Recovery From Substance Abuse and the Trauma of Growing Up Gay

Imagine that you’re a little budding gay boy or lesbian girl, say 10 years old. For some time now you’ve felt that you’re different from other kids. As a boy you’re not interested in some of the games and sports the other boys play. Imagine that as a little gay boy playing with G.I. Joe was about having a special “buddy”. Or as a girl you feel different about how you want to dress, play, or how you feel around other girls. Imagine that day after day, every time you leave your house and go to school, or church, or to play with the other kids, this different way you feel starts to feel like something to be ashamed of.

Maybe, you start to realize you’re having crushes on someone of the same sex, and that feels exciting but also scary because every day when you go out into the world you get some indication that this is bad, wrong, sinful. You see very few positive images that seem to say that same-sex attraction is good, normal, okay. In fact, it seems you only see examples of opposite-sex couples on TV, the movies, at school. You hear directly or indirectly negative comments and slurs about gay people and you begin to feel that being gay is bad, deviant – that “I am bad and deviant.” You start to feel afraid on the playground because you might be teased or bullied because of your difference. It seems there is nobody like you and begin to feel this deep, painful loneliness.

And you have similar feelings when you come home. When mom and dad start to expect that you will have a boyfriend or girlfriend of the opposite sex as a normal part of your development. When your family members make comments that tell you that how you are feeling won’t be accepted by them, unless you get married and have kids just like them someday. When your mom is sharp with you and insists you wear a dress when you’re really a little lesbian girl that has different ideas about how she wants to dress. Or when you get direct shaming and even abusive verbal comments that you’re not acting like a real boy or a real girl should.

How would this affect you if these were daily occurrences and feelings — happening every single day — day in and day out throughout your childhood? If every day you were getting some message that said you were not “normal”? If every day you were either afraid, hypervigilant, deeply sad, or eventually just numb? What would it be like to have to pretend to be someone you are not? To not have anyone to talk about these feelings? What feelings come up if you imagine this was your childhood?

This is a glimpse into the developmental challenges facing all gay and lesbian children. Our powerfully heterosexist culture usually doesn’t question its dominant attitude and its message that being heterosexual is what is normal, leaving all others on the perimeter, often invisible to the mainstream. Yes, there have been very important gains in gay rights, which are creating a growing shift in the culture. And yet, the scenario described above is still the predominant experience of gay children today. What this means for gay adults are that they carry the scars of these daily failures of not being seen, validated, and celebrated for who they are. This daily failure has been described as a traumatic experience — as the trauma of growing up gay.

Something that may be traumatic are single events – but often numerous or repeated events – that an individual experiences without having the opportunity to process the feelings of, or make sense of, what is happening. This certainly describes the experiences of gay children, which is then experienced into adulthood. Because it involves sexuality, we can actually look at it as sexual trauma or sexual abuse.

Rather than having had the opportunity to feel the hurt, loss, and anger of such an upbringing, most gay and lesbian adults are often left with profound shame, emptiness, and self-hatred seeking ways to cover up and numb these horrible feelings. Toxic shame is the feeling cutting to the core of one’s sense of self where the bottom-line message is, “I am defective, worthless, unlovable.” Because of heterosexism, for a gay person this poisonous shame has very specific forms called internalized homophobia and internalized heterosexism. Toxic shame has also been described as the core of all addictions. So we can see the need for a gay or lesbian addict to have their particular experiences of shame and internalized homophobia addressed in their recovery treatment and process. This would actually be a very affirming attitude to have as a treatment provider.

It is also worth considering that to not address your client’s experience as a gay person as a central feature of his or her recovery program would be to inadvertently reenact the very scenario described at the beginning of this article. We have good treatment programs that have learned to provide important cognitive skills and tools for relearning and retraining negative messaging to assist in recovery, but without making this specific to the life experience of your gay clients in an actively affirming manner, we miss an important opportunity for effective healing and a better chance at sustained sobriety.

What do I mean by actively affirming? Therapists are trained to have a neutral stance with their clients, to wait for the client to bring up certain aspects of what needs to be addressed. To wait in this neutral manner can unintentionally give that old message to gay clients confirming beliefs that say, “See, they’re not interested in who I am. I better stay invisible and not speak up.”

It is important to also understand that your gay clients might be checking you out to see if you provide a safe, inviting place to talk about all of who they are, or if they once again have to leave a big part of who they are hidden and uninvited into their recovery opportunity. The onus is on the provider, not the client, to send a clear, actively inviting message that your intentions are to treat the whole gay person.

In the treatment setting, it could be quite affirming for your gay clients to have staff acknowledge their gayness actively. An affirming attitude is one that recognizes that being gay is not incidental or secondary to their personhood or for their reason for being in treatment. While certainly not all presenting issues are about the client being gay or lesbian, but we could say that, for some, this trauma to the gay self is the core of why they are suffering, and substance abuse is evidence of the magnitude of the suffering gay self.

We know that more and more gay people are coming out in their teens. And yet everyone has a different experience and time frame of coming to terms with being gay. Treatment programs that serve young adults in their early 20s would be wise to consider that there may be many in treatment who are not at the point of being able to be out to others, let alone themselves, and that substance abuse might be an indication of this unresolved inner struggle. (Similarly, there are many older adults still in this position.) It becomes important, then, to not ignore any sign, verbal or otherwise, that might be a conscious or unconscious wish or invitation from the client to bring this out into the open. An affirming attitude would not look at any such expressions as a phase, but would be treated with respectful curiosity.

We can then see that it becomes an imperative to actively create safe spaces through a clear, affirming attitude for your gay clients. To provide the utmost in addiction treatment would be to affirmatively provide a place to do important family of origin work about their experiences in their families — not just as children — but as developing gay children, as well as their experiences as gay adolescents or adults. To be a true advocate would be to purposefully assist the gay client in finding the connection between sex, intimacy, addiction, and the failed affirmation of their sexuality as good, and their desire for relationships on their terms as worthwhile. When we say that addiction is about spiritual bankruptcy, it makes sense that part of the healing is reclaiming – or maybe claiming for the first time – that there is deep meaning and potential in who they are as gay. This, along with effective addiction treatment that can work for everyone who is willing to engage in the healing process of recovery, demonstrates that there can be a lively partnership between recovery from alcohol and drugs and the recovery from the trauma of growing up gay.

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