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DMX's Legacy, and the Connection Between Childhood Trauma and Addiction

“All I know is pain, all I feel is rain / How can I maintain with that shit on my brain…”

— “Ruff Ryder’s Anthem,” DMX

Earl Simmons, known by his stage name DMX, showed up as his full, authentic self in an exceptional way not displayed by many artists. Whether it was to pray with and for our collective community, or to spit lyrics that challenged societal norms, DMX was going to show up and show out. By interweaving his personal traumas with grit and a strong beat, DMX became one of the most prolific and relatable rappers of our time. Through his gift of storytelling and use of vivid imagery, DMX was a true wordsmith; able to express the heartache of a generation of Black and Brown youth that had been failed by systemic racism and failed drug policies.

The loss of DMX on Friday sent a ripple throughout the Black community. Many of us grew up in the 1990’s-2000’s rapping along to songs like “Ruff Ryder’s Anthem” and “Get At Me Dog” from “It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot.” It was clear that music became an escape for DMX, who was struggling with his own personal demons. It was as if he sought to reclaim his pain and transform it into an opportunity to heal himself and others. In the end he couldn’t escape it though.

Recently DMX revealed that at age 14 he was introduced to crack cocaine by a father figure, someone he trusted who had betrayed him. This man laced a marijuana cigarette with crack, effectively stripping him of his consent. This was the perfect storm for a life-long addiction. Crack became a way for him to silence the pain that continued to plague him throughout his lifetime. According to the Department of Justice, crack cocaine is a highly addictive and powerful stimulant that is derived from powdered cocaine using a simple conversion process. Crack emerged as a drug of abuse in the mid-1980s. DMX grew up in a community that was devastated by the crack epidemic. Black addicts in the 80’s and 90’s weren’t offered treatment, instead America responded by over-policing Black communities and by incarcerating Black men in record numbers.

Although their relationship had reportedly been mended over the years, DMX’s mother physically beat him so badly with a broom when he was 6 years old, the impact knocked out his two front teeth. He’d spend the next few years in and out of juvenile detention centers. Many of our schools are prep schools for prison and this was just another system that failed him as a child. He spent much of his youth roaming the streets trying to flee his mother and her boyfriends, which led to multiple incarcerations. For DMX, his art often imitated his life. By the time he was 10, he’d been expelled from school for a series of misbehaviors. Traumatic life experiences such as physical, verbal and sexual abuse in early adolescence significantly increases the risk for a number of at-risk behaviors. In short, trauma often leads to addiction.

As many as two-thirds of all individuals with addictions experienced some form of trauma during their childhood. Trauma and adverse childhood experiences, reshape our brain. In surveys of adolescents receiving treatment for substance abuse, more than 70% of patients had a history of trauma exposure. What would have happened if one caring adult had taken notice that these misbehaviors were actually cries for help? As a Black community, we must learn how to embrace our community members struggling through addiction, physical and sexual abuse. We must open the door to allow our children to develop healthy coping skills through adverse trauma. The more trauma you pour into someone, the more likely they are to be pushed into the margins of society and to retreat into the solace of at-risk behaviors.

Although the Black community isn’t monolithic, and we must stop treating our community members struggling with substance use like they have some kind of moral failing. More often than not, substance use disorder is an extension of childhood trauma. As a society, we’ve allowed Reagan’s War on Drugs and Clinton’s failed drug policies to create a generation of Black youth who’ve been incarcerated and dismissed, rather than providing them the treatment that they so desperately needed. This is one of the greatest health crises of our time.

Rest well Mr. Simmons. May your experiences help another to heal.

Image via Creative Commons