LGTBQ: Addiction, Alcoholism, and Recovery 

By Patrick O’Neil 

It is estimated that nearly 30% of the LGBTQ community abuses substances. A disturbingly high number compared to the roughly 9% attributed to other demographics. This is due in part as a reaction to societal prejudices, discrimination, rejection from family and friends, and the resulting internalized homophobia. “The trauma associated with the social stigma of being LGBTQ, of living in a culture that, for the most part, is homophobic and heterosexist, is traumatic,” explains psychotherapist and clinical social worker Craig Sloane. “In many parts of the country, the safe spaces for queer people to go are bars, so social isolation certainly is one of the factors behind substance use disorders for LGBTQ people.” 

Heather Zayde, a Brooklyn-based clinical social worker and psychotherapist further confirms this prevailing analysis, “For [the LGBTQ community], there is the fear of fitting into a society that they may perceive is rejecting them. There has been lots of work moving in the right direction, with more acceptance of all people, but then there is messaging from the current presidency, for instance, where gays are hearing horrible things coming from leadership — it’s very hard.

“Oftentimes, LGBTQ individuals will turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to self-medicate from the prejudice they face in everyday society,” writes journalist Jeffrey Juergens. “Substances can help temporarily numb uncomfortable feelings they may be experiencing, such as depression, anxiety, anger or fear. Although substance abuse may appear to be beneficial initially, there are many long-term, negative consequences from hiding your feelings.

My use of meth, and my use of drugs and alcohol in general, was often driven by loneliness,” states sober companion Michael Arndt. “The same loneliness that most gay men can relate to. Ironically, the more we lean on drugs and alcohol to alleviate that feeling of isolation, the more isolated we become.” 

Yet even though the estimated number of addicts and alcoholics in the gay community are higher than their straight counterparts, studies show that considerably less members of the LGBTQ community actually receive treatment. According to CBS News reporter Bahar Gholipor, “Researchers have found differences between sexual minorities and straight people when it comes to access and use of health care.” One reason for this is the lack of rehabs that provide inclusive programs of recovery. “Addictions treatment needs to be tailored [to include] LGBTQ people,” states Dr. Alex S. Keuroghlian, MPH, the director of education and training programs at The Fenway Institute and assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. 

As a gay man who just wanted to finally belong and be like everyone else, it was a tough pill for me to swallow that I wasn’t like everyone else and that treatment that worked for others probably wouldn’t be the best fit for me,” reflects Arndt. “For me it was imperative to find treatment that would address me as a whole person, not just fragmented little pieces that I (or they) were comfortable addressing.” 

One program that does provide non-judgmental and inclusive treatment is LGBTQ owned and operated Cast Centers; “For those who would like the safe space to address LGBTQ-specific issues, CAST offers LGBTQ-affirmative therapy for our clients that is facilitated by an LGBTQ-affirmative therapist. Additionally, CAST works closely with LGBTQ providers and resources in the community to ensure the continuity and completeness of our clients’ treatment.”

However not everyone agrees that addicts and alcoholics in the LGBTQ community are not seeking or receiving help for their addiction and alcoholism. “Since we struggled more than our average heterosexual friends, we also wind up seeking treatment more too,” writes recovery author Sean Paul Mahoney. “The truth is we exist in large numbers in recovery and many of us have long term recovery. The feeling of belonging that I wanted in gay bars is now found in people bravely beating the odds and walking the same path as me. Sure, that path forged by my LGBTQ sober brothers and sisters might not be a much talked about blog or hip best seller which fits snuggly into our current marketable version of what sobriety looks like. But it’s one that exists and for that I’m forever thankful.  Remember recovery isn’t just for straight people.”   

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