“I accept myself as a 43-year-old gay alcoholic man in recovery.”
I wrote that sentence in August of 2019, roughly a month after coming home from a second trip through Mountainside’s Residential program. Being able to put pen to paper to write those words together, in one sentence, represents a long journey of hard work and support to not only accept, but embrace two parts of my identity I kept hidden, letting go of shame to live a much happier, more authentic life.
Like many people who identify as LGBTQ, I knew I was gay long before I ever came out to anyone. Growing up, particularly in high school, I was so worried people would find out (were the comments I got from high school jocks because they actually knew or because that was their lazy bullying tactic for anyone who was smart, skinny, and completely uncoordinated?). I tried to convince myself I wasn’t really gay, and lived life and based decisions on what I wanted to project to the world, rather than who I really was. I used humor to deflect and ingratiate myself. I chose a Catholic college with big sports and known for parties even though I had zero interest in tracking stats and players closely (I still need someone to explain to me how fantasy leagues work). Even though I’d attended a grand total of 1.5 parties in high school (the homecoming one was broken up by the police in 20 minutes) and consumed less than one beer total by graduation, I thought I should want that way of life – that’s what I was supposed to do.
I went to games, enjoyed them more than I thought. I had two girlfriends during my time in college and just after – and enjoyed that at about the level you’d expect. Drinking though, I came to enjoy A LOT. My claim to fame was being the guy who could chug an entire can of Busch beer without gagging the fastest (don’t overread into that last sentence, Freudians). Drinking was a way to let the walls down – not a lot but just enough – to relax, to have fun, to find acceptance. My drinking was heavy, but not out of line with my peers. I thought all of that would be enough – and the big secret I was hiding I could keep hidden for the rest of my life and be content.
I kept my life compartmentalized throughout most of my 20s. Work provided pride and accomplishment. I had my friends from college I still socialized with who didn’t bring up why I never talked about dating even though they were starting to get married. I was respected and well-liked by colleagues as I seemed to have everything together, and socializing with coworkers meant you didn’t have to engage in a lot of personal talk. Just a lot of drinking. Being gay meant finding a hookup online when I wanted that release with someone who wouldn’t even know my name, let alone anything about me other than physical attributes, sex, and “thanks for your time.” I didn’t realize how much of an emotional toll juggling all of these different identities was taking on me. I had gotten so good at hiding my true self from everyone else, even I didn’t know who that was.
But those walls can’t stand the test of time, as much as you may want them to. Cracks started to appear when I met the man who would be my first boyfriend, which pressured me into coming out. But that relationship ended and I was left with a sense of “why did I take that risk?” I did start to be more open about my sexuality – I eventually started coming out to my coworkers, but I took pride when people showed surprise that I wasn’t straight. It was a twisted, “Hell yeah!” moment in my head when people would say, “You don’t come across as gay.”
Interspersed in all of this was alcohol. And as the cracks started to widen – more people knew I was gay, I met my now-partner and my love for him and desire for him to be part of my life superseded wanting to project some distorted image of masculinity – the pressures of my career brought on new, heightened levels of stress. Alcohol was the way I coped. We’d all talk in the office about “opening that bottle of wine” when we got home to have a drink. Pretty sure I was the only one who meant it every time I said it and “a drink” meant “a bottle.” Then a “drink” meant a shot of whiskey. Then half a bottle of whiskey. This went on for a long time – I had years of practice hiding my homosexuality, so hiding how much I was actually drinking on a daily basis was almost second nature.
Eventually the foundations crumbled. Drinking became all-consuming. I was confronted by family, by coworkers. I dabbled in help – I went to my first AA meeting shortly after my 41st birthday, but I didn’t really commit. I’d drift in and out of different meetings for months, stringing together 40 days, 80 days – I made it over 90 days once before another relapse. While I did finally find a homegroup with people I liked and trusted, I still let my fear of being authentic in all parts of my identity hold me back. I couldn’t retrain my brain to break down the mental barriers I’d spent decades fortifying. My therapist at one point said I was “exhausting to listen to.”
I made progress by finally accepting that I needed to go to Residential to “wrap my head around my disease” as I put it to someone. I did make progress, but authenticity was a struggle; it was 18 days before I finally said to the group at a fire ceremony hike that I was gay. Looking back, it seems strange to think being surrounded by other people – all of whom had some of the same struggles as me, some of whom had the exact same struggles as me – that I was fearful. But I was. As much as I learned and began to work on myself because of the support of the Mountainside community – both inpatient and outpatient – there was still a long way to go.
Where things really began to change was June of 2019, when I had my (hopefully) last relapse, which was short in duration but scary in how quickly it spiraled and how fast the trip to the bottom was. A weekend alone where I decided just to try drinking “one more time” quickly devolved into a really dark experience. I was so close to losing everything – my family, my partner, my career. I had to return to Detox and the full Residential program after only being out for just over six months. Sitting in Detox, the chemicals in my body, the deep, deep fear and shame I felt – I didn’t have active thoughts of ending my life but I definitely wondered if the world would be better without me in it. I thought I’d hit bottom before, but nothing previously compared to the despair I felt at that moment.
There was one phrase that got lodged in my head through all of this – Mike, my recovery coach in Chappaqua, who convinced me to go back – said to me, “You’ve got to purge all of it.” I can’t remember exactly how he phrased the rest of it, but the meaning was clear – if I truly wanted to heal, to live life in recovery, I needed to face all these different parts of my persona. I needed to confront the mistakes and negative feelings. I needed to vocalize my fears and be willing to sit with them. I needed to be honest about what I wanted my life to be, not what I thought it should look like based on other people’s projections. I needed to accept who I am, to celebrate the good, to be honest about the bad. To believe that I deserve to live a healthy, authentic life. I needed to surrender. Truly, completely surrender. To be honest about what I wanted. And what I wanted was to live a sober life. As an out gay man. I didn’t want to hide anymore. I was so tired spending all that energy worrying about what I thought people thought about me.
I approached my second time in treatment differently – I was out before even leaving Detox. When Marc the chaplain came in on Wednesday mornings to remind us we could have sessions with him, I asked my clinician to schedule one because I didn’t have any clue how to grow spiritually. I forced myself to go to the gym even though I was embarrassed at being out of shape and not knowing how to use any of the equipment (thank god Leandro is so patient). In Family Wellness I was able to hear, truly hear what my partner needed to say, and not just acknowledge it but understand. I was also able to ask in return for what I needed for our relationship, something I am terrible at doing. They suggested trying EMDR therapy in Outpatient when I came home and I embraced it, even though some sessions have been really difficult to work through. I kept up exercising. I was fully honest about relapsing and going back to treatment with my homegroup in AA. I reach out for help from my network, from my recovery coach when I’ve been thrown curveballs – and there have been some doozies thrown my way this year, even before COVID-19.
June 5th I celebrated one year of continued sobriety. I won’t say every day is easy – there are some days that I feel the only thing I did right was not drink. But I recognize each day I wake up sober is a tremendous achievement. I’m able to be open about living as a gay man. My friend recently asked if I’d be willing to speak about my experiences in college living in the closet to help his daughter, who is transsexual, in making a decision about how important having a queer community may be for her. I couldn’t have done that even a year ago because I struggled for so long with vulnerability. I look back on how much time I spent trying to keep all these parts of who I am hidden from the world, and even I can’t believe I worked so hard to maintain that façade for so long. It’s a world I don’t ever want to return to.
I was talking to two friends of mine recently (both straight women) and I made an off-the-cuff gay reference, which I can’t recall. What I can recall was how one of my friends responded. She said, “I can’t pinpoint when it was exactly that you went from not wanting anybody to know you were gay to being so open about it.” That was a “Hell yeah!” moment for me.
Have a recovery story of your own? Share it in the comments below!