August 22, 2014

LGBT & Sober

Recovery is never easy, but with better programs and counselors for the LGBT community, it’s getting better.

by Hayley Grgurich

The addict’s life is a world of self-supporting secrets. Rituals, bank balances, hiding places, little white lies that grow up bigger and meaner and quicker—it gets to be so much that the old world gets lost in them and the truth of that world gets lost right along with it.  

In recovery, all of those secrets are supposed to be revealed. They are robbed of their power by the greater power of admission. It doesn’t come easily, but you go to enough meetings and you hear enough people tell the same story—your story—that it gets easier to raise your hand.

But what if you don’t hear yourself in the rooms? Melissa didn’t—at least not at first.

“I was so unique,” she says of being the only transgender person in the straight meetings she attended in her early days of recovery. But she knew recovery required honesty and so she took a chance.

“I had been around the corners of the trans lifestyle for probably 13 to 14 years, and so I put it out there,” she says. “I didn’t really have the language to discuss it, we’re talking over 20 years ago, but I did the best I could to at least come to grips with some of my secrets.”

Admitting her transgender identity was in many ways as integral to Melissa’s recovery as admitting she had a problem with drugs and alcohol.

“I’ve had gender conflict feelings my whole life,” she says. “My gender conflict fed my addiction and alcoholism and vice versa. I did my best to kill that part of me that was Melissa through drink and drugs and I failed. My solution to the problem became worse than the problem itself.”

Today, with 22 years sobriety, a thriving career and a life where she can live openly as herself, Melissa is a success story. But for people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) community looking for sobriety, it isn’t always so easy.

I’m Out. Now What?

Alyson came out as a lesbian to her friends and family in her 20’s. She thought the relief of being out would help her get a handle on the addiction she had developed to prescription drugs.

“I thought a lot of the internal struggle, a lot of what was going on with me was [about being in the closet], and that once I came out and started living that life, things would get better,” she says. “That wasn’t really the case at all; it was actually kind of the opposite.”

For one thing, being out meant there was nothing stopping Alyson from trying to meet someone, but she didn’t know where to start.

“The first place I went was an Indigo Girls concert,” Alyson laughs. “And just to be there and to explore that, I felt at the time I had to drink a ton. From that point on, it was always concerts or bars and drinking.”

Keith had a similar experience trying to build a social life as a gay man. “My ability to relate to other gay men was completely contingent on whether or not I’d had two or three cocktails beforehand,” he says. “For me, it was being very self-conscious around my peers and not really having a clear sense of who my peers were.”

Jeff Zacharias, president and clinical director of New Hope Recovery Center in Chicago, says social life in the gay community has long been centered in bars, historically due to a need to keep relationships underground, and more recently, reinforced by culture and marketing.

“Alcohol is a big money maker in the gay community,” Zacharias says. “Coors, Miller, Budweiser—they all advertise in gay magazines. So much of gay life is centered around the bar culture, [it can feel like] if I’m trying to stay sober, where is there for me?”

Coming to Terms with a Crisis

In a 2011 report published by SAMHSA titled Top Health Issues for LGBT Populations, researchers found that people identifying as LGBT were significantly more likely than the general population to use or abuse drugs and alcohol. What’s more, the report quotes the Institute of Medicine as saying, “Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals have unique health experiences and needs, but as a nation, we do not know exactly what these experiences and needs are.”

For members of the LGBT community trying to find addiction treatment, this lack of understanding—or even the concern that it might be present—can be an obstacle to recovery.

Dr. Shannon Garrity, PsyD., psychologist at PRIDE Institute, explains it this way: “Many people, particularly within the recovery community in general, describe feeling ‘different,’ ‘like an alien,’ or that they ‘don’t fit in,’” Garrity says. “In the LGBT community, this is often tied to a specific aspect of their identity [such as] sexuality, sexual orientation or gender identity.” When a client is dealing with both addiction and an LGBT identity, Garrity says it can feel like piling “shame on top of shame.”

Patrick Perry, an independent contract therapist working mostly with LGBT clients, agrees. When he first began his counseling career, Perry took an internship with an alcoholic rehab center in Tennessee. There weren’t any programs specifically for LGBT clients at his facility, but word got around that Perry was good with them, so other counselors starting referring their LGBT clients to him.

“None of the other counselors would take a gay or lesbian person, or even in more recent times trans people,” Perry says. “They didn’t want to talk to them because they couldn’t relate to them.”

Working with LGBT clients, Perry found some similarities in their histories. “So many in the LGBT community are either ostracized from friends and family, or there’s just a whole different social dynamic going on, so they tend to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol,” he says.

Complicating things further, Aren Drehobl, program manager of the Recovering with Pride program at Howard Brown Health Center, says, “LGBT clients are more likely to have experienced various kinds of trauma and that complicates treatment and their ability to seek it.”

In some cases, LGBT clients’ needs in treatment even vary by their age. According to Zacharias, “For people who are in their 40’s, 50’s and over, the stigma, if you will, with being LGBT is a lot different than with those who are in their 30’s, 20’s and teens. Back when I was in high school and college, there wasn’t the awareness that perhaps Will & Grace brought, or Modern Family, or any number of TV shows now that have a gay character.”

“Another interesting thing,” Zacharias says, “is younger people a lot of times, because there is a different level of acceptance surrounding them, they may have partners, they may have family. Older individuals, because of the level of stigma [they grew up with], they may not have partners, their families may have written them off, so there can be a level of support that’s missing there as well.”

He also points to the impact of the AIDS crisis in the 80s, which hit gay men especially hard. Some gay men who had partners then, have since lost those partners to the disease and with them, their source of support.

It Gets Better

Zacharias, Garrity, Perry and Drehobl all agree that LGBT-specific services for addiction treatment aren’t yet where they need to be, but things are getting better. And, both the clinicians and recovered patients are quick to note, recovery can happen anywhere, for anyone.

For Alyson, she simply went to the local hospital that accepted her insurance and made a point of advocating for herself up front.

“When I did the interview, it was very important for me to let the psychiatrists who did my intake know that I was a lesbian,” she says. “They were immediately like, ‘Oh, you’ll really, really, really like it here; you’ll really fit in.” Alyson remembers her stay in the program overlapping briefly with a gay client’s, but otherwise she was the only LGBT patient.

“It wasn’t like it was an LGBT program, but it was very accepting and open there,” she says. “I got really lucky.”

The availability of LGBT-specific addiction treatment programs while growing, is still limited and largely confined to large cities. To ensure prospective clients find programs they feel comfortable with anywhere they are, Zacharias says it’s important to ask questions.

“There are a lot of people that say they have LGBT programming and maybe they don’t,” he says. “Ask questions like, ‘What do you do that’s LGBT-specific? How would you support me?’”

Drehobl adds that LGBT clients may not always find everything they need in one place. “If LGBT-specific addiction services aren’t available, you need to find some kind of combination of support to make sure you get to talk about everything you need to.”

This may mean working with a straight therapist and attending an LGBT peer group, or trying out a SMART (Self Management and Recovery Training) recovery meeting, which provides non-spiritually based peer support. 

The overall message is simple: If you’re part of the LGBT community and looking for addiction treatment, you need to recognize that treatment is about the whole person and you have the right to be that person to get what you need from your program.

“Do your best to speak your mind,” says Garrity. “People want to hear you! Recovery is about finding and expressing one’s voice and learning to care deeply for your own life.”

Recalling her recovery breakthrough, Melissa says it best: “You hear 50,000 stories—they all end in the same place. The beginnings aren’t important. What’s important is that moment, that realization that ‘Oh my god, I’ve got a problem and this is the solution.’”

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NYC Queer & Sober: Making Fellowship Fabulous

As Pride Weekend rolled around once again in 2010, four friends from the rooms in New York decided they wanted to put together an alternative option for sober people from the LGBTQ community to celebrate. They envisioned a party where members of any Twelve-Step program would be welcome for drug- and alcohol-free fellowship.

Pooling their resources, they planned a Wild West-themed party and expected around 100 to 150 attendees. What they got, was about 700, and resounding confirmation that NYC Queer & Sober was needed—and wanted.

Keith Butler, a board member at NYC Queer & Sober, says the outlet the organization provides can be invaluable. “A common belief—and it’s one that I have and hold to very strongly—is the hardest times of year for LGBTQ sober members to maintain their sobriety are Gay Pride and New Year’s,” he says. “Just the sheer amount of opportunity that exists out there and the internalized feeling of being ‘less than’ while watching your colleagues go out.”

It was that feeling of being left out that brought Butler to his first NYC Q&S event and he felt the difference immediately. “I think sober events can sometimes have the brand of being less fun or less exciting than what we used to do when we were out there in active use,” Butler says, but that wasn’t the case at NYC Q&S.

“They wanted to create an environment that was just as quote unquote ‘fabulous’ as things could be when we were out there using – or, as our perception at the time kind of lent itself to believing.”

Since its inception, NYC Q&S has expanded to offer a New Year’s Eve party along with their Pride party and Butler hopes it will grow further still.

“We’re looking to be of service in other ways beyond parties and to really bring things to the celebration of what the birth of sobriety can yield.” In particular, Butler says the organization is laying the groundwork for a potential series of talks geared toward the LGBTQ and sober community.

“The working title for it right now is ‘Q&S Talks,’” Butler says. While nothing is official yet, Butler says the hope is that the series can be “geared toward the sober individuals that have time and have gotten their lives back in order to discuss certain things, whether it’s entrepreneurship in sobriety, financial wherewithal in sobriety—things that a lot of people continue to struggle with or that they’re very fearful of facing.”

Butler stresses that NYC Q&S is only one of many options that exist for fellowship and support for people who are LGBTQ and sober, and that even as it grows, the goals of the organization will remain the same: be of the utmost assistance to others and be welcoming to everyone.

For more information about NYC Queer & Sober, visit their website at


Other articles you might be interested in…

Recovering with Pride

Group aiming to make a difference in the  sober LGBT community

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