Voices on Addiction: Thief in the Night

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In January and February 2021, Voices on Addiction is partnering with Roots. Wounds. Words. (RWW) and its founder, Nicole Shawan Junior.

In July 2018, Nicole created RWW to eliminate the social, cultural, and financial barriers that often prevent BIPOC storytellers from obtaining top-quality literary arts education. At the time, Nicole was a former NYC public school teacher and decade-long prosecutor. She was also a felon serving out an eighteen-month probation sentence. Tired of participating in writing workshops that centered whiteness and cast aside voices of color, Nicole conjured up RWW. Through RWW, Nicole sought to make literary arts education accessible for BIPOC, poverty-born, justice-involved, and/or LGBTQIA+POC—people who came from backgrounds and communities similar to her own. What started as a one-day workshop with barely ten participating storytellers seated in a cramped Brooklyn office rental grew into an organization that now supports and amplifies the literary art of over eight-hundred BIPOC storytellers across the country. Today, RWW is a literary arts revolution that offers visionary programming including educational workshops, storyteller showcases, publication opportunities, and an annual writers’ retreat. RWW’s storytellers have gone on to establish literary art careers, attend prestigious writing programs, facilitate literary arts education workshops themselves, and to join the RWW team as Board and Executive Staff members. The RWW Board and staff, like its programs, are comprised of BIPOC individuals who also identify as justice-involved, queer, trans, gender nonconforming, and/or poverty-born—the very intersectional identities that Roots. Wounds. Words. was created to center and celebrate.

We are honored to have Nicole help us usher in 2021 by guest curating these Voices on Addiction installments.

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At twenty-nine, I found myself sitting in a therapist office, six months away from the end of my court-ordered parole. Six months after the end of a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence I served for larceny and embezzlement. This was my third visit with Kali, a blond-haired, blue-eyed recent graduate with rail-thin lips that she constantly slathered in Chapstick during our sessions. I sat across from her desk in an uncomfortable wooden chair, my legs spread slightly open, unable to cross due to the girth of my thighs. The sixty pounds that I’d shed in prison had already begun to creep back on, settling at my waist, legs, and arms, reminding me that my body was trauma’s home. The afternoon sun danced on her desk, diverting my attention from her latest inquisition.

Her pause snapped me back into the conversation. I disinterestedly responded, “I’m sorry, can you ask the question again?”

“What do you feel addiction has stolen from you?”

I knew that she was more than likely referring to my own addictions, but I did not want to talk about those. Instead, I went back in time, back to a time before I knew that substances and people were not meant to be abused. The many years my uncle, brother, and father spent in and out of prison, leaving my mother and I alone—years that robbed me of having a father, of having a stable male presence in our family. Years that morphed into the “I’ll just do it myself” attitude that haunts my relationships to this day. I thought about the shame I felt as I walked past the neighborhood bodega, eyes fixed to the ground, to avoid making eye contact with my brother who stood outside, shaking in the middle of three-day crack cocaine binge.

These were the silent losses. The things that are not talked about in the glamorization of addiction played out on your favorite television shows. Things left unspoken between family. Like opening the kitchen cabinet to find a little corner ripped off the roll of aluminum foil—my uncle used them to construct his aspirin bottle crack pipes. Cut-off straws that were useless to drink your Pepsi with made the perfect suction for inhaling poison; I would often find them discarded under the crab apple tree in front of our house. Some mornings, I would even find my uncle discarded there with them, his disheveled body wrapped around the tree, surrounded by rotten crab apples as if the poison had seeped into them, too.

Addiction steals your innocence.

One day my mother and I returned to our apartment to find that my uncle had stolen all the meat out of our freezer to sell for crack. Before we could make it to the front door, after a long day of work for her and school for me, our next-door neighbor leaned out of her second-floor window to describe in detail how she had watched him contort himself into a ball and squeeze through the tiny basement window. His drug buddy of the day stood as lookout, nervously pacing in front of the door until my uncle emerged, arms overflowing with steaks, hamburger meat, and chicken. Then they both took off running down the street looking to offload their bounty to our unknowing neighbors. The food that was meant to feed us for the rest of the month would only keep them high for the next few hours. My mother stood, calmly listening, dressed in her work scrubs, face weary not just from the day but from her life. As she absorbed the scene our neighbor played out, I imagined that my mother was trying to figure out how she was going to replace a month’s worth of food when she had already spent the last of our food stamps. I stood silently next to her giving my neighbor the side eye. Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you say something? I thought. She might as well have let them in the house herself.

Addiction steals your trust.

My brother did not waste time with small things like meat. Instead, he decided to steal all the television sets out of my aunt’s house one summer day while everyone was at work. I sat by as my mother cried into the telephone, promising to replace the televisions. She tried to justify his behavior: “He’s strung out!” She confided in her sister that she hoped the police would put my brother in jail so that he could “dry out.” My brother had been on drugs so long I could not imagine him sober; I was just thankful he hadn’t stolen any of my things this time. I also could not imagine loving your child so much that you wanted them to go to prison because the only other outcome you could see for them was death.

Addiction steals your motherhood.

When I was ten or eleven, I asked my mother for a pair of brown, red, and green leather Wallabee boots for Christmas. It was 1993 and Wallabees were in fashion at the time. I wanted a pair so that I could style on my classmates. Santa had long stopped visiting our house; my mother was not going to let some white man in a suit take credit for all her hard work. Instead, I went with her to pick out the boots with the understanding that I would have to wait until Christmas morning to wear them. With a bag containing the exact boots I picked out and begged her to get, we left the shoe store and returned home. I counted down the days to Christmas, planning all my return-to-school outfits around those boots. Christmas morning came and I rushed downstairs to open my presents. I frantically searched for the box that held the boots, but it wasn’t under the Christmas tree. It was nowhere to be found. My brother or my uncle—to this day, I’m not sure who—had stolen them. Dejected, I left the rest of the presents untouched and stomped upstairs to my room. I got angry, my mother cried, the addicts got high. That became a holiday theme for years to come.

Addiction steals your celebrations.

When my brother and uncle were not supporting their habits with our household items, they would “beat” other addicts to make their money. “Beats” were fake drugs that they sold by rolling up in plastic baking soda, aspirin, or whatever else they could find in the medicine cabinet and attempting to pass it off as crack. It rarely went over well. When the person who got “beat” figured it out, as they always did, they would come knocking, screaming, searching for the high they so desperately needed. It was a common occurrence for my mother and me to be woken up by addicts in our backyard, banging wildly on our door, threatening our life if we did not give them their money back, or their drugs. They would eventually skulk away when I or my mother threatened them with a 911 call, but we always feared that the next time we walked out of the door, someone my brother or uncle “beat” would be waiting in the bushes, behind a car or up the block, to beat us. Night after night we nervously laid side-by-side, silently praying that the banging wouldn’t come and, if it did, that the ripped-off fiends wouldn’t follow through on their threats.

Addiction steals your sleep.

A few months after my twenty-first birthday I met Mark. He was everything that I thought I would never have. He stood six-foot-two with a broad, football-player build and bright smile. His loud, animated personality made him the life of the party and drew women to him like a magnet. I was shocked when he approached me at the party and asked me to go for a ride. A few weeks later I offered up my virginity to him. A few months later I figured out what it was that made him the life of the party. Mark was a coke addict. “It’s just for fun, everybody does it,” he replied when I asked him if he was a drug addict. In my gut I knew it was more than that, but I needed to believe that it wasn’t. I needed to believe that I had not chosen a replica of all the other men in my life.

When he lost his apartment, I accepted Mark’s excuse that his landlord was an asshole and bought him a couple of grams. When he “quit” his job because of an unreasonable boss, I consoled him with an eight ball. When money went missing from my wallet and my car, I blamed myself, my carelessness. Nights when I could not afford a hotel room for him, I would curl myself into a ball on his chest and fall asleep to the sound of his rapid heartbeat in my car. Even though I had a home and a bed of my own. When my own money ran out and the fear that he would leave me kicked in, I stole money from my job. Those thefts ultimately landed me in prison.

Addiction steals your integrity. Your freedom, too.

“Addiction has stolen so much from me. Money. Food. Sleep. Trust.  My freedom. But the biggest thing addiction has ever stolen from me is the opportunity to see my uncle one last time, when he lived on his own.”

I tell my therapist about my uncle. How, before his addiction took over, he was a master griller who filled all our family cookouts with good food and laughter. How he made sure when I got home from school there was cooked food waiting for me. How when I did not have enough for the down payment on my first car, he did not hesitate to give me the money. Tears well up in my eyes. I flick them with a finger, and I fidget in my chair. Kali applies more Chapstick.

I tell her about how, during the early years of my incarceration, he transitioned from crack to dope and, ultimately, to methadone—an attempt to become drug-free.  But years of drug abuse caused his body to swell as if the drugs had made a home in his cells, and nicotine and crack had damaged his lungs, bringing on COPD, his oxygen tank always trailed behind him—as if trying to breathe new life into a body that he’d spent a lifetime trying to destroy. I beam with pride when I tell Kali that he finally moved out of my mother’s home into an efficiency apartment up the street from where we lived together before I was sentenced to my prison term. It was the first time he lived alone in his life; he was forty-eight. Tears flow freely when admitting to Kali that, a week before his fiftieth birthday, Uncle Raymond took a hit of crack while alone in his apartment. That was the last high he’d experience. That hit caused him to suffer a fatal heart attack. Due to my incarceration, I was unable to attend the funeral. Ten years later I still cannot bring myself to visit his grave. My uncle died in 2010 while I was in the middle of serving my four-and-a-half-year prison sentence.

Addiction is a thief of your goodbyes.

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Rumpus original art by Emily Jean Alexander.

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Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.


Heather Stokes is a Norwalk, CT based writer, who holds an Associate’s degree in General Studies from the University of Bridgeport and is currently pursuing her Bachelor’s degree in Social Work. Her experiences as both a Black woman and a convicted felon have fueled her passion to bring healing and health into BIPOC communities throughout her state. In addition to her full-time job, Heather is a doula-in-training with the Earth’s Natural Touch doula training program, a 14-month program, specifically geared towards women of color and women in underserved populations. Her goal is to serve women who are planning to give their children up for adoption and women who will be giving birth while incarcerated. She is also in the process of developing her own coaching/healing program designed to help formerly incarcerated women heal past wounds and take back control of their lives. As a felon, she recognizes the need for a healing community for these women. When she is not plotting to save the world one BIPOC community at a time, she takes care of her niece and sister. They, along with her colorful life experiences, provide the background for her writing. More from this author →