The sad reality is that persons who identify as LGBTQ are statistically more likely to have an unhealthy relationship with drugs or alcohol than their heterosexual counterparts.
According to a recent national survey on drug use, adults defined as ‘sexual minorities’ are more than twice as likely as heterosexual adults to have used mind-altering substances in the past year.
The problem is not so much with occasional use as it’s with abuse – the persistent use of mind-altering substances over an extended period of time. A 2013 survey by the US census bureau found that there’s a higher percentage of binge drinking amongst members of the LGBTQ community aged between 18 and 64, and unfortunately, the problem does not end there.
A 2019 study found that there has been a drastic rise in alcohol-related deaths within the LGBTQ community between 1999 and 2017. While a recent New York Times article looks at the disproportionate spread of meth addiction and the crisis it’s causing within the gay community.
HOW DID WE GET HERE.
As far as modern society has come, being LGBTQ is frankly still tremendously stressful. The same 2019 study points to both internal and external stigma and victimization as the main stressors for the increase in substance abuse.
These stressors ultimately convey the message that these LGBTQ people do not belong in our society and that they have to go at it alone. This loneliness can then result in the use of substances to deal with those feelings.
There’s a ‘comfort’ in self-medicating with substances. It’s a ‘solution’ to coping with feelings of loneliness, not being loved, rejected, and confused – it’s an easy way to numb the pain.
Self-medication can make it easier to avoid confronting problems in the first place, leading to a false sense of security. This illusion of security becomes a vicious cycle because when the mind-altering substances are not present, all the unresolved emotions come right back to the surface. As long as these emotions remain unresolved and avoided the need to suppress them will keep building.
LET’S GET REAL FOR A MOMENT
I wanted to know how this is playing out in the real world and decided to reach out to two LGBTQ fellows in recovery. I asked them what role they think sexuality plays in addiction, and how recovery has changed their perspective. Their names have been changed for privacy.
Gay, 7 years sober.
“I believe there are so many contributing factors that play a role in why drugs are so rampant in the gay community. But I do believe most of these can be boiled down to feelings of being isolated and unloved. There are so many gay kids who grow up in houses where their parents don’t understand or relate to them, where they don’t know how to treat them.
So many gay children grow up in loving homes but still feel ostracised because of this, because they’re not necessarily given the same seat at the table. To a child, this can be lonely and they may feel unloved because of it.
I realized I had hit my rock bottom after an attempted suicide. Entering into recovery I realized I had to get to a place where I could stand on a hill, alone in my truth, and that it was ok.
That I could be who I am and not have or need the support of friends or family to be ok. Being sober made me realize that I am living the life that I’m meant to lead and that before, I did not have the grounding of mindfulness and self-esteem to do that.
Who I am is ok, and if my parents don’t love me, and my friends don’t love me, and society doesn’t love me, that’s ok because I love me and I’m worth saving. My life is worth saving, and I don’t need mind-altering substances to make me feel like I’m ok or worthy.”
Transgender, 3 years sober.
“Growing up queer in my household was not celebrated, my parents weren’t even remotely ok with acknowledging it either. At the time I still identified as being a lesbian and we where caught by my girlfriend’s parents. The whole situation was such a nightmare, they told my parents.
My mom didn’t take it well and she was ashamed and angry, being all like we didn’t raise you to be this and you know this is wrong. It was really difficult for me because it made me feel like there was something wrong with me, and I definitely lied about it from then on.
I learned from the experience that it’s not ok to be who I am in this place so I either needed to change or fake it until I can get away, and that’s kind of how that went.
In recovery, I started to experience gender dysphoria and it made me realize things about myself when I was younger. I realized that in some form I didn’t know what this was, I didn’t understand it and that deep down I felt that it was societally unacceptable so I just started to suppress it. And every time I felt bad I suppressed it even more.
My whole addiction was based on this need to suppress it. My top priority was to get high. But when I got clean my gender dysphoria presented itself in ways that I was able to manage it. I could shed off the negative beliefs of my sexual orientation. I started building a community with sober folks and this space allowed me to finally come to terms with my gender identity.”
For all the progress that has occurred in the LGBTQ community over the last couple of decades, one fact remains – the community still finds itself in a somewhat toxic environment. Nothing good comes from placing someone in the situation where they’re forced to hide who they are – it can only lead to more lies and deceit that ultimately destroys relationships between families and friends.
All of this is manifested in an environment where there is a higher rate of suicide, bullying at school and young people still being thrown out of their homes. Society has been forcing stressful and traumatic situations in the form of rejection and neglect and because there is still this lack of equality for LGBTQ people, treatment options generally don’t cater to their unique disposition and without care and understanding addiction rates will not get any better.
WHAT CAN WE DO TO HELP
For starters, we have to acknowledge that members within our society are facing this problem and that something needs to be done about it. During the 80’s the AIDS epidemic led to countless deaths while officials threw a blind eye at the ‘gay’ problem. The sooner we act the sooner we can find a solution.
As a society, we have to come to a point where we can love and accept people for who they really are. We must let go of our own fears and prejudices and give LGBTQ people a seat at the table.
This means finding recovery solutions that make these minorities feel comfortable and safe without judgment of their sexuality or identity. If our goal is to help members find a path to recovery then we have to provide them with a space in the world where they can stop hiding and be honest about who they are. Every one of us deserves respect and grace and we all deserve the right to be accepted for who we are.
Once we get to a place where we can look across the room without the need to figure out or label, we can truly coexist and the power of numbers could be phenomenal if we stood together. We can allow addiction and suicide to dissipate if we get rid of the shame and the judgment that comes with it.