Sobriety in the LGBTQ+ community: The need for role models in recovery
By: Sam Thomas
Content warning: This article discusses alcohol dependency, addiction, drink spiking and eating disorders.
A few years ago in a recovery meeting I was forced to attend, I heard an older chap say he was “a friend of Dorothy” and “a friend of Bill” (the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous).
At the time, I had no idea who he was referring to. I was desperate for support after my first major relapse, and I felt like there was no one I could identify with in these spaces. It only occurred to me some time later that this man – a gay recovering alcoholic – was the type of person I’d been looking for all along: someone like me.
Image by: Jacob Lund
To start my story at the beginning, it makes sense to talk about a time when I didn’t drink. Long before Billie Eilish made sobriety cool, I was sober when it really wasn’t cool.
“Oh my god! You don’t drink? Why?!” I’d often be quizzed by a scene queen who thought drinking was the key to having a good time, and the only reason to go out in the first place.
“I just don’t want to,” I’d typically respond. In reality, my reasons were complex and took many years for me to fully understand.
When I first entered the LGBTQ+ scene in my late teens, I tried drinking and decided I hated it.
My first boyfriend at 17 also didn’t drink. His name was John-Paul and he was an aristocratic Catholic boy studying politics and drama. He had earls and lords in his family, and was about 896th in line for the throne. Drinking and potentially being out of control really didn’t suit his image.
My second serious boyfriend Sunny (I was nicknamed Cher) was the polar opposite to John-Paul. He was an alcoholic and addict, although he didn’t admit it until many years later.
When Sunny and I went on a ‘romantic’ weekend to Blackpool in the early 2000s, I remember him swigging the leftover cans of warm lager from the night before. His lifestyle was an eye-opener for me as an innocent young man.
Despite my earlier period of sobriety, I started drinking regularly at 24, when my then ‘best friend’ spiked my Diet Coke with vodka. Following this experience, I continued to drink; my drink of choice was Sambuca and Coke.
Like my taste in men, my behaviour was one of two extremes, so it made sense that I went from stone cold sober to alcohol dependent throughout the course of my twenties. The glass was always half empty – enough was never enough.
Until recently, it hadn’t occurred to me that several of my ex-boyfriends had been in rehab or engaged in recovery programs. While many of my friends clearly had addiction issues too, none of them had ever done anything about it.
Being in recovery from bulimia from the age of 21, I spent the best part of my twenties campaigning for the needs of men with eating disorders through my charity, Men Get Eating Disorders Too.
But was I truly in recovery when I’d effectively swapped an eating disorder for alcohol addiction?
As I immersed myself into a life of drinking, I felt I was making up for lost time. My alcohol consumption escalated quickly.
At home, I began to drink two mini bottles of wine per night and had progressed to three bottles a night by the time I was 28. By 31, I was admitted to my first residential detox following severe episodes of alcohol withdrawal. I relapsed soon after discharge.
During my time in residential detox, I met a fellow Scouser (I’m not actually Scouse, but I consider Liverpool my second home). He was the only out gay guy I knew at the facility; it was a relief to know I wasn’t the only one.
Naturally, we reminisced about the gay bars we frequented “back in the day”.
I talked about how, on my first night out in the LGBTQ+ scene, I witnessed a homophobic hate attack. That same night, I was followed into the toilets by a bar manager and his bouncers. Thankfully, I’d managed to lock the cubicle door and stop them from getting in, or goodness knows what might have happened.
Looking back on my drinking days, all I can think of is trauma.
Not necessarily the trauma we run into when we’re drinking, but the trauma we’re escaping from.
After completing a course of trauma therapy during the COVID-19 lockdowns, I concluded that the LGBTQ+ scene was not the root cause of my addiction, but it played a huge role in it.
In our community, there’s a culture of drinking and peer pressure. In my experience, ‘having fun’ was often measured by how wasted you were.
As I grew older, I realised that a number of factors had snowballed into my addictions: my lack of role models, my distorted sense of identity and my experiences of homophobia and persecution. These are also things I recognise in my close LGBTQ+ friends with similar experiences.
I’ve now realised that my experiences aren’t unique. I opened up about my history on Twitter just over three years ago, when I underwent my fourth – and what I hoped to be my final – detox.
Following a flood of support from the informal group called #RecoveryPosse, I was finally able to interact with others on similar journeys.
What I really needed when I was at glorious rock bottom was visible examples of those like myself who were in recovery. An addiction thrives in isolation – it’s the main reason for my repeated relapses.
Shame is often fuel to the fire for many people with addiction. For me, what changed the game in recovery was the realisation that the shame I was carrying was never mine to own. Other people’s shame – even if it was directed at me or my addiction – belonged to them.
In the recovery community, it’s often said that the opposite of addiction is connection – and for good reason. I learned that my recovery had to be far bigger than my illness ever was.
The expectation to be anonymous in addiction recovery seems counterintuitive for LGBTQ+ people who have spent a lifetime fighting to be visible. For that reason, I choose not to be anonymous in sharing my recovery story with others, especially in our community.
If there were more visible LGBTQ+ sober role models and supportive spaces like Gay and Sober, I believe I may have been able to embrace my recovery sooner.
Sam Thomas is an award winning writer, campaigner and public speaker. His first memoir Smashed Not Wasted is out with Guts Publishing in April 2023. He tweets about his recovery journey and his Twitter handle is @sam_thomas86. He lives in Brighton, UK.
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