Shame is the feeling that lodges in a young man’s stomach when he searches his parent’s faces for acceptance, only to realize they made up their minds about gay people years ago.
Shame is the red fire of embarrassment on a teenage girl’s face when she’s called a dyke in the hallway at school for the first time.
Shame is the feeling that thousands of men and women feel when they are turned away from courthouses and forced to lie on their tax returns, all because their relationships are not valid in the eyes of the law.
To the outside observer, this shame is nothing more than an embarrassment for the LGBT community.
But according to Joseph Amico, president of the National Association of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Addiction Professionals and Their Allies, this culture of shame is much more than embarrassment, though. In fact, it is the leading cause of addiction, and it is the reason why drug and alcohol abuse is higher in the LGBT community that it is among heterosexuals.
It’s also the reason why so many LGBT addicts struggle to get better, only to come up empty-handed time and time again.
A lifetime of shame
The word “shame” is a huge part of Erin D.’s vocabulary.
Erin, who would only reveal her first name and last initial to San Diego Gay & Lesbian News, has been dancing with shame and addiction for most of her 35 years.
The shame cycle started in middle school, when Erin, a star athlete, heard the words “dyke” and butch” for the first time. Erin remembers hearing the taunts long before she even knew what a “dyke” or a “butch” was.
By the time she finally admitted to herself that she was a lesbian, those shameful words had become a part of her identity. Bubbly on the outside, she tried to hide that shame-filled identity from the public. She buried the shame with frequent trips to fast-food restaurants and midnight raids on her family’s kitchen cupboards. Unbeknownst to Erin, she had already started down the slippery slope of addiction.
Nowhere to run
Erin continued her battle with food through high school, but wanted to break free of the addiction by the time she went away to college. She had high hopes. She thought the shame would melt away once she arrived at her liberal university.
While it didn’t melt away, it did go into the background. She got her first girlfriend, and finally enjoyed the natural high that comes with a new love. She felt invincible, and the shame wasn’t on the surface anymore. The hunger pangs that came with embarrassment disappeared, and suddenly, she felt like she was an active participant in her life.
This new person wanted to tell the world who she was, and she decided to start with her family when she was home for Christmas break. She was nervous, and some of that old shame reared its ugly head. She brushed it off to the side, though, and sat her mom, dad and sister down.
After taking a deep breath, she finally said the words that had brought her so much shame in the past. “I am a lesbian.”
Her mother wouldn’t touch her, even when Erin tried to hug her.
Her father wouldn’t speak to her. She could see the disgust on his face, right before he turned away.
Her sister, who was six years older, told her to “snap out of it.”
Erin didn’t snap out of being gay, but something did snap inside of her that day. Already a social drinker, Erin started turning to the bottle more and more. She became a cliché of sorts, with a half pint of vodka in her car’s glove box and a dorm room full of her favorite adult beverages.
According to Erin, this was so she could feel normal, even if it was only for short periods of time. At first, she forgot about the conflict with her family and the rest of society when she drank. She didn’t think about the fact that her mother wouldn’t return her calls, or her best friend from high school had condemned her to hell for her “choice.” All of that was forgotten, albeit briefly.
However, while Erin tried her hand at “feeling normal,” the rest of her life fell apart. Her relationship unraveled, she dropped out of college, and she spent a fair amount of time living on friends’ sofas for free.
Suddenly, she didn’t feel “normal” at all, not even when she drank. That’s when she turned to drugs. She started with marijuana, and when that didn’t cut it, she tried prescription pain pills. Each time, she would get relief for a while, but then, all of the shame and problems came rolling back, along with the shame of addiction.
This put her on a path that she never thought she would travel down. She ended up trying heroin for the first time, and fell in love.
That’s when she knew she needed to get help.
Traditional treatments are a problem instead of a solution
Erin didn’t know much about treatment, and she had run out of allies that could have pointed her in the right direction. Instead, she opened up the phone book and settled on a short-term treatment facility that was located in an area hospital.
The facility didn’t specialize in LGBT addiction, and Erin didn’t know that such facilities existed, so she felt confident in her decision. Thinking she was going to get the best help available, she checked herself in and got ready to get better.
She was so ready to get better that she initially tried to swallow down the looks she received when she admitted she was a lesbian. The old shame was rearing its head again and she couldn’t turn to drugs this time. “Maybe this is just what I need,” she remembers thinking. She tried to embrace the dissention. Maybe it would make her stronger.
The last straw came when a counselor told her that she should not expect her family to accept her for being gay, and then asked her if she wanted to change her lifestyle. For the rest of her stay, she kept to herself and refused to open up to anyone. By the time she checked herself out, she had already planned her next score.
She was high about three hours after she left rehab.
Breaking the trend
Erin may have fared better had she gone to a rehab facility that specializes in treating LGBT addicts.
According to Amico, addiction is addiction, but the treatment can be different. He says that LGBT people need to go to a treatment facility that not only accepts LGBT people as equals, but has a treatment plan that addresses the unique issues the community faces. The treatment should not be based in shame, and should embrace the patient’s sexuality as they attempt to fight he addiction.
When LGBT addicts go to LGBT treatment facilities, they see much better results than they do at traditional treatment facilities. In fact, Amico says that LGBT addicts who go to a traditional rehab facility have two-thirds of a chance of relapsing within a year of graduating the program. However, those who go to a LGBT friendly facility have a two-thirds of a chance of success in the year after treatment.
When presented with these statistics, Erin seems wary but hopeful. She says she will look into going to a treatment facility that specializes in treating LGBT addicts. If she does choose this path, her chance at finally breaking free of addiction and living life to her potential is far greater than it would be at another facility.
If you suffer from addiction, there are several resources you can use.
In San Diego, Stepping Stone is a non-profit alcohol and drug recovery agency that serves the area's LGBT community. Visit the website HERE or call (619) 278-0777.
Nationwide, check with city and county public health agencies for programs that treat addictions.
The Pride Institute is among the best rehab facilities in the United States, specifically made for LGBT people. The Institute can be reached online HERE or via phone at (800) 547-7433.
Those who are already living substance free and need ongoing support can attend LGBT-friendly Alcohol Anonymous meetings. A list of LGBT-friendly AA meetings can be found HERE.
Additionally, addiction professionals who want to learn how treat LGBT individuals can attend the National Conference on Addiction Disorders from Sept. 17-21 at the Town & Country Hotel in San Diego. Joe Amico and other specialists will introduce addiction professionals to key issues that face the LGBT community. For more information, or to register for the conference, go HERE.
Amy Cox writes about the major issues of our times for SDGLN. She is based in Mississippi, where she sees first-hand how LGBT issues are playing out.