How old were you when you became familiar with the word crackhead? When you recognized they were in your family? When you began using the word as a colloquial insult amongst friends or even neighborhood enemies? I was very young. I was young when I learned that my Uncle was a crackhead, a thief, an addict. But these terms and the conversations around his struggles really limited my understanding of who he was. They limited my understanding of addiction. They didn’t help me understand his humanity. I’m sure you can relate.
On July 6, 2020. My daughter’s 3rdbirthday, my Uncle Willie Wood became an Ancestor. I didn’t know how to begin processing the emotions around his passing. I was trying to prepare the house for my baby’s masked celebration but took a seat in the living room after pouring coffee that I didn’t begin to drink until it was only warm. I sat thinking about the affection I wished I was able to show him, how I wished I was more understanding and patient, how I’d hoped he knew that I loved him.
My Uncle had struggled with alcoholism and substance abuse for most of his life. When he was born, the center of his head was hairless. Hair never grew there and it remained soft until adulthood. Doctors called it a birth defect. Throughout his childhood, he suffered from chronic headaches and pain. He began self-medicating with weed and trying alcohol.
My Mommy, his eldest sister, recalled an inconsolable episode when he was 19. She said he crawled from one end of the bed to the next, crying, screaming because he was in so much intense pain. Doctors said he had a brain a tumor. A brain tumor that they didn’t find until he was 19. He was so relieved to finally learn what was causing the pain he’d experienced for as long as he could remember. The tumor couldn’t be removed because every time the tumor was touched, his heart would stop. He was so proud to watch the video of the craniotomy on video. To address the issue and relieve his pain, he underwent radiation treatments and the surgeons placed a shunt in his head that required draining.
My Uncle was working two jobs and doing well right before the surgery. After the surgery, he began drinking more heavily. Things took a tragic turn he was in his early 30s.
There was always a lot of activity and traffic at my Grandmother’s home on Carter, off Dexter. My Uncle Keith had company one evening and a night of joking and laughter turned into a night of shooting and murder. My Uncle Keith was sentenced to life in prison for murder with no evidence. It was a benched trial. Uncle Keith is the youngest of the siblings. My Uncle Willie Wood felt helpless and guilty because he was in the house when tragic events took place. He was in the house, upstairs, drunk, and asleep. He felt like he didn’t protect his baby brother. Familial depressions wrapped its arms around the Davis family and crack found its way into my Uncle’s hands.
I met my Uncle Willie Wood as an addict. I always knew he was smart, helpful, funny but sometimes those qualities were overshadowed by the functions of his drug addiction – not holding a job or responsibility, not taking consistent care of us son, stealing from family members, being inconsiderate, and sometimes not respecting boundaries in a way that made others uncomfortable. Made me uncomfortable.
I remember walking to the store with my Uncle when I was a little kid very often. It was an adventure because he was so carefree and silly. I knew that he would make random outbursts on the walk, know everyone at the store, and just be really pleasant. But as I grew older, those walks became less frequent especially after my parents divorced when I was 16. My Mom, twin brother, and I temporarily moved in the flat above my Grandmother’s on Carter, off Dexter.
My Uncle had been living with my Grandmother forever. It was living in that space that I became more acquainted with his addiction. It was then that I began to turn my nose up at his company coming in and out of the house at all hours of the night. It was then that I really started to disconnect, to judge, and probably felt some shame about his addiction.
I developed more intimate relationships with people who struggled with addiction in my 20s.
One of the most profound relationships I’ve had that truly helped stretch and grow me was with a young man who I grew up with. We reconnected the summer I graduated from Howard. I went to a celebration he was having at a park. As I approached him, I saw him drinking Vodka out of the bottle. It didn’t mean anything to me especially being only 21 and matriculating through college, college parties, free happy hours, and kickbacks. In my mind, he was young to accept that he was an alcoholic and also struggled from substance abuse. It just didn’t make sense to me that someone so young was addicted to alcohol and drugs. All the people I knew who struggled with addiction, like my Uncle, were older. Then one day my Mom said, “But they all started somewhere. They all started around his age.”
I thought of my Uncle who began using drugs in his youth (harder drugs in his early 30s). I thought about how I’d paid attention to his behavior my whole life but didn’t see the pattern in this new relationship.
That relationship brought me a lot of pain. A LOT. But it also brought me a lot of clarity and brought me to my counselor who helped me to better understand addiction. Through her, I learned what a weekend and functioning alcoholic was. I learned about the residual effects of drug abuse. I learned how deeply I was judging him and the differences between accountability and judgement. I learned about the limited capacity people who are navigating and struggling with substance abuse often have. I learned that his behavior had nothing to do with me, that I wasn’t responsible for his struggle, and that I could not “fix” anything. All I could do was hold the space for him that I could. Needless to say, that romantic relationship ended after many fights that he doesn’t even remember, a co-signed loaned, broken promises, nervous breakdown (that’s what I’m calling it), many tickets, car accidents, infidelity, rehabilitation and halfway houses.
I remember crying to a mentor one day, barely able to formulate the words, “He’s sick. He’s just sick.” That’s what it is, all illness. He had it and so did my Uncle. But it can be so hard to see addiction that way. It isn’t cancer or multiple sclerosis. It’s a choice, right? I’ve come to realize that the healing and recovery are choices but addiction is much more layered, much more complex that we accept.
I’ve often said that “addiction runs in my family.” This is the story of so many of us. But, I’m making a point to reframe that just as I’ve reframed my understanding of addiction. Addiction doesn’t run in my family. I have family members who struggle with addiction, specifically substance abuse. And aren’t we all addicted to something?
Three weeks ago, today, I received the phone call about my Uncle passing. He was on anti-depressants and medication for his heart. But, he wouldn’t stop drinking. I knew him to be sober for about three years. Then one day, he just started drinking again. After the passing of my Grandmother, the drinking increased. She was his shelter, his refuge.
We weren’t very close in my adult years but I still mourn for him. I mourn his life more than I mourn his passing. I am pained by the thoughts of him not healing. It’s sad to think about how he began doing drugs and drinking so young. It’s heartbreaking to think that he was in pain, in some way, all of his life.
With Kanye West’s recent behavior and announcement of presidential candidacy, I’ve seen a number of posts on social media. Some people write about his mental health challenges and hold bipolar disorder responsible for his behaviors including anti-Blackness and misogynoir. But again, as I come to understand mental health challenges more, I understand that they are real, valid, but do not absolve us of personal responsibility, accountability, or healing. I’ve learned that not only is it ableist to blame all behaviors on mental health challenges or illnesses but it can also be inaccurate. Kanye’s anti-Blackness and misogynoir is a reflection of him. It is heightened, amplified, by his disorder.
I remind myself of the ways in which our behaviors and the way we cope can be harmful. But as my counselor would remind me, “no one is coming to save us.” It’s on us.
Two things can exist at once – my Uncle’s behavior as a result of his addiction could be harmful and unacceptable. But we also still honor his humanity not as an addict but as someone who battled addiction. We can still love. We can still extend grace. We can still see that people are more.
My Uncle always wanted to do something “meaningful.” He’d brag about lending money or helping in any way. At times, it could be annoying. But he just wanted to be seen as important. I don’t mean that in a haughty sense. He just wanted to be valued, seen as contributory, useful, meaningful. It is human nature and a human need to want to be seen and heard.
It makes sense that my Uncle wanted his body to be donated to Wayne State University’s School of Medicine for research. He said he wanted his body to be studied when he passed. “Maybe they can figure out what’s wrong with me? “ is what he said. My Mommy would joke by responding, “Your body’s gonna be fermented.” He was never offended but always laughed, showing all his teeth which had deteriorated from drinking cheap liquor.
The day he passed, she called Wayne State. A representative offered her condolences, asked a number of questions, and shared that they would gladly take his body. It made her feel so good when the representative said, “We’ll call and update you on any findings and let you know when he’s teaching the class.” She was so honored and tickled by that. She shared that remark with everyone she talked to for days. I couldn’t let my distrust of institutions as it relates to Black bodies keep me from honoring that that’s what my Uncle wanted. He wanted to do something meaningful, impactful, important.
Though he is no longer in the body, his teaching is a part of his work.
My Uncle wasn’t perfect. He was actually a mess. But he was human. He was kind. He was community-centered. Sure, he volunteered at community service events, churches, and fairs. He worked at polling sites and helped seniors with grocery shopping. But he’d also split a dollar with you even if it’s all he had. He’d pay his friend’s rent before his own. He’d watch children in his building and buy them toys from the dollar store. He’d clean vomit if you puked and wouldn’t turn his nose or embarrass you. He’d give you a kidney – he actually donated a kidney to our Aunt many years ago. He was so honored to do it and proud of the scar.
He had no superficial shame. He’d do what no one else would. But I know he felt shame internally. I know he wished he was more. I hope that he now knows that he was always worthy, addictions and all.
Even if his body wasn’t donated to research, even if he hadn’t given our Aunt that kidney, even if he hadn’t gone to community college, even if he didn’t do lawn maintenance or love reading, sports, and singing off key, my Uncle wasn’t just a recovering crack addict. An alcoholic. A thief. He was a human. A man. The hood famous Willie Wood –– Junior, Wood, son, brother, father, uncle, friend who began calling himself Will-I toward the end of his life.
He was more.
He was a man who loved his family, who loved people. He was a man who laughed and showed all of his teeth.
Rest in peace, Uncle Will-I. This is the only time I’ll call you that, LOL! I hope you know that you taught me when you were here. I am better, more understanding, more empathetic because of your journey.
I love you.