Recovery for LGBTs
I really believe this is an important article for me to write, and for us to read. That being said, it has been a difficult article to write, and the reasons for that difficulty will be discussed below.
I could have made it a very, very short article, and simply said:
“Alcoholism and addiction are progressive, incurable, terminal diseases that have the power to kill – today! Therefore, live the first Tradition: Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon AA [CA, NA, CMA, OA, GA …) unity. Be welcoming, be kind, run all behavior through the filter of: does this further unity or separation? Thank you very much. Oh yeah, and don’t forget the third Tradition about the only requirement for membership being a desire to stop.”
But, I decided to go ahead and shine a little more light on the subject, by both reporting on what was revealed to me through a set of interviews on the subject, and what I’ve observed over the years in both 12-Step meetings and, to a lesser degree, treatment centers.
A Difficult Topic on Which to Write
The biggest difficulty in writing about any group of people in recovery is the huge variation in the recovery experience of individual members of that group. It is not so much an issue of stereotyping, but of trying to find common experiences that apply to many (not all) members of a particular group, e.g., LGBTs, women, blacks, Jews, young people, bikers, atheists, elderly, disabled, etc. – in this article, we’ll focus on those who identify as LGBT.
There are differences in how individuals experience recovery:
- Treatment & sober living vs. just “in the rooms”
- 12-Step vs. Refuge Recovery vs. SMART Recovery etc.
- Staying sober from jump street vs. relapses along the way
- Highest priority in life vs. 6th or 7th down the list
- With or without lots of family and friend support
- Open or secretive about one’s recovery
- Proud or ashamed of one’s recovery
Not only do LGBTs in recovery differ from one another in all of these ways, but they may find great variation in their recovery experience related to other factors:
- Whether they are in or out of the closet
- How much tolerance exists in the city or community they live in
- How much tolerance there is in their occupational field
- Their orientation – are they “alcoholic/addict” first, or LGBT first
I have an openly gay friend who got sober in West Hollywood (a very gay-friendly community), and his sexual orientation seemed to be a non-issue. After four years of sobriety, he relapsed on crystal meth and went to treatment and sober living in Tennessee.
The men in his sober living were openly hostile to him, and talked about how they used to go out gay-bashing on Saturday nights. My friend found it very difficult to be open and vulnerable in that environment, until he finally won them over as friends (that occurred only after they realized that at coed events, all the girls made a beeline for my gay friend). My friend says that they demonstrated their acceptance of him by gifting him a John Deere baseball hat – LoL.
The biggest difficulty in writing about any group of people in recovery is the huge variation in the recovery experience of individual members of that group.-Jay Westbrook
On the easier or positive side:
If an LGBT person lives in an area where there is an active and visible LGBT community, they may be more comfortable with and accustomed to integrating into a “community” like the recovery community.
In mixed gender meetings, gay men often find themselves welcomed and befriended by the women in the room, because they are perceived as “safe.” The women do not have to worry about their friendliness or hugging being misinterpreted.
On the more difficult or negative side:
There is certainly no shortage of shame, trauma, or mistrust among people who are in recovery, especially those who are new in recovery. Many arrive at the doors humpty-dumpty broken, after years of abuse at the hands of others and at their own hands. That being said, both the prevalence and degree of trauma, shame, and mistrust among LGBTs is often higher. Shame creates a sense of not deserving the gift of recovery, and mistrust sometimes makes it more difficult to accept the gift of recovery from our fellows.
LGBTs who are still closeted, may feel a need – real or imagined – to be secretive and/or to (continue to) lie:
- In their sharing
- In their inventory and other Step work
- To their sponsor
And recovery is always made more difficult by the keeping of secrets and the telling of lies.
While we may not like to admit it, many meetings – especially larger ones – witness the development of cliques. In the interviews I conducted, I was repeatedly told that gay 12-Step meetings have more cliques than straight 12-Step meetings, and that those cliques are more likely to be exclusionary.
Some LGBTs may have more difficulty with the God and Higher Power focus of the 12-Step Programs. This is especially true if they experienced rigid and fundamentalist upbringings, and were told things like God hated them, they were going to hell, and/or they were unlovable and worthless because of being LGBT.
Dovetailing on the last point, some LGBTs may also have a harder time with the making of amends to their families, if their families have excluded them, based on sexual orientation, and/or are unwilling to speak with them until they “choose a normal lifestyle.”
The LGBT community has a higher rate of substance abuse than the straight community. Also, a great deal of socializing in the LGBT community revolves around drinking and/or using, and takes place in venues where “partying” is the norm. This clearly makes it more difficult to stay clean and sober in early recovery, before the tools of recovery become second nature.
Finally, LGBTs in recovery may hear derogatory terms used openly, whether they were meant to be derogatory or not. Just last week, I heard a young man share, “My mom and dad are such faggots; they’re both assholes.”
He was not using the term “faggots” to speak about his parents’ sexual orientation, but it was still very insulting to the LGBTs in the room. I imagine an LGBT person hearing that would be made uncomfortable, and would have to work very hard at learning to separate the Program from the hopefully few individual haters who are in the rooms.
Some LGBTs may have more difficulty with the God and Higher Power focus of the 12-Step Programs. This is especially true if they experienced rigid and fundamentalist upbringings…-Jay Westbrook
In the treatment arena:
- Provide diversity and sensitivity trainings to all staff
- Build a trauma-informed care strategy into all activities
- Teach shame-resilience
- Approach recovery from a strength-based perspective
- Role-model non-judgmental tolerance and loving kindness
- Hire LGBT staff members who are trained to work with LGBT clients and their families on issues such as stigma, shame, disappointment, etc.
In the rooms:
I have little more to add than what I already said at the top of this article:
“Alcoholism and addiction are progressive, incurable, terminal diseases that have the power to kill – today! Therefore, live the first Tradition: Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon AA [CA, NA, CMA, OA, GA …) unity. Be welcoming, be kind, run all behavior through the filter of: does this further unity or separation? … don’t forget the third Tradition about the only requirement for membership being a desire to stop.”
Finally, a periodic group inventory might be in order, to explore whether the group – as a group – is inclusive and welcoming to all newcomers and old-timers who walk through the doors. And if not, how might unity be promoted through kinder and more inclusive and welcoming behaviors, and what – specifically – those behaviors are.
I hope this article has provided a useful introduction to Recovery for LGBTs, and provided a sensitization to expanding our recovery through growing our unity. I’d love to see your feedback in the Comments section below.
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