Second Chances: The LGBTQ community, addiction and the road to recovery

By : Ryan Williams-Jent
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Editor’s Note: At their request, the last names of three recovering addicts featured in this story have been abbreviated for their anonymity and to protect the programs utilized to maintain their sobriety.

It wasn’t drinking his own urine that forced Michael J. to make a change in his life. He’d already decided he should. That just got him high again from the crystal meth coursing through his system, his only access to the drug while strapped to a hospital bed in Central Florida.He did it to “get out of” himself, the 48-year-old Orlando resident now recalls, because he hated how it felt to “be just me.” It was a cycle of drug and alcohol abuse that began at 14 and lasted until he was 32.

“I started drinking and eventually started drugging because I didn’t like how I felt when I was sober,” he explains, 17 years since his last experience with alcohol or drugs. “That was it. My first drink was 14 … I hated how I felt just being me.”

As a child he struggled with depression. He also knew he was gay, “so there’s something you can’t change that no one understands,” he says. “Everyone says you’re bad and so I felt just being myself was horrific.”

Alcohol gave him a new perspective. “I laughed for the first time in a long time,” he recalls. “I felt good; I felt funnier. I passed out on the floor, woke up the next day and I was like, ‘This is it. This is what I’m going to be and it’s amazing.’ It was wonderful.”

Michael eventually turned to other substances, at first “just the fun stuff. Getting high, smoking weed, but after a time the stoned you is the normal you,” he says. “You forget what it’s like to be sober. Then because life can still get worse even when you are stoned, and because you don’t know how to handle stress, you have to go to something stronger to escape.”

There were years of anonymous sex, sometimes for drugs and other times for the “hooking up high,” and unexpected interventions from marijuana dealers about his crystal meth usage. The experiences flanked stints in rehabilitation facilities, halfway houses and state programs.

“Finally I went to the E.R. and did my last thing of meth,” he says. “I went in and I told them I wanted to get off of it. At the time they didn’t know what meth was and they wouldn’t let me in. So I pointed to a little kid sitting there with a brace on his arm and I said, ‘if you don’t let me in I’m going to go fucking break that kid’s other arm.’”

The threatening language worked. Security restrained Michael and strapped him into the hospital bed. Without access to the drug, that’s when his high began to dissipate and he drank his own urine—a process he’d repeat the following day after being released from the psychiatric ward for not being suicidal. “Even though I was,” he adds. “It turned out they didn’t want to deal with me.”

Michael wanted to quit. He just couldn’t do it on his own.

According to the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, that’s because research has shown that addiction “is not a matter of individual strength, moral character or willpower.” Rather, addiction is a brain disease, “a matter of how the brain becomes wired.”

The foundation is the nation’s largest nonprofit addiction treatment provider, self-described as “a force of healing and hope for individuals, families and communities affected by addiction to alcohol and other drugs.” It currently offers 17 sites across the country—including Naples, Fla.—and utilizes evidence-based practices while relying heavily on academic research to treat patients.

The organization explains that long-term alcohol and drug usage changes the brain, releasing a powerful chemical called dopamine. When routinely abundant, the brain “attempts to balance things out” by producing less of the chemical. That’s when it relies on substances to trigger its release and individuals use alcohol and drugs “just to feel normal.”

Or as Dr. Jorja Jamison, PhD, LP and Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies associate professor explains, your brain gets hijacked.

“There’s a process that happens where the pleasure and reward part of your brain—the part that controls things like thirst, hunger, sex and the desire to get free from danger—gets hijacked by the substance or addictive behavior,” she says. “It shuts off the frontal part of your brain, the part that says ‘let me think about if that is in my best interest.’

“It causes people to not act according to their frontal lobe; they don’t make responsible, accurate kinds of decisions,” she continues. “You’re going on that basis of the instinct, the drive. That’s where you encounter negative consequences and continue to use despite those consequences, because the frontal lobe is no longer having a say.”

It’s something that a 2016 research update released by the foundation and published by the Butler Center notes is prevalent in the LGBTQ community. It found that beginning in the late 1970s, when substance abuse research first began to include lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) subjects in study findings, scientists reported significantly higher overall rates of substance abuse among sexual minorities when compared to heterosexual counterparts.

More recently, transgender men and women have also been identified as displaying higher-risk substance use behaviors as compared to cisgender individuals. When compared to heterosexual and cisgender individuals, members of the LGBTQ community have been found to “face significantly increased trauma” and “suffer significantly higher incidences of stressful childhood experiences, school victimization, neighborhood-level hate crimes and family conflict, each of these stressors having been found to correlate significantly with increased substance abuse.”

Clayton Morell is an addiction specialist in the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s Naples Fla location. Photo courtesy the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation

It all leads to additional challenges in recovery, asserts Hazelden’s Clayton Morell, an addiction specialist at the foundation’s Florida location. “We have always been on the outside of the medical establishment,” he says, noting that the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a mental disorder until 1973.

“I don’t believe there is a total understanding of acceptance of sexual minorities,” he continues, “and especially with the transgender community. Trans violence is at an all-time high—we live in Florida, where the Pulse nightclub shooting also happened. There are real barriers to treatment for the LGBTQ community.”

Tampa Bay resident Steven M., 30 and sober for nearly three years, succinctly summarizes the findings another way.

“There are a lot of people in our community who are dying from this disease because they don’t know who to go to or what to do,” he says. “Our brothers and sisters are out there dying, and a lot of them don’t have the resources that a similar straight person might have.”

He began using around 14 or 15, entering his first treatment center at 16. There were times no one around him knew he had a problem with drugs and alcohol “and I appeared to be a really normal, functioning member of society,” he says. Other times, he was homeless and “living in my truck outside of my work office.”

Steven struggled with alcohol, heroin, opiates and was “mainly addicted to meth for a long time,” something “that’s pretty common in our community.” He notes that “a lot of people use it as a sex drug and to party, to have fun, but for me it became an everyday, all-day type of thing.”

Treatment centers, which Steven says he had been in and out of basically his entire adult life, didn’t seem to stick. He knew there was a problem but it always seemed manageable, until one night—while living in a sober-living home and still using drugs—he was robbed.

“I was out trying to get more drugs and it was 2 a.m.,” he says. “I was driving this guy around who kept telling me he would get me hooked up with more stuff and he took everything that I had; all my money. I somehow had this moment where I knew that I couldn’t keep doing it anymore and that basically I had ruined my life.”

It’s a feeling Central Florida’s J.C., 43, understands well. On Jan. 26, she’ll celebrate one year of sobriety in Orlando. “I didn’t like who I had become,” she says. “I wasn’t a stay at home drinker; I was at the bars, clubs and social events. But when I started waking up and not remembering what I did the night before… it wasn’t fun anymore. It opened my eyes to a lot of things.”

J.C. came to realize that her addiction grew “from being in that atmosphere of drinking and using other substances,” from living, as she calls it, the rockstar gay lifestyle of drinking and using cocaine to keep drinking. She also experimented heavily with ecstasy.

When her brother and best friend died, it led her to further rely on drugs to cope—utilizing them as “an excuse to numb myself, to not feel emotions.” After that, a local artist from her “secondary family and home in the gay bars” overdosed. “I knew if I didn’t make a change, my mom was going to have to bury another child.

“It was a ‘glamorous lifestyle’ that some of us made it through, some of us didn’t. I’ve had plenty of friends that did not overcome their addiction,” she says. “I had what I thought at the time was rockstar status, being able to walk into the club and have everyone know me. I felt like I was important but I was basically killing myself.”

The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation is the nation’s largest nonprofit addiction treatment provider. Its Naples, Fla. location is one of 17 sites dedicated to the “healing and hope for individuals, families and communities affected by addiction to alcohol and drugs.” Photo courtesy of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

Tampa Bay’s Sarah Wilson stopped drinking nearly four years ago for similar reasons. “It was stop or I was going to hurt myself or someone else very badly,” she says. “Luckily for me I hurt myself first.”

After years of bartending at various LGBTQ hotspots, Wilson made the change she did after “a face plant on the concrete.” Or that’s what she was told.

As for the details of what actually happened, “I don’t know,” she says now. “I went from being a happy-go-lucky person that was drinking to a so-called blackout artist. I busted my head open and had 30 stitches.”

Wilson had a concussion for nearly three months, something she believes she “played off very well but was a very, very horrible time.” As a well-known bartender with many acquaintances, “I would see people that I knew—and that I knew I knew—but I didn’t have any recollection of who they were.”

She considers herself a “late bloomer,” who didn’t start drinking heavily until she was out of college. She focused on athletics in school and was hesitant about alcohol because of her father, who quit himself when she was 14. “He wasn’t the nicest guy in the world when he was drinking,” she says. “I was anti-pretty much everything until I was 1,200 miles away. Then, ‘that’s all she wrote.’”

After years in the bartending scene—drinking on and off the clock—Wilson came to realize that after she turned 21, “every bad choice that I ever made in one way shape or form involved alcohol. The drug use, the things I never would have done otherwise, was because I was drinking.”

Now, she sees “this giant scar on my face and that’s my motivation. I have standards for myself and what I expect of myself.” While in recovery, her father—now also sober—wrote her a letter and mailed it to her every day for 90 days.

“My biggest reason for not drinking when I was younger was him,” she says, “and one of my biggest reasons for quitting was because of him.”

She’s maintained her alcohol and drug sobriety in part with the help of the kava and kratom community, a growing trend in Tampa Bay, and is now the general manager of Mad Hatters Ethnobotanical Kava Bar. It offers kava, a drink derived from a plant with anesthetic and eurphoriant properties—and kratom, which has opioid properties and some stimulant-like effects.

It’s not without its critics, something she dismisses. Wilson says she’s only personally experienced “waking up the next day and feeling amazing, not feeling hung over or terrible and not regretting the decisions I made the night before.”

While Hazelden offers no comment on kava, it advises “safety is a concern for users of kratom, which the FDA has not approved as a safe medicine and does not regulate.” They further “caution against medicating with any substance that has not earned FDA approval after rigorous scientific scrutiny.”

Morell says that while he wouldn’t personally suggest its use, “ultimately, the person in recovery needs to decide what is best for them and remember that, while there are some people who can pick up a drink and be fine, for others, one drink can lead to total ruin.”

His response is not to encourage those in recovery to “do whatever they want,” he stresses. “The question is how do you want to live? That’s what I always want to pose to my clients. Are you the person in the world today that you want to be? And if not, how can you get there?”

For Michael J., Steven M. and J.C., it was—and is—participating in 12-step programs, like those utilized by Hazelden and found in Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) and other anonymous meetings. The steps are guiding principles which outline a course of action for tackling problems including alcoholism, drug addiction and compulsion.

Dr. Jorja Jamison is an associate professor for the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies. Photo COURTESY THE HAZELDEN BETTY FORD FOUNDATION

The programs “are founded around having the appropriate social and spiritual support to basically affect personality change,” Dr. Jamison explains. “The disease of addiction basically wrecks your life. With the 12 steps, you kind of uncover all the parts of yourself that you don’t like or that have been developed as a way to survive and slowly go about changing those.”

Dr. Jamison notes that some members of the LGBTQ community in recovery face an additional hurdle with the programs. “It does use the ‘God’ language,” she advises, “and the history of Christianity and LGBTQ individuals is a little frock with controversy.”

The programs are “really about connecting to something larger outside of yourself,” she explains further. “That could be the universe, nature, your 12-step group; just something that’s bigger than you.”

“There’s definitely a lot of fear around the 12 steps, I think because of the higher power language and certainly because so many LGBTQ people have been ostracized from organized religion,” Morell adds. “The 12 steps is not about religion, but if that’s how you connect with your spiritually that’s up to you.

“What’s special about the steps, and why I think LGBTQ people have really utilized it, is because it’s more about philosophy and spirituality,” he continues. “If you don’t believe in God it’s not a barrier to join a program or to try and stop drinking or using. There are many anonymous meetings that are agnostic or atheist.”

Like one Michael says he founded out of necessity. “I don’t believe in God or the supernatural. God is mentioned in half of the steps and a lot of it is about prayer, which is ridiculous to me.”

His higher powers are Google and the law. “In the age of information, ignorance is a choice,” he says. “If I have a problem, rather than sit around and think about it, I’ll Google … and if I follow the law, that’s a greater power than me and I probably won’t get arrested.”

Steven remembers the amount of shame he carried with him when he first got sober, something the programs have helped him cope with. “A lot of the stuff you do for drugs and alcohol can be really bad,” he says.

“I thought for a long time that the reason I kept getting hooked on drugs and alcohol was because I was just a dysfunctional person who was maladjusted to life.”

That wasn’t the case. “It’s a disease,” he stresses. “No one would’ve thought I would have made it to age 28, much less 30. I live in bonus time now … everything that I do is a blessing and every day that I wake up and I’m sober is really an amazing thing. I have my family back, I have money and I have a job. My whole life is like a vacation. Every day of my life is like a bonus.”

“I’m forever grateful,” J.C. says. “I function as a normal human being—I get up, go to work and enjoy my sobriety. I don’t have hangovers. That’s the best thing on the planet, waking up without a hangover. I know I was given a second chance at life. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

“Addiction is tricky,” Wilson says. “No one knows what someone else has been through; no one knows someone else’s story. People that sit there and say, ‘it’s just a bad choice’ should sit down with someone and find out why they’re making those bad choices. People don’t choose addiction. It just happens, and a lot of times it happens very quickly. Don’t judge addicts—they might be sitting right next to you.”

“You have to think of this as a chronic disease that requires daily management,” Dr. Jamison stresses. “Success rates with treatments are about comparable to other chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, things that you have to take care of. Recovery is possible. It does require hard work, but life on the other side is so much better.”

“There’s a community of people wanting to help,” Morell adds. “It’s okay to ask for help—you get to decide when it stops.”

“If nothing changes, nothing will change,” Michael says. “If you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always got. Recovery delivers on everything drugs promised.”

If you or someone you know needs help in the struggle against addiction, call the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation at 1-855-592-2308 or visit HazeldenBettyFord.org.

To find LGBTQ and other specific types of anonymous 12 step programs offered by A.A. in Central Florida, visit cflintergroup.org or call (407) 260-5408. In Tampa Bay, visit aapinellas.org or call (727) 530-0415 for Pinellas County or visit aatampa-area.org or call (813) 933-9123 for Hillsborough County. For all other areas or for more information on 12 step programs and A.A., visit aa.org.

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