What it’s Like to Be a Sober Member of the LGBT Community
My behavior in active addiction provided more than enough material for secrets, and it kept me lying and hiding on a daily basis. But I had another secret, one that shouldn’t have been so shameful but that caused me almost as much fear as the prospect of my addiction being uncovered: I am a member of the LGBT community. When I became sober, this aspect of my identity added a whole different layer to the recovery process.
Like most people who suffer from addiction or alcoholism, I suffer from “terminal uniqueness.” I didn’t think about the fact that there are millions of people like me in recovery. I felt different and alone like no one could understand what my internal life was like. Over time, I have learned a lot about myself, specifically through the soul-searching that is inherently a part of my program. Being a member of the LGBT community in recovery presents many challenges. But, it has also helped me to have compassion and understanding for others, and myself.
The LGBT Community and Addiction
Addiction is a disease that does not discriminate. It can afflict anyone from celebrities to your next-door neighbor. However, there are factors within some marginalized groups that can create higher-than-average rates of addiction for that specific population. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), rates of addiction within the LGBT community are between 20 and 30 percent. This is significantly higher than 9 percent for the general population. That’s nearly 2-3 times the “normal” rate of addiction.
Why such a high prevalence within my community? Well, a few reasons. Addiction is a disease of isolation and loneliness, and disconnection from the world and support groups, as well as trauma. Both play a huge role in increasing the risk of developing substance dependence. Some of the factors that cause such an increase in addiction and alcoholism in the LGBT community include:
- Increased rates of childhood trauma and bullying: LGBT youth are at a greater risk of suffering abuse at home or at school due to their identity (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or CDC)
- 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT; lack of social support and survival mechanisms used on the street can fuel addiction
- Increased risk of adulthood trauma or assault: adult members of the LGBT community are more likely to experience intimate partner violence or sexual assault (CDC)
- Culture: oftentimes, the only safe place for LGBT community members are queer spaces, which are commonly gay bars or dance venues. These locations are great because they provide safety and community. But, alcohol or substances are prevalent, which can lead to dependence
Clearly, sexual orientation or gender identity do not cause addiction. However, social factors like discrimination and social rejection are noteworthy. Sexual or gender identity minorities have an increased risk of turning to substances as a coping mechanism.
What It Was Like, What Happened, and What It’s Like Now
In my personal experience, my sexuality didn’t fuel my addiction. I still had both feet firmly planted in the closet when I got sober. However, feeling the need to keep a secret and being ashamed of who I am was a painfully familiar sensation to me, even before I picked up my first drink or drug.
By the time I was sober, my mindset was that aspect of who I was as a person was negative; including my romantic interests. When I finally had a chance to get sober, I knew it was an opportunity to embrace the person I was and to come to terms with it. I just wasn’t sure how. Alcohol and drugs had clouded my worldview and my mind for so long. I wasn’t even sure of my own identity as a member of the LGBT community, much less how to become comfortable with it. Sobriety gave me that chance, though. My main fears centered around:
- Being rejected by my family: They already knew I was an addict. What would they think if I said I was gay, too?
- Finding female sober supports and a sponsor: What if they thought I was attracted to them, felt creeped out, and rejected me?
- Dating: I didn’t know how to do it when I was using. I definitely didn’t know how to do it sober. Because I was going to date women (which I had little experience with), I knew it wouldn’t be easy.
- Remaining alienated: this time because of who I was, not my addiction.
Embracing Who You Are
Coming out was scary at first. I feel like I still “come out” on a daily basis, to coworkers, family members, and friends. However, my sobriety taught me that it is a beautiful thing to embrace who I am. I’ve also found other members of the LGBT community who are sober, who can support me in multiple ways. They help in my recovery and they help me accept who I am as a human being. The first step was trusting my sponsor enough to tell her how I feel. Her unconditional acceptance of the person I am and her willingness to walk me through my feelings help me. Her trust was so important while I built new friendships and figured it all out.
Therapy helped me to determine who is and is not safe to come out to. Without recovery, I wouldn’t have had that guidance. I have also found AA meetings that are geared toward the LGBT community. These safe spaces allow me to be who I am. Their focus isn’t on using but rather on supporting one another in recovery. I have been so fortunate to slowly figure out who I am, in a gentle way, with compassion from the people around me. What allowed me to do that is, thankfully, complete the program of sobriety.