Home, addiction and queerness: A new foundation
By: Marcus Hough
In the drug and alcohol and housing sectors, ‘lived experience’, ‘intersectionality’ and ‘trauma- informed care’ are very commonly used terms. While I chose to work in social/ community services to help people, in some ways the field chose me.
I’ve spent countless hours helping people go from the streets into homes, always carefully considering my clients’ trauma and societal barriers, yet until recently I took little time to reflect on my own trauma. I took even less time to acknowledge that I was allowing others to traumatise me using using the same oppression I was fighting.
While those terms – ‘lived experience’, ‘intersectionality’ and ‘trauma-informed care’ – are rooted in theory, trying to understand how they exist in my life and where I belong is a different story.
For me, the process of finding my home wasn’t something that could be summed up in a training workshop or course, and it wasn’t something I could case-manage my way to. I had to learn it, feel it, and live – no matter how hard it was to reflect on.
Image by: Sulaiman “Sully” Enayatzada
As a non-binary, pansexual African American living abroad, who is also a recovering drug addict, much of my identity is based on what academics would describe as living on the margins of mainstream society.
While I was writing this piece about the concept of home, I was moving house. Moving made me realise me that my home, my safe place, was the chaos of transition and the familiarity of discomfort. I never tell any of my clients that this concept of home is healthy – do as I say, not as I do.
Although I think of chaos as home, it’s not as if I come from a broken home full of violence and trauma.
My parents are kind, loving, non-traditional people. They are an interracial couple in a white, conservative town. My father is a Hendrix-loving, peace-love-and- understanding hippy, and my mother is a family-violence shelter manager who practises spiritualism.
Kindness and love are their tenets of how to live life. I know I will always be accepted and unconditionally loved by my parents; they will always welcome me with open arms, regardless of the circumstances.
With that said, as someone ‘othered’ by society, while I could run from the crosshairs that are the intersections of oppression, the bullet it delivered me was trauma, no matter how much love was in my childhood household.
I grew up in small-town Pennsylvania, an hour north of Pittsburgh. It’s a deeply conservative place with as many churches as pubs; a town of abandoned buildings and rusted ghosts of a once-bustling steel industry.
What was once once a vibrant middle-class community is now one lost paycheck away from poverty.
That’s part of my family’s story. As one of the few black families in the town, poverty was only compounded by race. Generational wealth was not for us – there was no such thing as falling back on savings or selling the house.
In my final days of school, my mother’s job loss meant that we were evicted and homeless. I spent eight weeks on the basement couch of a wrestling-team buddy. It came at a time when we only had one income. We survived on a single income because my father had quit his job to help support a family member who was grasped by addiction.
My relative had had made the brave decision to get her life back by undergoing almost a year of drug and alcohol rehabilitation. My father stayed at home to look after her two children.
The long period of being a carer meant that re-entering the workforce would be challenging for my dad, particularly because he did not have a secondary education.
My mother lost her job shortly after my relative was reunited with her children, when we were already stretched thin.
At the time, 17-year-old me began to fill with a lot of anger – a lot of everything that I was not able to label, let alone handle.
This was supposed to be an exciting and rewarding time of my life: I was about to graduate from high school, and I had been accepted into an excellent university, yet I was in chaos.
I was angry that my parents lost everything after doing the right thing.
Three months later, at university, I felt like I needed to hide everything about myself. The school was full of people from the upper crust of society, and from the moment I stepped on campus, I was determined to be in the in-crowd.
I was going to cover up my queerness, my blackness and my poverty, to not only be accepted but revered by the upper-class white students who inhabited this little bubble on a hill in rural Ohio.
Feeling the need to hide my true self at university would lay the groundwork for more transitions and chaos in my life.
I was starting to realise that I was queer in both sexuality and gender. However, I was a gridiron football player from a conservative town, so I tried to repress and suppress in the hopes that my feelings would go away.
I dismissed them by involving myself with a group that was the complete opposite: the football team and the yuppie fraternity where members identified as conservative Republicans.
I also started misusing any substance that I could get my hands on.
The fraternity I joined was filled with the future businessmen of the world, aspiring titans of industry. It was a social space where progressives were called ‘pinkos’, everything that was disliked was referred to as ‘gay’, and a person who was disliked was a ‘fag’.
In this community, I needed to hide my authentic self. But I was unable to hide it from myself. I drank and used drugs to run away from my true self. I felt like complete shit – probably because I was acting like complete shit.
I had drunken debates with the liberal kids who were trying to find common ground on gay marriage. My closeted queer self was really out there making talking points for things like social unions instead of marriage equality. I was trying to be as heteronormative as I could.
In my third year of uni, my fraternity was kicked off campus. I took a year of leave to recover from a football injury and when I returned to campus, most of my ‘friends’ from the last few years were gone.
I was no longer affiliated with a group and didn’t latch on to another group. I was alone.
At this point, I thought that I would run a little experiment – let’s see what happens if I let just a glimpse of myself out. Remember, I have a constant need to be uncomfortable; it’s my home.
I became friends with the fraternity that my fraternity brothers and I had called “loser queers”.
In spring that year, I attended a basement party known as the deb ball. I had never really known what this was, but I found out that it was a party of queer folk and allies all dressed to the nines.
I went in with a full face of makeup and a revealing outfit, and I was able to dance with girls, boys and everyone in between. It was amazing. I was free. It had been the first time that I was dressed outside of the gender binary since my favourite Halloween costume as a kid: a Southern belle.
Then the night ended, and I crawled back into my familiar cave.
Later down the track, my addiction became out of control. I was out of control. My normal home, of somewhat organised chaos, had to be burned down. I needed a dramatic change or I risked losing my life. I stepped out of my comfort zone and made changes to create a stable, normal life.
After years of treatment and maintenance, a couple of detoxes, rehab, counselling groups and more twelve-step meetings than one could count, I ended up meeting my wonderful partner. I ended up moving to the other side of the world.
I was able to help myself overcome active addiction, and I was going to help others: people who had been homeless, people who struggled with drugs and alcohol, people on the margins.
I was excited about this new life. And I was coming to grips with coming out – I was now in the progressive city of Melbourne. It was all happening.
I landed my first job. It was with an international organisation that had a religious affiliation and a track record of not being the most accepting of members of the LGBTQ+ community. I needed a job so I gave it a shot.
I began to throw myself into work. I loved working with clients, but I quickly realised I could never present my true self at this organisation. I worked for a boss who treated men and women radically differently. He once whispered to me in a private setting that a client was gay, as if it was something shameful. Homophobia and transphobia were widespread.
I left that part of the organisation to work at a completely different site that was in a completely different program. I assumed it had to be better.
When I first met my boss, she looked and acted like the boss I had wanted. She was young and progressive, and said all the right things. I saw a couple of red flags, but I was willing to overlook them because the culture was way better than at my previous gig.
We discussed trauma-informed care, having a person-centred approach, and intersectionality. Yet something was off. I started to realise it was all a facade.
An employee wore a shirt that was obviously offensive about the LGBTQ+ community. I brought it up with the managers, but they all said that they hadn’t noticed.
I was allocated a new client and, in his file, it said he only wanted to work with a male. I went in to speak with my boss and tell her that I didn’t identify as a male, and I assumed they would reallocate the client, but I encountered resistance.
I read between the lines – the other workers at my site were cisgender women and and I was the closest to ‘male’ of the social workers at that location. Clients were rarely allocated to social workers at different locations, for convenience.
My gender identity was ignored for convenience.
To be agreeable, I told my manager that I would work with this particular client. But I requested that if any future clients asked to work with a man, I would be taken out of consideration. Yet it happened again and again.
I raised it constantly, and was told the needs of the client have to be balanced with the needs of the worker but they don’t always mesh. I was given the example that women often want to work with women.
My experience there – the disregard for my gender identity, and a couple of racial microaggressions – gave me clarity. I was being re-traumatised – by my clients, who would refer to people as “poofters”, and by my management.
I was back in the place of toxic frat parties and every football locker room. I was frequently leaving work in tears. I was tired. I was done. And I was as lost as ever.
For some reason, the chaos, the transitions and all the BS that I had put myself through for over 20 years, which was so familiar to me and usually something that made me feel comfortable, was now unbearable.
Fortunately, I now had all the tools, all the theories and a bunch of lived experience behind me.
I remembered the anger I had felt as a teenager when my family became homeless. I was finally at the crossroads where doing what I had to do and doing the right thing met.
I was dying for the feeling I had at the basement party where gender wasn’t an issue but a celebration. And like every child that grows up and leaves home, I was leaving mine.
I resigned; not only from my job, but from the notion that my only home was a chaotic one.
I was a bit concerned about what my next path would look like, but I was moving to a new home in a place that understood me.
I wrote cover letters and went to interviews where I explicitly said “This is who I am: take me or leave me.”
I applied for a job that I thought was out of my league, only to find out that I was on a shortlist of one. They wanted me not only for my skills, but also for my life experience, my story and my point of view.
I remember going into situations, so many times, afraid to be seen, hiding in my cave of discomfort. I would
take a deep breath, pause and put on a show. I now go into those situations a bit differently. It still starts with a deep breath and a pause.
I still put on a show, but now I do it my way – with a hair flip and maybe even a check of my nails.
I recently moved into my new physical home and my new spiritual one. This new home is one of acceptance – not only from others, but of myself. This new home is built on a foundation of trusting and appreciating myself for who I am.
Now, I only work with crisis – I no longer live in it. I get to take my experience, strength and hope every day to work, and it is valued.
My new role involves me making educational materials for alcohol and drug workers, with the directive that it is relevant to people from all walks of life, and especially those living on the margins of mainstream society.
I have a loving partner who helped me get to this point and continues to bring out the best of me, as well as a couple of senior adopted pets, because every creature deserves a loving home full of delicious food, warm blankets and streaming marathons of LGBTQ+ reality television.
This new home is one of truth, and maybe a bit of glitter.
This article first appeared in Archer Magazine #17, the HOME issue.
Marcus is a queer, non-binary African American living in Australia who works to improve the lives of those struggling with addiction, among other issues. They enjoy coaching American football, woodworking, adopting senior rescue animals, and raising chickens.
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