Owning the Label: Why I identify as an alcoholic

Last night, I stumbled on an article by a sober blogger who doesn’t believe in the term “alcoholic”. Hmm. Tell me more. I kept reading.  Turns out, they think the term keeps people stuck in a story, that most alcoholics are actually just heavy drinkers and that the term creates fear. That was the gist of the piece. I won’t link it here because the author has enough publicity without my help but if you Google it, it’s easy to find. It’s an interesting argument and I could see where they were coming from. Maybe the term does get people stuck in a behavior. Maybe the term is out of date. Maybe calling yourself an addict or alcoholic would be a self-fulfilling prophecy for relapse. I thought about all of this as I tried to fall asleep. It made me wonder: I’ve been sober for nearly 7 years and after all this time, am I still an alcoholic?

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The resounding answer I came up with at the crack of dawn this morning was, “Fuck. Yes.” No, I don’t want to drink anymore. And no, I don’t arbitrarily go up to people and introduce myself as an alcoholic. “Hey! Nice to meet you. I’m an alcoholic!” Nor do I list “alcoholic” on my resume or social media profiles. But in a meeting? I’m Sean and I’m an alcoholic. And if a friend or a friend of a friend asks about my drinking, I’ll tell them I’m an alcoholic. Why? Mainly because at this stage of my sobriety, it isn’t about me anymore. It’s about helping other people. Look, we’re in seriously fucked up times when it comes to addicts and alcoholics. People are dying at alarming rates all over the US. The recent numbers are jaw-dropping. Alcohol related deaths topped out around 88,000 last year and it looks like it’ll be even higher for 2015. We’re at an epidemic state with drugs and alcohol so arguing the semantics of terms (like I’m sort of doing here) is fucking ridiculous. As is criticizing recovery programs. We’re officially at a “whatever keeps people alive and sober is a GOOD thing” state of emergency. We can’t afford the luxury of denying people help based on what they call themselves or what they believe. We have to do whatever we can. So If somebody somewhere knows that I’m an alcoholic and that helps them get help, then terrific.

The other thing is identifying as an alcoholic does is it keeps me grounded. When those words come out of my mouth, it’s like an exhale. Each time I say it, I’m living in the truth. As an alcoholic, I lie to myself. Like a lot. And like all of the time. So saying, “My name is Sean and I’m an alcoholic” helps me combat my lifelong penchant for living in denial and delusion. Likewise owning that I’m gay, HIV positive, the child of an alcoholic and a person who suffers from depression. These are all parts of who I am and I gotta say I’m proud of it. All of it. I’ve worked hard on overcoming a lot of shit (and still have even more stuff to work on) so hell yeah I own being a drunk and all of the other labels attached to me.

Lastly, introducing myself as alcoholic reminds that I still need help too. That I don’t have this shit figured out. That I’m not some expert in sobriety who can fix the drinking problems of others (thank fucking God). Basically, it opens the door for some sort of humility to creep in. Those words tell me I’m not better than or more sober or more amazing than any other alcoholic or addict and I need that. So yeah, I’m Sean and I’m an alcoholic.

But tell what you think. Do you identify as alcoholic? Did you ever? Why or why not? There’s no wrong answers here, kids and I’m fascinated by this discussion. Let me have it in the comments section!

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Inspiration for August 21st: ‘Friends’ by Bette Midler

Standing at the end of the road, boys,
Waiting for my new friends to come.
I don’t care if I’m hungry or poor,
I’m gonna get me some of them. 

Like myself, the album The Divine Miss M was released in November 1972. The record featured the above ditty which went on to become a standard for Bette Midler and a song she performed during the 80’s as an homage to friends she lost to the AIDS epidemic. Midler was sensational in the early 70’s and attracted top claiber talent like Cissy Houston, Barry Manilow and Melissa Manchester to work on The Divine Miss M.

Midler’s own friends, Buzzy Linhart and Mark Klingman wrote the song and gladly turned it over to her after seeing her perform it in one of her legendary shows at New York’s Continental Baths. Despite it’s melancholy under tones,  to me, “Friends” is a rousing and intellectual song about the importance of human connection. And it’s this message that inspires me today. As a writer, it’s so easy to live as an island and not connect with others. But as an addict and alcoholic in recovery, isolation is the worst possible thing I can do. It’s all about finding a healthy middle ground.  I used to hoard friends and have boatloads of shallow relationships with lots of people. Today, I have a tiny handful of people I love and consider friends. And I’m good with that. As August 21st winds down, I’ll use the rest of the day to be a friend to myself and others. I also have a list of people I’m dying to talk to and so perhaps I’ll call some of them or reach out to them tonight.

So my friends, thanks for reading. I’m so happy we found each other. Just because I love you, I’ll leave you with the Muppets version of the song.

The Last Time I Saw LA Gay Pride

Throughout the month of June, all over the country, in cities big and small, gay, lesbian bisexual and transgendered men and women are flocking to their local pride parades and festivals. If you’ve never been to one of these events, I can tell you that if you do attend you are likely to see a musical act from yesteryear performing on one of the stages (Belinda Carlise! The Village People!), you are likely to see fried food on a stick (because corn dogs and churros cross all lines of discrimination) and you will certainly see a lot of people who are really, really intoxicated.

Now I’m not saying that everyone who attends a gay pride festival is going to get fucked up but let’s be honest here. The only thing gays like better than half-naked people in booty shorts at 11am wandering the streets is half-naked people in booty shorts at 11am wandering the streets drinking. Gays are so fond of daytime drinking in the streets, gaggles of them often appear at random festivals solely for that very reason. I’ve personally attended everything from Cuban festivals to an abysmal non-New Orleans version of Mardi Gras all in the name of drinking in the streets. As citizen of Los Angeles for 15 years, I could bore you with dozens of drunken tales from the West Hollywood gay pride festival. In fact, as I read blogs and saw pictures of this weekend’s celebration, my mind took a trip down memory lane. I recall line dancing in a country music tent with a drag queen. I remember drinking vodka and watching what remains of the Mary Jane Girls perform near a baseball diamond. And how could I forget seeing Cyndi Lauper wave from a hot pink convertible as a dance remix of ‘True Colors’ thumped in the background? Yet it’s my last time at gay pride in Los Angeles that solidifies the gay pride experience for me.

A friend and I went over to the parade in 2007. With cocktails to go, we headed over to West Hollywood. Perched from a cozy alcohol adjacent corner inside Rage, a parade route- friendly watering hole, we watched as the rainbow of topless men and aforementioned booty shorts pranced by interspersed with floats sponsored by  Gieco and local erotic bakeries alike. This being a Los Angeles event, “celebrities” pimping their latest reality shows or albums were on display too. We cheered as famous hot mess and former America’s Next Top Model judge Janice Dickinson floated by with a bevy of shirtless models. Dickinson claims to be the world’s first supermodel but I would contend she may also be the world’s first celebrity with Tourette’s syndrome. I however always admired her frank nature and the fact that here was a famous person who was shockingly more wasted than I was. She made me feel like, “Gee, maybe I’m not a total disaster.” Dickinson, like any good addict, had moments of sobriety followed by moments of hot messiness. During this particular celebration, it would be safe to say she was experiencing the latter. As the parade wrapped up, we plotted our next move. Do we pay $20 bucks to get into the festival or do we go drink somewhere else? Well, clearly our Jacksons would be put to better use at a bar so we headed over to the Abbey. While you’re unlikely to find nuns at this Abbey (unless it’s Halloween), you were guaranteed to find strong cocktails, more naked men and on that day even Janice Dickinson. Along with a thousand or so of our closest friends, the partying really started to happen. More beers, more shots, and a pill that someone told me was “kind of like Ecstasy.” I wanted my picture taken with Janice but her tanned trio of bodyguards politely shooed my wasted ass away. The rest of the afternoon was a slurry blur and by 4pm I was home and napping off my daytime drunk.

I share this story because in my mind the preceding events had nothing to do with being proud of being gay. I wasn’t drinking and dancing and harassing celebrities because I loved being gay and loved who I am. Quite the contrary, in fact.  Yet that’s how I always celebrated gay pride: by getting absolutely shithoused drunk.

While in LA and newly sober, I stayed away from gay pride. Not because I was worried that I would relapse. But because I felt like it I had no business being there. Like a vegan at Outback Steakhouse. Everybody else was going to be drunk so why bother? A few years later, I’ve lightened up. My recovery is such that I can attend this kind of stuff  without feeling like I’m the only one not wasted. But also I know when not to go too. Like even though its been over 3 years, there are times that I can’t go to places where lots of drinking will be going on. And this is okay. Gay pride means being proud of who you are and today I can honestly say that I am just that. I’m proud to be gay, sober and positive. And I can celebrate all of this without drinking, booty shorts or Janice Dickinson.

Depressing New Study on Gays & Addiction Proves What We Already Know

“Your people  sure do love margaritas!’ said the Argentinian lady I used to work for back in the mid-1990s. And she was right. The restaurant she owned was packed on the weekend with gays and lesbians just getting their drink on. Now, a new study from The Center for American Progress says that not only do “my people” love their cocktails but they are more prone to drug and alcohol abuse then our straight counterparts.

I talked about this months ago on these pages and have often wondered what, if any, is the correlation between LGBTs and addiction/alcoholism. Based on my own non-scientific yet vast field experience, I would ascertain that we queers are one cracked out, jacked up drunken mess of a group of people. But clearly I’m no researcher. I like to think of myself as more of a lab rat. Thankfully, this study which pulled data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and other studies,  did the real work. The organization claims “that an estimated 20-30% of gay and transgender Americans have abused substances, compared to 9% of the general public” according to TheFix.com. That staggering number confirms what the LGBT community has known for decades but refuses to talk about; addiction and alcoholism are killing thousands of gays and lesbians. So why, after all the knowledge we have about addiction does it continue to ravage the gay community? “The stress that comes from daily battles with discrimination and stigma is a principal driver of these higher rates of substance use, as gay and transgender people turn to tobacco, alcohol, and other substances as a way to cope with these challenges,” the report states. “And a lack of culturally competent health care services also fuels high substance-use rates among gay and transgender people.”  Gay and transgender folks, the study says, are also 200% more likely to smoke tobacco than hetrosexuals while gay men are 3.5 times more likely to smoke pot than straight guys.

I can’t begin to speak on the drinking and drug habits of all gay people. (Contrary to popular belief we don’t all know each other.) But for me personally, I read a survey like that and find those numbers to be right on in my own life. Drug abuse? Check. Alcoholism? Check. Smoking? Check. I’m not sure about the hypothesis of why gays and lesbians drink and drug more though. For me it was a combo of things. Being gay was one part but mainly I drank and used to escape, to get away from a person I hated–myself. I had a lot of shame and not all of it was centered on being gay. Ironically, my “battles with discrimination and stigma”,as the study calls them, were more inflamed while I was using. I don’t encounter that kind of resistance in my sober life but that’s a different study altogether. Personally, I don’t believe being gay or being the child of  an alcoholic or being bullied or having a high voice alone made me an alcoholic. It was all kind of written in the stars before I got here and it was up to me to either meet the challenges or not. But that’s my crazy ass beliefs. My hope is that gay leaders can look at this study and say “Our community has a problem. What do we do about it?” Ignoring it and having Absoult sponsor our gay Pride floats isn’t helping matters, in my opinion.

But what do you guys think? Does this study hold any water? Will it bring out much-needed honest conversation? Or are LGBTs doomed to a life of addiction? Tell me your thoughts in the comments section!

You’re the inspiration

When I was drinking and using drugs, I used to tell myself “everything is going to be okay.” I said this especially when things were really fucked up. Like I honestly thought just by saying everything was going to be okay that it would be instantly better. I know now that yes, everything will be okay but it helps if I’m actually doing something to insure the road to okayness. Things are less likely to be shitty when I’m not contributing to the overall shit-fest.

At seven months sober, I had run away to live by the ocean and go to AA meetings and go back to school. I left my hipster part of town, my relationship of 12 years, and my daily drinking friends to get my act together. I didn’t know what getting my act together would exactly entail. Like did that mean I was going to rehearse dance numbers and sew sequins on a top hot or did it mean admitting I had a serious problem with drugs and alcohol and asking for help? I’m afraid it was the latter, less glamorous and more daunting set of tasks I had to take on. I gained some clarity and started to face parts of my life that previously scared the shit out of me. Through this lifting of the fog, I decided it was time to go to a doctor and get a HIV test. I was a 36 year gay man who snorted and screwed his way through Los Angeles in the 90’s and had only been tested once. It was time. It’s never a good sign when the clinic that took 3 hours to take your blood and tells you they’ll call you in two weeks blows up your cellphone three days later at 8 o’clock in the morning. They needed me to come in for my results. As soon as possible.  Fuck. The grey haired gentle RN, whom I’m sure I owe some sort of apology or thanks to, told me I was HIV positive. It was as if she said those words and then I was submerged underwater. The next 5 minutes were a blur as my face grew hot and red while tears dripped down my cheeks like a leaky faucet. I barreled down the stairs of the clinic desperately trying not to collapse or vomit. Great, I thought to myself. What wonderful timing. Divorced, trying to get sober and now HIV positive. Given my current streak of fabulous luck, I assumed it was only a matter of time until I found out that I was adopted or that I needed to have a limb removed. Once on the bus, I called my sister. I told her the news. And told her I really wanted a drink. She told me I couldn’t and told me to go home and lay down. While blubbering tears, I said “I never wanted to be somebody who had to overcome things. I never wanted to be an inspiration.” She wisely replied, “Well sweetie, it’s not up to us.”

Two and a half years after that diagnosis and days before my third sobriety birthday, I’m still not sure that I’m ready to be an inspiration or if I even qualify. But I do know this, I have gotten through what I’ve gotten through largely because when I thought my world was crumbling,  people who had lived through similar things told me “you are going to be okay” and I believed them. I wasn’t like when I lied to myself  that everything was just fine. Oddly enough it was admitting that everything was supremely fucked up and having the courage to laugh about it,  that made everything okay.  So that in short, is why this blog exists. Sharing a laugh or talking about uncomfortable things makes me feel better.  And maybe I can do that for you too.  Hopefully others who are addicted or positive or heartbroken will read this and believe me from the bottom of my heart that everything, will in fact, be okay.