. She and Amy spoke at the 2018 She Recovers conference together. Laurie and Amy became friends after that and she thought we should collaborate, mostly, I guess because Amy has such a big mouth. 

Amy: Ummm, you also have a big mouth, Joe.  She said to me that we were two of the smartest people she knew  (she must not know very many people) and that we had a lot of similar ideas.  She was adamant we should do some type of project together.  We had both wanted to do a podcast for a very long time and Joe was like “Let’s do this. I’m sick of talking about it” and so we jumped in. 

3. Who has been the best guest on the show so far, and if you had to pick your dream guest or guests who would it be? Why?

Joe: So far, my favorite guest had been Ryan O’ Callaghan, the NFL player who came out as gay. He was really honest and articulate about how shame fueled his drug abuse which I think is a universal theme among many people. He also showed that there are many roads to better living, sometimes that means 12 step life but not always. People need to know that if they don’t want to spend their life with weird people in a musty church basement drinking horrible coffee that that doesn’t have to be their only option.

I think our dream guest would be Lady Gaga. She went to Sacred Heart in NYC (the sister school where my son went) and she has made awesome statements about mental health, a social worker’s dream and she has a massive platform.

Amy: My favorite guest was Ms. Brittany Andrews, the Hall of Fame sober porn star.  She was hilarious and incredibly forthcoming about drug use and trauma in the adult industry and how she’s trying to help other young girls in the business. I can’t think of another recovery podcast that’s had a porn star on but again I’m too busy making memes and posting headliners for our podcast to listen to all of them. 

Yeah, Lady Gaga would definitely be a dream guest. My other dream guest would be Nora Volkow, the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).  I love science and I think the science of addiction is the key to changing the way some people still view it as some sort of moral issue or choice. 

4. What makes you both feel inspired? What is important to you in your recovery today? 

Joe: I’m really inspired by beach yoga, and gluten-free kale chips but I am also really interested in policy at this point. It’s important to me to shift policy so we don’t have another generation of people living in shame about their mental health. I think there are many systems that are important to deliver that message, sports being one of them. I still love doing individual work with clients but we have to address policy. In social work, we say “we pull people out of the ditch but we also have to work on the ditch itself”.

Amy: I’m inspired by helping people and delivering an important message with a bit of humor.  I tried to do that in my memoir and it was a really different experience for people.   People think information about mental health or addiction has to be sacred and humor shouldn’t be part of that but I disagree.  When you make people laugh, you diminish shame and you also help them remember things.  That’s a scientific fact.  I think combining those two things is what we’re trying to do in the podcast: laugh and talk about pertinent issues.  As a former comic, I know that humor allows people to more open-minded, more willing to see situations from another angle.  

5. We admire how unapologetically open you guys are about your history with addiction. What’s one thing you hope to educate people about when it comes to addiction and recovery? How can people within recovery fight some of the judgment and stigma that exists?

Joe: There isn’t a human being on the planet who doesn’t face some type of mental health issue at some point.  We all get our challenges in life, even if it isn’t chronic.  Nobody escapes pain or the need for help. Humans need each other. We are tribal and communal by nature. We shouldn’t be ashamed of that. I think we can all help by asking ourselves not “do I have mental health concerns” but “what are my mental health concerns” at the moment.  We typically wait for the crash to do anything. The same way we exercise and eat right (I try, I really do) to maintain physical health, we have to have a plan of action for our mental and emotional health as well. If we framed mental health as a need, not as an add on in the crisis, it would diminish the shame greatly. 

Amy: I think by having on a slew of completely different guests from professors to doctors to athletes to porn stars to politicians to combat vets to transgender people, we are trying to show that addiction doesn’t discriminate and that everybody’s experience of what led them into active addiction and how they recovered is unique. I think we’re also trying to educate people on the different modalities of recovery, be it MAT, harm reduction, 12 steps, trauma work, whatever.  What worked for you doesn’t necessarily work for somebody else and that’s okay.  

Regarding stigma, I’m all for people recovering out loud and coming out of the recovery closet.  I’ve said it before “we cannot break the stigma of addiction without breaking the stigma of recovery”.  One of the things we do each week is to feature a famous historical alcoholic or drug addict, somebody who was an accomplished writer, singer, inventor, etc.  We’re trying to show people “Hey if you’re alcoholic or drug addict, that’s okay.  We can and have done amazing shit.  Don’t be ashamed.”

You can listen to Amy and Joe’s podcast, Rehab Confidential on Apple Podcasts.

The Myth of Perfection In Recovery

There is a distinct story arc in many systems regarding addiction: fall from grace, act of providence facilitating redemption, gratitude for a “life beyond your wildest dreams”.

It’s a beautiful story and representative of almost nobody, at least nobody honest.  Recovery is rarely that linear.  If only you’d just hit bottom, go to treatment and voila! But anybody who’s hit many bottoms (hi), gone to multiple treatment centers (hello) or had the time and then eaten shit again (me again), knows it’s never that simple.  And I think making it look like it should create a lot of shame and self-doubt.  “Relapse isn’t part of recovery”, people say. Well, I disagree.  If it wasn’t part of  “your” journey of recovery, yay! But it sure was part of mine and most people I know.

In 12 step, there’s the “progress not perfection” tenet.  Yet few in long term recovery are willing to admit how far from perfect they are.  They are put up on a pedestal, doing circuit speaking, revered among the AA community. However, it is not uncommon for these same old-timers to blow their brains out or relapse at 19 years because they can’t be honest.  There is a heavy expectation to be the leaders, to have it all together all the time. They have the answers, the secret, the key.  But because of this all pressure, they don’t feel like they can admit they’re struggling and the result can be lethal.

In recovery, as in your using life: people will die.  You might go or stay broke.  You’ll get dumped.  You could have health problems.  You’ll still get to grapple with your mental illness.  Just because you have some better tools and have stopped putting a needle in your arm, doesn’t change that life is in session.  You’re not immune because you’re sober. 

I guess I’m a recovery advocate.  I’m not even sure what that means.  But people call me that but I’m not like the other ones.  I’m the black sheep punk rock hot mess of recovery advocates.  I swear too much.  I don’t post platitudes.  I make terrible drug jokes. I don’t talk about how “grateful” or “blessed” I am all the time.  I post pictures when I’m depressed with bedhead.  I talk about marrying my cat because I can’t get it together in relationships.  I don’t levitate. I don’t offer a meditation course.  Do I think that’s inspirational? Not really but other people seem to. In a land of pseudo-spiritual gurus with sparkly rainbow perfect sobriety, people seem to appreciate “realness”.  

My cohost of Rehab Confidential Joe Schrank says,

“Life, is hard. Being sober won’t change that life is unjust and it’s unfair. Your recovery will not be perfect. You will not do it perfectly. Perfection is the errand of the ego. What you get is authenticity, you get to experience life and all it has to offer in an authentic way. It won’t always be pretty, in fact, it seldom will be. The truth is, most people struggle, the ‘and now, I’m a counselor to help others’ while inspirational and beautiful, is often bullshit. It’s tantamount to a fairy tale where a handsome prince rides in to the rescue.”

This “progress not perfection” should be applied to getting sober as well but it’s not.  Harm reduction is still looked down upon.  Nobody applauds you for moving from shooting dope to smoking pot.  But shouldn’t they? Improvement matters. And you can’t find a recovery if you’re dead.  Abstinence is the Holy Grail in AA and treatment centers and nothing short of that is good enough.  In no other treatment of disease do we disregard the desires of the patient?  Here’s the hard truth: abstinence is not wanted or attainable by everybody.  

“In my career as a social worker, Joe Schrank said, “I have battled this idea for decades. When I was running a sober living in NYC, I would often sit in my office talking to someone who came, hat into the hand, to do the shame spiral mea culpa: ‘I used’. My calmness was often misinterpreted as indifference but the effort was to combat shame spiral descent into the cultural pressure of: I’m a piece of shit addict”. ‘Ok, let’s not beat you up about it, and let’s recognize that you used once in the last 30 days, not 30, as you were doing. I would often be lambasted by the recovery culture as ‘giving permission to use’. Generally, this would come from the untrained self-ordained recovery guru or the rogue social worker consumed by the ‘fill my beds’ world of rehab.”

Let me make it known that both Joe and I are in AA and are both abstinent.  That works for us.  But we don’t apply what works for us to everybody.  That’s sober fundamentalism and it’s killing people. Joe doesn’t push his Catholicism on me, a half-breed Jew, thank God.  I mean if every time we spoke or did a podcast he talked to me about the body of Christ or the Messiah or that I was going to hell, I’d be like “bye, girl”. Evangelicalism has no place in recovery or anywhere in my opinion.  There is no one way and there is no “doing it right”.  There’s enough room for everybody’s journey under the tent of recovery. 

Joe Schrank said,

“I had a very close friend who was consumed with the idea of  ‘not doing it right’. Sycophantic would be sponsors circling his quasi-celebrity like hawks to be the savior ultimately turned him completely off to the idea of mutual aid. He refused to participate. He overdosed and died, leaving three boys and a wife. Did the cultural paradigm of ‘perfection’ kill him? No, his own pathology did but it didn’t help.”

“Separate from my work as a social worker,” Schrank continues, “I’m a person in long term recovery. My life is better since I stopped self-treating depression with a dark room, a Dylan CD, Whiskey, and self-pity. (It’s a bad treatment plan by the way). But is my life, my recovery perfect? Hardly. I still battle many things: depression, my big mouth. I’m a shitty businessman. I’m not swift at relationships. I can’t sit still. As a young guy, I would sit and listen in AA and think ‘Fuck, I’m doing something wrong’ mostly because of the competition for whose fall was deeper, whose redemption was more miraculous and I quite simply, didn’t fit that mold. I still don’t.”

In closing, here’s some honesty. You’re entitled to nothing. It will be hard. Days will suck donkey dicks. You’ll also be happy but not nearly enough of the time. You will have setbacks. Most people do. People will die. You’ll hear of horrible things. You’ll cry. You’ll laugh a lot if you let yourself. People will be assholes. I know this doesn’t sell the idea of sobriety as nirvana but it’s the reality. And the more you prepare yourself, the easier it will be to stay sober when the shit hits the fan.

So tell your truth and don’t let anybody tell you you’re not working a good enough program or any of that bullshit.  Being sober is HARD. Perfection is actually an insane and unattainable ideal. And what is “perfect”?  What makes others comfortable or look up to you? Fuck that. 

I’ll finish with one of Joe’s dumb baseball analogies that I as Jewish girl never understand,

“In baseball, failing 66% of the time makes you a Hall of Famer. Take that in and know we will never get it all right.”

Why Civic Activities are Important to Recovery, Happiness and The World

Alcoholics and addicts are notoriously self-obsessed.  In some ways, we’ve had to be in order to survive. But that selfishness is also a symptom of our illness. 

During most of my active addiction, I was concerned with staying alive, trying to get clean, and managing my raging mental illness.  But then I got sober.  A big tenet of being in recovery is service.  However, in AA, that’s usually limited to setting up chairs, making coffee, leading meetings, helping other alcoholics, and the like.  I’ve never had a sponsor urge me to get involved in civic responsibilities like voting or protests or writing to a congressman. I understand why.  AA doesn’t get involved in outside issues in order to stay out of controversy and maintain a singleness of purpose.  But isn’t recovery ultimately about rejoining society and being a productive member? Isn’t getting involved in civic issues a form of service on a macro level?  I think in our current climate, participation and productivity means more than paying your taxes, holding down a job and just not getting arrested.

Joe Schrank, clinical social worker, and interventionist told me, “I consider a metric of success in recovery to be involved in civic activities and responsibilities”. 

We all owe society our participation in the greater good. When good people do nothing, evil triumphs, and as recovering citizens, we have a moral obligation to take our values into the world at large. And I don’t mean that in a creepy proselytizing way. 

“In my work as a social worker I used to make young guys living in my Brooklyn loft play scrabble with the ‘Young At Hearts Club’ at the local church,” Shrank said. “Of course they would complain. But ultimately the intergenerational afternoon was good for the seniors and it was good for the young guys needing to be ‘of service’. Could I have had them set up chairs? Sure, but the idea was external validity of community participation.  Recovery can never be theory. The ball must be put into play.”

Growing up, civic involvement was never modeled for me. I was raised by two apolitical creatives, a designer and a screenwriter.  Sure my dad was involved in the Writer’s Guild strikes but in terms of social protests, not so much. “I can’t remember getting involved in any public issue except an anti-war march down La Cienega in the ’60s but that was so popular it almost seemed satirical,” my dad said. “I was part of the cliché of the cynically active who marched to get laid”.

When my part-time roommate Josh Tjaden got stuck in LA due to COVID for four long months, my life changed.  A gay activist for 17 years, he had the news on 24-7 and when George Floyd was murdered, I was suddenly enrolled in a crash course of politics and minority rights.  For that, I will be forever grateful. At 7 years sober, I finally woke up, grew up a pair and got involved.  My first protest was a BLM march in West Hollywood. I jumped right in, fist in the air, chanting.  The camaraderie was moving, the energy contagious.  It was a feeling of connectedness and common purpose I had never experienced outside recovery.  Do I have shame I didn’t do it sooner?  Of course.  But we get there when we get there.  Regret is useless unhelpful self-flagellation. I can’t go back in time. The question is what could I do now?

Josh told me, “When I finally embraced the concept of being an activist, I found both purpose and power. Over the past few months, I’ve been able to pass what I know about these issues on to other people in my life while continuing my own work. And while it’s exciting to watch them wake up to the injustices of the world, I’m not going to lie, the process has been exhausting at times. I keep thinking, ‘Where the hell have you been!?!’ while saying, ‘I’m so glad you came!!!’” 

Sure I knew the stigma of being a criminal or a drug addict or mentally ill. But I can and will never understand the prejudice that the BIPOC and the LGBTQ community face on a daily basis. But stigma is stigma.  And prejudice is prejudice which is something I’ve always spoken publicly about. It was time to expand and evolve and get out my little recovery bubble. 

Schrank said, “SAMHSA says there are 20 million people who identify as ‘in recovery’ and yet we are silent. Twenty million of anything should be a major concern. Have you ever heard of a politician courting the recovery vote? Not likely and why would they? We don’t vote. Imagine if we did? Imagine a voting block of 20 million people what that could mean in terms of funding treatment, recovery support services, research, job training and on and on. Imagine the funding if all recovering people demanded a federal user tax on alcohol to pay for the damage it causes?”

Schrank continued, “We are living in a moment in history where the streets are once again flowing with pain and frustration, “Joe Schrank continued. “Next time you’re wondering how you can participate, forget making coffee (or do that too) and take time to write to your Congress representative about an issue of concern, keeping your recovery values and principals in mind. Maybe it will be directly related to drug policy. Maybe it won’t. But you’ll be doing your part to cast our net wider and enhancing your personal journey as well. It’s a physical impossibility for two things to occupy the same space at the same time: when we’re playing scrabble with lonely old people, we’re forcing out the hamster wheel of concerns that keep us sick.”

There are other selfish reasons to help too. Scientific ones. 

Science-based nationally syndicated columnist and author, Amy Alkon lays out the science of helping others in her book “Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say Fuck”, In an email, she told me, “Research finds that it is not chasing happiness that makes us happy but pursuing meaning. The way we bring meaning into our lives is through extending ourselves for others. We do this personally, through volunteer work and activism, and we do this as citizens by taking seriously our responsibility to inform ourselves and to vote, as well as to speak out for what we see is right and what we see is needed in our society.”  

Many scientific studies, including one from a research team led by neuroscientist Jorge Moll at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have shown that giving, being of service, volunteering, donating, and the like are associated with the part of the brain involved in social bonding.  These activities can trigger a release of “feel-good” neurotransmitters such as oxytocin and vasopressin.  According to Sander Van Der Lin, a doctoral researcher in experimental social psychology at the London School of Economics and Political science,  “When doing good makes people feel good, these neurotransmitters can be addictive.  Psychologists refer to this virtuous cycle as ‘the helper’s high’. 

Still not convinced? Dr. Howard Wetsman, addictionologist, psychiatrist and former owner of Townsend Treatment Centers, who’s created an incredible series on YouTube called “Ending Addiction” told me: “Helping others makes it impossible to feel isolated or less than. Once those two are gone, you have more dopamine receptors. With more receptors you have more dopamine tone at the Nucleus Accumbens and it releases more endorphin in response. So helping others, even if you are only interested in yourself, is the most effective thing you can do.”

So if you’re just getting involved in the bigger issues, that’s okay. And if you fumble a bit as you figure it all out, that’s okay too.  Late to the party is better than not showing up at all. 

As Maya Angelou so eloquently put it, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”  

White People Go to Rehab, Black People Go to Jail

Amy Dresner and Joe Schrank explore the systemic racism of the treatment industry and the recovery community.

The death of George Floyd ignited another fever spike of the endlessly unhealed race issues in America. These issues long preceded the drug war, but made the racial disparities in rates of incarceration and who pays the price for drug use abundantly clear.

The vilification of black people and the narrative of urban decay offers shallow justification for many of the incidents with police. Some in conservative media tried to explain the Michael Brown killing by saying “He smoked weed.” (Is there anything more docile than a stoned doughy kid looking for snacks?) With Trayvon Martin, “He looked like a drug dealer,” was another tale told. But the data and metrics are clear. And the unfortunate conclusion is this: white people go to rehab and black people go to prison. Is that the case in the liberal bastion of Los Angeles? Turns out, it is.

If You’re White, You’re Sick, If You’re Black, You’re a Criminal

Jeff Ball, founder and clinical director of PCH treatment center told us: “We have made strong efforts to engage African American clients but our population doesn’t have the representation it should.”

Interventionist Tim Harrington put it pretty bluntly, saying, “If you’re white, you’re sick; if you’re black, you’re a criminal”.

Financial barriers seem to be a logical reason why there aren’t more black people in rehab, but upon closer look, that doesn’t hold up either. City, state, and county employees have a fair number of black employees and all are eligible for mental health services benefits with their insurance. Still, random site visits to LA rehabs will produce few, if any African American clients. Sure there are some county-owned, court-ordered rehabs that can boast more black clients, but the mid and upper level rehabs don’t have many black clients, nor do they have many black counselors or administrators.

“In my career as a clinical interventionist and sober companion, I have had exactly one black client, a notorious diva pop star,“ Joe Schrank said. “In my years at Promises, Malibu there were never any black people there. During my time running a transition program in Brooklyn, we had one black client. Something is wrong.”

Part of this could be long-standing cultural issues. According to the various black men and women in recovery we spoke with, there is still a stigma in the black community regarding seeking help for mental health or addiction problems. Ruben, 49, a New Yorker now sober thanks to a DUI and court-ordered outpatient treatment told me, “In our community, mental health treatment is a 40 and a blunt.” He and others do see this changing, slowly, with the younger generations.

“In the black community, recovery isn’t a thing. There’s no treatment. There’s jail or church”

Malik Pointer, eldest son of Ruth Pointer of the Pointer Sisters explained it this way, “Black people are not allowed to be weak. For years we haven’t talked about our pain and our feelings. You don’t get therapy. It’s changing now.”

“In general, black people don’t go to rehab. That’s why it wasn’t the solution for Prince or Michael, Marvin, Rick James, Whitney,” Malik continued. “You’re either strong or you’re not. Black people don’t collectively come together and say ‘whoa we just lost some of our dopest musicians. What are we going to do about it?’ But white people do that about everything.”

Nyla Christian, a black recovery advocate and a woman in long term recovery, reiterated the same sentiment. “In the black community, recovery isn’t a thing. There’s no treatment. There’s jail or church. Black Americans are just starting to address mental health as a challenge and a disease and not as moral or philosophical failing.”

Okay, but the onus doesn’t just lie in the black community.

“The training in social work is to see and respect the inherent worth and value of all humans, serve the most marginalized class, respect the diversity an individual brings,” Joe Schrank explains. But are we doing this? Not according to the number of black people in treatment.

Malik, who’s been to a staggering 25 plus treatment centers, now 3.5 years sober, said “In terms of black clients at all the rehabs, it was me and 2 girls… Maybe one or two black counselors. But 99% of the times I went to treatment, I was the only black person there.”

“I can’t tell you the times I’ve been told ‘Ooh you’re so articulate’. What the fuck were you expecting me to be?!”

Nyla’s experience was similar, especially at the upscale treatment centers. “When I went to the white treatment centers, they’re expecting a low bottom crackhead if you’re black. But I was a high bottom alcoholic. The counselors were surprised and the clients were resentful because that wasn’t their expectation. I’m supposed to fit a category: lost my kids, sold my body… When my story doesn’t fit their ‘story’, I’m either embraced or shunned. They’re more comfortable with the typical Shaniqua with long nails and gold teeth. I can’t tell you the times I’ve been told ‘Ooh you’re so articulate’. What the fuck were you expecting me to be?!”

“They were fine about talking about poverty or incest or whatever,” Nyla said, “but when I wanted to discuss my trauma of being a black woman in America, they told me it was not relevant to my alcoholism.”

So she finally decided to go to a black treatment center, The House of Uhuru, which means “freedom” in Swahili. All the counselors and founders were black, the directors were black, most clients were black but for an upper middle class black woman like Nyla, the experience was quite startling and more lowbrow than she’d expected.

“When I wanted to discuss my trauma of being a black woman in America, they told me it was not relevant to my alcoholism.”

DH Peligro, the black drummer from the Dead Kennedys, has been to 32 rehabs. In all of them all, he was the only black person there… “aside from a light skinned dude from Malibu.” He noted that “10 or 12 times there have been people of color that worked there. One was a counselor but the rest were drivers and techs.”

When he went to an all black rehab in St. Louis where he’s originally from, it was, he says, “Straight ghetto. All food was donated. You lived with the roaches.”

When black people end up in all white treatment facilities, we’ve got another problem. “A lot of black people feel uncomfortable talking about their problems to somebody who’s usually white,” DH said.

“At one rehab they were giving me therapy for PTSD, which I didn’t even know I had from being pulled over by the cops all the time… I was like, ‘Oh is that why I’m terrified every time I see the police?’”

 The Staffing Gap: Where are the Minority Counselors and Case Managers?

Isaac Reddick, a black man in long term recovery who’s worked at Promises, Wonderland, The Hills, and is now the Alumni Coordinator at Westwind, disagrees. “I really haven’t experienced racism in the treatment industry unless you’re talking about my having to be nice to and treat racist clients.”

He had a few horrific stories to tell about that. Here’s one: “I had a client at The Hills who refused to make his bed and felt housekeeping should do it. I explained to him it was about empowerment. Things escalated and he wound up shouting, “What do you know? You just some dumb nigger! I could buy your family ten times over!” Howard Samuels, the owner, kicked him out on the spot. I had no say in it. A few months later, that guy came back with 2 months of sobriety and made amends to me.”

“Why are people of color mostly techs or drivers instead of counselors, rehab owners or case managers?”

Isaac wanted it noted that, “I treat the racists with the same pity and compassion that I would cheerfully grant a sick friend,” which for those of you unfamiliar is something from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. “The last thing I want is for some KKK member to feel he can’t come get clean at Westwind because he read an article.”

When pried about the limited number of black clients he said, “That doesn’t FEEL like racism, it’s socio-economic geography.” Isaac said there are “Plenty of black folk at Cri-Help and Tarzana Treatment Center.” When he worked at Promises years ago, almost every tech was black, Hispanic or Middle Eastern… but “only because we had cars and could afford the gas money to drive to Malibu.”

Why are people of color mostly techs or drivers instead of counselors, rehab owners or case managers?

Here’s the deal. “White people and black people use drugs at roughly the same rate,” Joe Schrank told me, “but black people are overwhelmingly incarcerated for the same behavior as white people.” Findings from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health show that “6.9% of African Americans have a substance use disorder, compared to 7.4% of the total population, and 3.4% of African Americans have an illicit drug use disorder compared to 3% of the population.” However, the rate of heavy drinking among African Americans (4.3%) is much less than the general population (61%) and Caucasians (7.2%). And so is the rate of cocaine use with “African Americans reporting lower lifetime use of cocaine (8.5%) compared to Caucasians (17.6%) and Hispanics (11.1%).”

Different Treatment, Same Disease

The stats don’t show a huge discrepancy in substance use. But what about the startling difference in incarceration rates for black people vs. white people?

According to Drugpolicy.org, “Nearly 80% of people in federal prison and almost 60% in state prison for drug offenses are black or Latino.” In addition, “Research shows that prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for black people as for white people charged with the same offense.” Finally, “People of color experience discrimination at every stage of the criminal justice system are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted and harshly sentenced…This is particularly the case for drug law violations.”

All white drug addicts have experienced white privilege in regard to the cops, treatment centers, and meetings. I am a white Jewish woman and a 25 year veteran of rehabs — an Olympic athlete, if you will, of relapse. Of the seven treatment centers I’ve been to, there was not one black client. There were two black techs and Isaac, the black Alumni coordinator. I never had a black counselor or case manager.

I recall the time I blew a red light, shitfaced, with open bottles in the car and the police let me go because I was young, blonde, white, and wearing an extremely tight t-shirt. They hypocritically warned me, “Don’t think you can get out of tickets because you’re cute.” I think about the years I drove around snorting rails of meth off the console of my ‘67 Thunderbird and never got pulled over. Or the years I drove around in my PT Cruiser, high on cocaine with loaded syringes in the glove box and, again, never got pulled over. When did I get pulled over? When my Hispanic drug dealer was driving. So does racial profiling and police racism exist? Absolutely. I heard countless stories of white drug addicts who punched cops in the face and were taken to the psych ward instead of jail. Others were pulled over by the police, found with syringes and cotton in their car, and were offered, not handcuffs, but help to find a detox.

Where Does This Leave the Black Community?

But back to the main point. Where are all the black people in treatment?

Harold Owens is the Senior Director of the Musicares Foundation, the charitable arm of The Recording Academy. He is also a black man with 31 years clean and sober. He got his first job working in treatment in 1979. During the 90’s he eventually became the program director of Exodus Recovery Center in Marina Del Rey, CA, and made clear that it was a diverse staff. He reports starting as a tech and worked his way up to a counselor. However, he admitted, “I always had the sense that as a black man working in a predominantly white treatment center I had to work harder than my co-workers and prove that I had the ability to work with many of the white and entitled clients that came through. I was fortunate to be in a position where I had people who helped me up.”

He believes there are treatment centers within Los Angeles that are sensitive to race issues: “Cri Help and the Impact Treatment Centers as great examples,“ Harold told me. “We had cultural sensitivity training modules back in the 80’s. I don’t believe they have that now, which is why you’re finding that cultural bias to the black experience is such a problem.”

But there seems to be a gap between the massages, equine therapy and 5 star chefs at upper level, mostly white treatment centers, and Cri Help or Impact which are much more hardcore and certainly not as toney. He admitted, “I think it’s hard for middle class black Americans to find treatment that’s appropriate for them.”

“Treatment loves to talk about trauma and grief. Those are the new buzzwords,” he said. “But you take somebody like Nyla and they’re just not going to know how to address her issues.”

Harold told me that part of the problem is that white affluent treatment centers don’t get that there’s a poverty of mental health services in the black community. He made it clear that he hasn’t worked in a treatment center in 30 years, although he refers musicians to treatment centers he personally vets.

He felt hopeful that we are moving in the right direction in LA County though. “We do get funds for underserved populations, but there’s a waiting list. Hell, it’s hard for even white people to get into treatment if they don’t have money or the right insurance.”

Next I got on the phone with Franchesca Gordon, a black LMFT. Aside from the fact that she is not in recovery herself, what made Franchesca’s viewpoint so interesting is that she started in counseling in community health, then worked at two high-end, primarily white treatment centers, and now she’s at a nonprofit MediCal-based treatment center.

Growing up in Orange County, Franchesca is used to being the only black person in the room. So when she worked at one high-end treatment center primarily geared to the Jewish community, she was nonplussed at being the only black clinical team member for most of her employment, aside from a black psychiatrist, an outside contractor, now passed on. For the year and half that she worked at this particular facility, there were three black clients that she can remember.

When she worked at another now defunct high-end treatment center in West Hollywood, she was the only the black therapist. There were some black clients, mostly from out of state. In terms of racism she experienced, it was more insulting assumptions, not outright slurs.

She remembers clearly when a returning celebrity client arrived back at the rehab, her representative greeted her, and said to Franchesca “Are you a tech?” to which Franchesca replied, “No I’m a therapist… the onsite lead therapist to be precise.”

“I always had the sense that as a black man working in a predominantly white treatment center I had to work harder than my co-workers.”

Another strange comment was from a client who’d come from some small town in the Midwest. On Franchesca’s first day, he said to her, “Back home, I’d get drugs from…” he paused and looked at her…”no disrespect, black people.” I asked how she felt about that comment and she just thought it was odd, “They’re not my cousins… He thought all black people knew each other or something, or worse, all are involved in criminal activity.”

She admits that she’s a hot commodity in the treatment world because she understands the black experience. “Recovery at its core is about authenticity, but how can you find that if you don’t have anyone who understands your experience?”

Franchesca agreed with me and Harold that there isn’t really a model for the black middle class. “You’re either on GR and on MediCal or you’re a famous black musician and your roommate in rehab is the son of a white doctor.”

“Going to rehab is a privilege. You have to be able to stop working for 90-130 days. I don’t know many black people who can afford that, certainly not the working poor. And that’s aside from having the money or the right insurance,” she said.

When asked about a solution, Franchesca said, “The white recovery community needs to be more inclusive, but that means you need to change your whole medical model. Black and brown people don’t have the luxury of coming from years of wealthy generations. They can’t come in with lots of cash. You have to care about getting people into treatment and not just people with resources… because somebody’s lived experience can be a resource too.”

Before we got off the phone she said, “You know what I think is funny about recovery? Why is Whitney Houston demonized and Elvis Presley is a fucking god? They are both celebrities believed to be the best in the world… and both died in a bathroom.”

Bias in Alcoholics Anonymous

But the racism isn’t just among cops or upscale treatment centers. It has penetrated the entire recovery community, including Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings.

In some ways, AA is the most egalitarian system in America. It’s readily available. It’s free and the only requirement for membership is “A desire to stop drinking.” But as Joe and I decided to dig a little deeper into the experiences of black people in recovery, we quickly realized that yes, recovery is a racist system.

Chris Marshall is a black man 13 years in recovery who has been both a client and counselor at treatment centers. He remembers very clearly when he was 24 years old, new in recovery in Houston, and an old timer in AA asked “Are you done yet, boy?” So this begs the question if this is a geographical or generational problem? Now living in Austin, Marshall finds it’s still quite segregated but the overt racism and sexism is gone.

“I just started to connect with the black community via Instagram after the George Floyd situation, “Marshall said. “And that’s damn sad that that’s what it took.”

Malik says he’s still usually one of five black people in AA meetings of 200 or more in Hollywood or Brentwood. He remembers being taken to NA meetings in the San Fernando Valley when he was at Cri Help years ago. Many members at the meeting were “gnarly Hells Angels racist fuckers and Aryan Nation.” He was getting vibed and he didn’t like it. When he proposed to the other clients at Cri Help, a pretty hardcore rehab populated by many that were just released from prison, that they go to meetings in Crenshaw, they were all too scared and I quote, “Too scared to be in a meeting that’s mostly black.”

Nyla told me bluntly, “I support AA but as we move forward we must incorporate. There seems to be a lack of representation of black people as speakers and attendees, especially on the Westside of Los Angeles. Race is considered an outside issue in AA but is it? If I want to get down with black people, I need to go to Crenshaw and that’s not necessarily my scene.”

When Ruben left outpatient treatment and sought out AA meetings, he had a similar experience. “The first meeting was overwhelmingly Jewish. The second one was quite blue collar, working class, regular white dudes but I was the only black guy there.” He concedes that if he went to meetings in predominantly black neighborhoods, they’d be more black, but they took his license away so he goes to meetings that are close to him.

For people like Malik, Nyla or DH who have been exposed to the program, the racism or dearth of black members is something they’ve learned to accept or overlook. But think about how much more challenging it is for black newcomers like Ruben. To explore this further, I spoke with “Layla,” a young black newcomer who lives in Northern Virginia in a primarily white county. “I was hesitant to talk to you since I’m pretty new but white privilege in recovery impacts nobody more than the newcomer,” she said.

Before the pandemic, her homegroup was all white. She went for a month and nobody introduced themselves to her. “Race is something that isn’t talked about… I didn’t bring it up. I felt like I had to accommodate white people and not make them uncomfortable,” she told me.

Part of her trauma that led to her alcoholism is the racism she experienced when she was young: being the only black person at her school, being bullied, constantly attacked. That’s when she started drinking, at 12 years old.

“White privilege in recovery impacts nobody more than the newcomer.”

She told me about an AA meeting in Maryland where some of the members started to say really racist things about Freddy Gray, a 25 year old black man who in 2015 sustained spinal cord injuries so severe while in police custody that he lapsed into a coma and died. Those comments alone sent another black woman to leave AA for two years. During that time she relapsed.

You can say those comments didn’t “make her relapse” but when you’re a black woman with alcoholism and you hear comments like this you are being retraumatized all over again. “I think the people who have dealt with the issues of racism in the rooms are probably like ‘fuck this, I’m not coming back’. They’re still out there,” Layla said.

At a Zoom meeting, all the members were talking about the coronavirus, Trump, the looting, the protests, even SLAA but when “Layla” brought up racism, she was shut down and shamed for “breaking the 10th tradition.”

“The last place I expected to be triggered was in a meeting,” she said. “I cried for hours, wanting to self-harm but instead I picked up the phone.”

When she experiences racial gaslighting, micro and macro aggressions and racial stereotypes in meetings she gets the program thrown in her face. Implying that she can only change her reaction, she can’t control other people, she must practice acceptance and my favorite…“we must love racists, too.”

But does she? Isn’t it the recovery community’s job to do the work and make the black newcomer feel welcome and safe? Isn’t it the recovery community’s job to look at their own racism and change it?

“Immigrants of color and black people don’t feel AA is an option for them because it’s been perpetuated by white people,” Layla said. “Plus in the black culture, addiction is still primarily looked at as a handicap and not a disease. I’m constantly asked ‘Why do you need to go to meetings every day? Why does recovery have to be a lifestyle?’”

I thought about my own experience. Personally, I don’t see many black people at the meetings I go to Echo Park, Silverlake, Hollywood, etc. However, years ago I had a black lesbian sponsor who took all her sponsees to black lesbian meetings in Crenshaw. Initially, I felt uncomfortable. I wasn’t used to being the only white person in the room. I sat in the back and my sponsor said, “What are you doing in the back?” And I admitted I was scared. And she said bluntly, ‘Be scared in the front!’ However, my experience at this, and all-black meetings, as an attendee and a speaker, is that they are extremely welcoming. Isaac has a white crackhead sponsee who “only goes to black meetings because he feels comfortable there because…well, crack”. However, it doesn’t sound like black people feel the same warmth and aren’t embraced in the same way at primarily white meetings.

Racism doesn’t just stop in meetings. Despite AA being founded by white Christian men in the 1930’s, it is really the fellowship, not the program, that propagates the racism we see now. It’s systemic in the culture, so of course, it can be found between sponsors and sponsees. Isaac told me a story of when he sponsored a white cop who called him during a relapse. “He called me, drunk, at 11:30 pm and asked me to come to pick him up. He’d eaten Taco Bell and vomited all over my car on the way home. Once there he asked me to come and straighten things out with his girlfriend. I refused, saying all I wanted to do was get my car cleaned. Enraged he shouted, ‘You’re just a nigger and I’m a cop! Do you know what I could do to you?!? I can END your fucking life!’ Bear in mind, this was a man who had wept in my arms during his fifth step. He stumbled out of my car and slammed the door. Later, I told him what he’d said and he seemed horrified. He remembered none of it. Shortly thereafter, he got a new sponsor.”

I spoke to a man who is 8.5 years in recovery. He is partly Dominican and partly Puerto Rican. He grew up in New York but now lives in Pittsburgh. His first sponsor used to say “Watch your wallets, everyone,” when he’d walk into a room. Another member absolutely insisted that he was a different black-bearded man he’d met. He was usually the only POC in meetings in New York and that didn’t really change when he moved. He talked to me of “the loneliness of not seeing anyone of color in the ruins, especially here in Pittsburgh.” He made it clear that he was never made to feel unwelcome due to his skin color in CMA or AA in either city but more that he has been fetishized in the gay 12 step community by white men because of the color of his skin.

Then the pandemic hit and all AA meetings went online. But why do I see so few black people in Zoom meetings?

Malik said “Zoom meetings…Well, the culture in regards to the internet, finances, computers, it’s a different thing. The majority of black people don’t have it and when you have a bunch of real life shit to deal with that’s first. People who have to make living just don’t make zoom meetings a priority.”

Thankfully, since the protests, POC meetings have been popping up like crazy. That’s where “Layla” goes now and intends to stay.

Ruben told me an interesting story. He was at a Zoom AA meeting, walking home, camera off, phone in his pocket, carrying groceries. After the meeting ended the members began “to chit chat about the George Floyd situation and why were black people so upset about shit that went down 400 years ago, yadda yadda yadda”. So Ruben turned his camera on and the faces in the meetings went white…. well, whiter than they already were. The presumption that there were no black people in the meeting and they were safe to reveal their own prejudice says everything.

Wrapping up, Joe Schrank says, “We will never heal the racial divide in America without truth and reconciliation and the truth is: drug policy is by design a system to control and subjugate black people. We are all guilty of letting this go on as long as it has. It is a human rights violation. Reframing drug policy as a public health issue will be a step toward reconciliation and an opportunity for restitution. We owe the black community a deep and heartfelt apology for centuries of racism but we owe them more than that. We owe them payment for the crime of the drug war. When black men try to sell weed they’re criminals, when white men do their entrepreneurs. All cannabis licenses should go to black men and women, the way gambling went to native people.”

I will close with this quote from Chris Marshall: “We all know what it’s like to be on the outside, whether you’re a woman, gay or black, and the last place that should be segregated is the recovery community.”