- NONFICTION -

RACISM, RAGE, AND THE RECOVERING QUEER

M. Clay

CONTENT WARNING: SUBSTANCE ABUSE

Twelve years ago, I fully expected that once I got sober, my anger would go the way of my drinking. Conveniently forgetting that I drank to calm down, I learned early in sobriety that, as my sponsor warned, “If you put down the substance, and things get better, you’re probably not alcoholic. If they get worse, that’s where recovery helps.” This was true for me.

 

During early sobriety, I felt like an open wound. Everything hurt. My life was a wreck on all fronts. Having to deal with people certainly did not help.

 

***

 

I can remember the first time racial ignorance pissed me off. I was 7. In the second grade, a girl asked me, “What are you?” It was the first, but (exhaustingly) not the last time I would be asked this question. When I hit puberty, it started to bother me so much more.

 

In my 20s, I saw one of my favorite spoken word artists, Suheir Hammad, perform her poem "Not Your Erotic, Not Your Exotic" at the Nuyorican Cafe in the East Village. It perfectly captured my experience as a mixed-race queer woman.

 

don’t seduce yourself with

my otherness   my hair

wasn’t put on my head to entice

you into some mysterious black vodou

 

***

 

Anger and sex are on the same plane of energy for me. They are places of fear, intimacy, and vulnerability.

 

I had my first drink (Peach Schnapps) at the age of 13. At an 8th-grade party for one of my father’s firefighter friend's kids, the adults had gotten wasted and the 15 children in attendance were no longer being parented. I was weird and awkward from 13 until, well, right this minute. But back then, I couldn’t handle it at all.

 

I had certain feelings about the kids at this party, who were all white. I remember them looking at me like, “Where did she come from?” But when I took that first drank, through the filter of an alcohol-induced haze, I could handle it. I wanted to kiss someone. No one wanted to kiss me back, but drinking helped me not to care. I didn’t feel weird anymore.

 

***

 

My father was one of the firefighters who got his job as a “scab,” meaning he worked while the Chicago Firefighters Union was on strike. It was the way most African Americans first started in the Fire Department. Most of my dad’s friends were white, with the exception of a few Latinos. My mom is Mexican and came to the United States at the age of 12. They met in high school in the 1970s. There weren’t a lot of interracial couples back then. They are still married and appear in love.

"I WAS SEEING BROWN FOLKS BEING TREATED WITH SUSPICION. I COULDN’T HANDLE THE INSIDIOUSNESS OF INSTITUTIONAL RACISM. WHEN I DRANK, I COULD FORGET." 

Later in life, I was angry at my parents for not immediately accepting me when I came out as queer. It was easier to be angry than to be hurt by the fact that, while I loved them, they couldn’t totally love me back. I was angry that I was the only queer blaxican woman working at a major metropolitan newspaper. This meant that I had to edit stories on health that were based on studies that were racist by design (but since the Associated Press had sent it over the wires, who was I to question it?). I was angry at myself. I kept choosing relationships in which I couldn’t get the support I needed. And then, when I got that support, I was angry at the privilege that enabled my cis male, white, and wealthy lovers to support me.

Once I threw alcohol on top of this anger, it helped, to be honest. After working round the clock in the newsroom post 9/11, with everyone talking about going into Iraq, I drank to feel okay. Once I drank, I could get those images of the towers out of my head.

 

I was seeing brown folks being treated with suspicion. I couldn’t handle the insidiousness of institutional racism. When I drank, I could forget. When I drank, I gave myself permission to yell at colleagues who did not understand. And when I drank, I also gave myself permission to say nothing, to just get the stories out so I could keep drinking. This is when my drinking really progressed, though I did not know it at the time.

***

By 28, I had joined a twelve-step group. I had surrendered, although not completely. I was still a virulent atheist—I thought I knew better. I looked for how I was different from the rest of the group because I didn’t want to do the work of recovery. I fought so hard against many of the tenants of recovery: belief in a higher power, making an inventory, making amends, prayer, and meditation, and being a part of the group.

 

In the last 12 years, I’ve learned that my addiction was a form of misguided seeking. That’s why I depended so heavily on it, especially to manage my emotions. When I stopped drinking, I kept using anger as a tool for survival. Anger has helped me feel powerful when I feel most powerless and vulnerable.

I started to manage my feelings in a healthier way. I took up running, started eating meals. I slept. I learned to find balance in my work life, emotional health, and spirituality; and I started to mature. But the anger stuck.

 

I don’t just want to survive anymore. I want to truly live in peace. My behavior has to start to reflect that. When I act out of anger, I stunt my growth.

Directing my rage at others in sobriety has been painful. I have lost a marriage. I have been in trouble at work. All of this has happened since getting sober. It is humbling to admit that. I finally started working in therapy on this issue, as well as being rigorously honest with my sponsor.

 

It’s been a year since I started working on this issue, and yet I still get angry. My therapist says that I won’t see improvement in a straight line. There will be zig-zags. I am still learning my triggers. It is much like sobriety in this way: one day at a time, I can choose to handle anger differently. I can write. I can run. I can pause and allow myself to dive into the fear behind the resentment and rage.

"I HAVE SO MUCH LOVE AND EMPATHY FOR ANGRY PEOPLE BECAUSE I GET IT. THERE IS SO MUCH TO BE ANGRY ABOUT. I WANT CHANGE. I WANT TO DO BETTER. I WANT OTHERS TO DO BETTER."

I have so much love and empathy for angry people because I get it. There is so much to be angry about. I want change. I want to do better. I want others to do better. But causing hurt out of anger no longer works for me. I am learning my emotions can and should be a guide, but I am in trouble when they dictate my behavior.

 

This weekend I hung up on my partner during an argument. And I believe it is for the last time, either because I have learned, or because she is done trying with me. It’s chilling to me that I would choose my anger over the woman I believe to be the love of my life. My path remains “progress, not perfection.”

M. Clay is a writer in North Carolina. She is a retired journalist and a current Urban Planning student and communications consultant. She enjoys hiking, films, and the music of Ani DiFranco, John Coltrane, Pink, and Stevie Wonder. She is currently reading The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement by the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. 

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