“Black Pill” is internet slang that has gained prominence in 2020. It’s an alternative to the Matrix’s red/blue pill binary, and, as opposed to “opening your mind,” it refers to something that makes you look to the future with harsh and utter pessimism. Last night’s debate was a bulky and bitter black pill. Yet, there was a shining, damn-near beautiful moment that may signal a change in America’s view of addiction.
It occurred during Biden’s response to a question about the current president’s record. Biden brought up the intelligence pointing to Russian bounties being placed on the heads of American soldiers when Trump charged that Biden’s son received millions of dollars from Russia. After moderator Chris Wallace tried to once again scold Trump about the rules of the debate Biden continued, eventually returning to the subject of his family. He recounted his son Beau’s service to the country calling him “a patriot.”
“Are you talking about Hunter?” Trump replied. “He got thrown out of the military for cocaine use.”
Biden could have sidestepped Trump’s insult to his son Hunter. Instead, he looked directly at the camera and said: “My son, like a lot of people, like lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem. He’s fixed it, he’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my son.”
Hunter Biden struggled with addiction to alcohol and cocaine for much of his adult life. He eventually achieved long stints if sobriety with the help of Twelve-Step Programs and with treatment using the psychedelic plant extract Ibogaine. Joe Biden’s up-close-and-personal experience with substance abuse disorder could indicate the potential for great changes in our country’s approach to this issue. Hunter’s experience with Ibogaine treatment could inspire more study for the potentially game-changing substance, which is currently illegal.
Having the son of the president represent the recovery community is a new paradigm. This wouldn’t be the president’s distant kin quietly slipping into a million-dollar rehab for 28 days. This would be the president’s son acknowledging that he is in recovery, that he has smoked crack and come out the other end of that indelibly narrow glass tunnel. Merely acknowledging the problem is profoundly meaningful — the first of the twelve steps.
Addiction is a realm where reform often comes from those who have been through it. If Hunter continues to wear the label of “addict” without shame, lending his experience and the experience of others in recovery to pertinent policy discussions, this could be a ray of optimism during bleak times for those in recovery. Especially now, when so many people are confronting one of the bleakest times in modern history.
Dark times are the perfect occasion for people struggling with addiction to relapse. For people with substance use disorder, both good and bad times can be opportunities to use — but utterly hopeless ones like these are especially tempting. Overdose deaths have increased in 40 states since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the American Medical Association.
Trump looks at addiction on the same strength/weakness binary through which he sees much of the world. Biden’s stance on the issue was a clear and defined point of difference for Biden in an evening of confusion. Trump seems not to even be listening to many of his own voters: addiction does not discriminate between race, class, or even between the weak and the strong. It does tend to impact marginalized people to a greater extent, much like the pandemic that now envelops us. If Trump had a better understanding of addiction, he wouldn’t have tried to hurl it in Biden’s face last night. Biden’s proclamation — ”I’m proud of him, I’m proud of my son” — was an indication that he understands something else Trump never will, that struggling through and surviving hardship can give a person actual strength. It can even make an entire country stronger.
Correction: A previous version of the article stated that Chris Matthews was the debate moderator. It was Chris Wallace.