Young and Sober LGBT People: You Are Not Alone
Here’s what I wish I had known when I made the decision to quit drinking.
A study by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in 2012 found the rate of substance abuse disorders in the LGBT population was 20 to 30 percent, compared to 9 percent in the straight, cisgender population. Unfortunately, I am part of that statistic.
I quit drinking six months after I turned 21 years old. When I was able to legally drink, to buy alcohol whenever and wherever I wanted, six months was all it took for me to go from binge drinking whenever I could to binge drinking every day.
The weeks following my decision to quit drinking were long and lonely. Alcoholics have a tendency to alienate the people around them, and as much as I’d love to think of myself as exceptional, I wasn’t. Without the ability to go to bars, I wasn’t sure how to meet other LGBT people.
If you are young and sober, or thinking about getting sober, the fear of being cut off from your community can make it harder to get and stay clean. For many of us, bars are the only space in our towns or cities where LGBT people regularly, openly meet. Losing our ability to go to bars can feel like losing a part of our identity.
At over two years sober, my world has not collapsed. I still have friends. I still leave my house. I am not sitting at home wishing I were at a bar on Saturday nights. But I didn’t get there overnight.
Here are five things I wish I’d known when I made the decision to stop drinking:
1) If the space doesn’t exist, you’ll have to create it.
Depending on where you live, the bar might really be the only place to meet other LGBT people. Try looking up LGBT nonprofits where you could volunteer, LGBT film festivals, local queer musicians, or LGBT + whatever hobbies you had before you started drinking all the time on Meetup or Facebook.
If you can’t find anything, set up your own group. Invite people over for a baking and movie night. Plan a picnic in the park. You will have to talk to strangers, and for every twenty people you meet, you might only like one of them, and it will be terrible sometimes, but you won’t die. It’s not going to be easy or fun to put in the effort when you’re still having a hard time getting out of bed at three in the afternoon, but if you give yourself enough excuses to get out of bed, you’ll start to want to even without a reason eventually.
2) You will lose some friends, but you’ll make many more.
If you had a group of friends that you only saw when you were drinking together, you might lose some of those friends. They might pressure you to drink or use, and insist you’re not an alcoholic or addict. Or they might just be a little less interesting when you’re sober.
Once you get over the “hurts to think” stage of recovery, you’ll find more friends. You’ll find friends who drink but respect that you don’t, and you’ll find friends who are also sober. You’ll find them because you’ll also be a better friend to those around you.
3) Other people will not be enough. You will need animals in your life.
You know who will never think that you were a reckless, stupid monster who screwed up your entire life (or whatever awful thing you're telling yourself)? A dog. Or a cat, if you’re a cat person, although they have always seemed a little more judgmental to me.
I am definitely not saying you should go out and adopt an animal two weeks after you get sober, but do make them a regular part of your life. Volunteer to walk dogs at the local humane society. Watch pets for your remaining friends, or for strangers to make some money. There will be a point early on in your sobriety where you will need to sit in front of an animal, stare deeply into that animal’s completely forgiving and trusting eyes, and cry. It should be one of the steps.
4) Getting sober will bring up a lot of stuff you hate about yourself that you thought you had effectively killed off by using.
When you’re all there all the time, you end up with a lot of time to think. You won’t always like what you think about. For me, getting sober brought my depression to the forefront. I finally had to deal with my major impulse control and anger management issues. I also realized that I had a lot of internalized homophobia, and was absolutely terrified of sober same-gender relationships, because some part of me (that I’d been blocking out with a lot of wine) still believed there was something risky or wrong about my sexual orientation.
If you thought you left your angsty self-discovery days behind you when you were a teenager, get ready for an unpleasant surprise. Figuring out who you are without drinking or drugs is a brand new unpleasant process. The only reassurance I can give you is that you’re eventually going to like yourself much more than you did when you weren’t clean.
5) You don’t have to go to AA or NA, but you will need support.
Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous are incredibly helpful to a lot of LGBT people who get sober. The meetings are free, and they’re all over the country. I never attended AA meetings, because I wasn’t really into the whole higher power thing, but SMART Recovery meetings can be a good secular alternative, though they don’t have as many meetings or locations.
If you decide to skip group support, try to find an LGBT friendly therapist who specializes in addiction. If you can’t access therapy, find sober friends or family members who are willing to be there when things get rough, because things will get rough. It’s okay to ask for help from other people. It will be more difficult to find that help because of your sexual orientation or gender identity, but you will find the right support. Don’t give up yet, young and sober LGBT people. You are not alone.