By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly
According to a 1989 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, LGBT folks experience a higher incidence of substance abuse than their non-queer peers. Approximately 30 percent of gays and lesbians have a problem with alcohol.
In a culture so dominated by the bar scene, how do queers in recovery deal? Two community members share their stories.
Before he got clean (seven years) and sober (two years), Angel Hanson’s life was “a whirlwind.” In addition to drinking, he consumed a variety of drugs including ecstasy, LSD, methamphetamines, cocaine, “trail mix” (a one-two punch of ecstasy and Viagra), GHB, and marijuana.
“I was insanely crazy, loud, the life of the party,” Hanson says. “I had to be number one at all times everywhere. I wanted everyone to like me.
Hanson — a dancer and choreographer perhaps best known for his bold drag persona Ecstacy Inferno — hasn’t lost his knack for entertaining. He currently hosts two regular shows at Hamburger Mary’s — Viva Variety and the somewhat ironically-named Drunk Tank.
“Clearly if you … have ever hung out with me or been to my show, I’m crazy loud and insane just like before, only I’m sober now,” Hanson says. “I didn’t get sober to not live life and be boring. I’m here to have fun and live life to the fullest.”
Though some of that life still takes place in bars (a difficult scene to avoid for a hard-working queen), Hanson takes steps to make that space safe and surrounds himself with sober and otherwise supportive friends.
“I don’t hang in bars unless it’s for a reason — work, meeting, dancing, birthdays — but I always go with friends. And if I’m in a rocky spot or feel triggered, I leave places and go to friends, home, or to a meeting,” Hanson says. “I thought for the longest time that to be gay meant I had to drink and party and do drugs; that’s how I was introduced into our community. So now that I am sober I hang out with sober gay and straight people and go to other sober gay events when I can.”
He doesn’t just hang out with sober folks, but his group of friends has shifted since he got stopped drinking and using. In order to get healthy, Hanson says he had to let go of some friends from his former life. Others have joined him on his path to sobriety.
“A lot of my using friends have gotten sober in the end,” Hanson says. “The friends who didn’t support [me] weren’t real true friends and are no longer in my life.”
Hanson says that while he’s proud of who he is and what he’s accomplished, he still struggles with fear of success, being alone, and the universal challenge of “loving my self and putting myself first.”
“I have been through a lot, seen a lot, done a lot. I don’t regret anything in the past. I had to go through it and do the things [I did] to become who I am today. Life’s full of amazing opportunities. My number one thing: Life isn’t about finding yourself. It’s about creating yourself,” Hanson says.
THE SOCIAL WORKER
For Kelly Wilkerson, 48, getting clean and sober was about shifting focus. Before she entered recovery five years ago, her days revolved around post-work drinks and getting high — essentially her daily escape from life.
“The bar was my living room,” Wilkerson says. “I drank till I ran out of money, then I did things for the bartenders like clean ash trays and tables to manipulate a free beer or two.”
Like Hanson, Wilkerson’s identity intersected with her addiction, if in the opposite way. Instead of drinking to fit into the gay community, Wilkerson got drunk and high to escape a part of herself she couldn’t bear to face.
“I hated myself and I wanted to just die and get it over with,” Wilkerson says. “I had pretended to be straight my whole life, wore dresses, put on make up and the whole lot. Drinking and smoking were my hiding place; where I didn’t have to face my horrific reality of being made wrong in God’s image.”
But eventually, she couldn’t stomach the double life any longer — telling her clients not to drink while pining for a beer, putting on a face that didn’t match who she was inside. So she asked a friend who was in Alcoholics Anonymous to take her to a meeting.
Wilkerson, who hasn’t had a drink since, credits the meeting with saving her life. But she still had to do the hard work of transforming her life herself, which included parting ways with her bar “family.”
“I knew I couldn’t take my friends with me so I left all of them behind — the most difficult thing I ever had to do,” Wilkerson says. “I had to be free of their influence. Funny thing is, that not one person from my ‘family’ called me in all the past five years — not one.”
These days, Wilkerson generally avoids bars, aside from the occasional birthday or other important event.
“I choose to hang with people who are in my interest groups, like shamanism, music, recovery, camping, and photography,” Wilkerson says. “This is where I meet people who don’t make drinking a priority in their life, but instead make life their priority.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Though Wilkerson’s girlfriend drinks and smokes infrequently, her social circle includes regular substance users. Wilkerson experiences jealousy of those who still partake and struggles with staying involved in her recovery program.
“More of my problems revolve around staying connected with AA,” Wilkerson says. “After five years, I am growing weary of the rhetoric and the same stories over and over and over. AA is made for the newcomer and it is hard to stay engaged unless you are sponsoring or doing other types of service. This is a hard point in sobriety and many relapse during this time.”
Still, she says it’s all been worth it.
“I couldn’t ask for more. I have reunited with my family, I have my self-respect back, I am no longer a hypocrite, but instead a productive therapist who can really understand the plight of the addicted,” Wilkerson says. “I am secure in my sexuality, and I have the first relationship of my life. I am living beyond what I thought was out there for me and I’m only five years in — imagine after 20?”
Hanson and Wilkerson spoke highly of their experiences with 12-step programs, and also recommended the following resources: The Multnomah County Crisis Line (503-988-4888), the Hooper Detox Center, and Portland Alternative Health Center. LGBTQ-specific addiction support services are also available through Quest Center for Integrative Health and Q Center.