There are only a few more days left in Pride Month, the annual observance of basic dignity and humanity for the LGBT community, and I didn’t want to let it slip by without calling attention to the rates of addiction and alcoholism among that particular population.
It’s been on my mind all weekend, ever since I took part in the Knox PrideFest parade on Saturday. It was a beautiful morning of unity, kindness, love and compassion, and while I’ve long considered myself an ally of that particular community, I was humbled and a little heartbroken at the thousands of individuals who shed tears of gratitude for the support they received. That support was on full display for a single day, but so many of them face discrimination, derision and outright danger during the other 364 days of the year, and that plays a huge role in the rates of addiction that plagues this community at greater levels than those of their heterosexual counterparts.
Why? According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “People who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) often face social stigma, discrimination and other challenges not encountered by people who identify as heterosexual. They also face a greater risk of harassment and violence. As a result of these and other stressors, sexual minorities are at increased risk for various behavioral health issues.”
According to information collected in the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, this minority population was more than twice as likely (39.1% compared to 17.1%) to have used an “illicit drug in the past year.” Additional data compiled by a 2013 U.S. Census Bureau survey found that “a higher percentage of LGBT adults between 18 and 64 reported past-year binge drinking (five or more drinks on a single occasion) than heterosexual adults.”
It gets even more grim: LGB teens are more than 90% more likely to use substances that heterosexual teens, and LGBT individuals “have a greater likelihood than non-LGBT persons of experiencing a substance use disorder in their lifetime.” (Substance use disorder, FYI, is the scientific term for addiction, as measured by 11 different medically diagnostic criteria.) On top of that, gay men and women are at greater risk for mental distress and depression, and transgender children and teens “have higher levels of depression, suicidality, self-harm, and eating disorders than their non-transgender counterparts.”
All of this makes perfect sense, when you consider the true nature of addiction: that it has nothing to do with a particular substance, and everything to do with the reasons we continue to use them, even in the face of adverse consequences. As an article in the journal Social Work Today points out, “Raised in an unsupportive culture, surrounded by homophobia and bullying, and lacking familial support, the stressors of individuals who identify as LGBT, especially youths, add up, and these youths often escape into substances just like their peers do.”
Speaking as a white, heterosexual, cisgender man, I found escape in drugs and alcohol, and my upbringing was fairly remarkable. My folks were married for more than 51 years before my father died. There’s no history of addiction or alcoholism in my family. But for as far back as I can remember, I lived with an acute discomfort in my own skin, and with a sense of impending doom. I never felt like I fit in, and I always felt like something bad was getting ready to happen, so when I tried drugs for the first time, I thought I had found the magic elixir to ease my distress.
Now, I can get into a lengthy dissertation on how certain brains are chemically impaired when it comes to the natural production of serotonin and dopamine and how the use of drugs replaces those until we become dependent on them, but the point is this: If my restlessness, my discontent, was fueled by an unsupportive family environment and a society that preaches that I’m a freak who displeases God, then my descent into despair would have been meteoric in nature. I can’t say it would have killed me, but the above statistics demonstrate that such a possibility would have been much more likely.
I have no doubt that one of the saving graces of my recovery is that I hit the trifecta by virtue of nothing over which I have any choice: my gender, my race and my sexual orientation. And now that I’ve been clean and sober for a few years, recovery teaches me to carry the message to those who still suffer … including my addicted LGBT brothers and sisters who feel like they have nowhere to turn.
My message to them is this: You are loved by a vast community of recovering addicts and alcoholics who don’t care which gender you’re attracted to, how different you look than us or what your religion of choice is, if any. Our only concern, to paraphrase some recovery literature, is “what you want to do about your problem and how we can help.”
In recovery, you’ll find a community of individuals who give out great hugs and want to help you crawl out of the darkness. We do it because as addicts and alcoholics, we’re already considered disposable by so many in society who don’t understand us. If the circumstances of your sexual orientation have led to similar treatment, know that in some way, we get it. And we don’t care. All we want to do is get you into recovery so we can give you a hug and show you how to live a fulfilling life as the unique and beautiful human being you already are.
Happy Pride Month, friends.