September is National Recovery Month. There will be events all month long celebrating those in recovery, and highlighting the options available for those who choose to be sober, as well as many chances for people to tell their stories. In honor of this, I have decided to tell some of my story, and the challenges faced by the LGBTQI+ community when it comes to alcohol and drug addicition.
Hi. My name is RJ, and I am an alcoholic. On September 5th, 2018, I celebrated two years of sobriety. At the time when I made the decision to quit drinking, I was the current Mr. Bear Alaska, a title given by The Last Frontier Mens Club, a social club for gay, bisexual, and questioning men. I had also just been let go from my position as a bartender and promotions manager for Mad Myrna's. The decision to let me go from my position was made in order to help me. Jeff Wood, aka Mad Myrna, told me directly that he could not bear the thought of losing me, so therefore he knew that the best idea was for me not to work there anymore. It was the best possible thing that he could have done for me, when he asked that I not come to the bar for at least 90 days.
Mad Myrna's was not just my job. It was where I went to be with friends, and where I participated in my hobbies of theatre and performance. My entire social circle was wrapped up into the lifestyle of being a bartender, and particularly being a part of the family at that bar, as it had been for well over a decade. I felt that I had lost my community, my sense of self, and so much of what had been my driving force for much of my adult life. If it was not for the amazing housemates, and some very dear friends that I was blessed enough to have at the time, I am not sure if I would have made it. During that first week of not drinking I had lunch with a long time friend who gave me advice, as well as some warnings about the journey and challenges I was about to face.
One of the first things that he told me was that I was about to discover how many drinking buddies I actually had. He explained that for many people drinking is our social outlet, and that as soon as we decide that we cannot do that anymore, many of the people that we thought were close friends would fade from our lives. This quickly proved itself to be true, and while I was initially hurt, and in some cases angry, the logical side of myself realized that it was probably for the best anyway. The problem came when I realized how difficult it was going to be as a queer man, especially a queer man that was supposed to be a leader in the LGBTQI+ community.
For as long as I had worked at Mad Myrna's I had also been involved in many different charity organizations and event planning for events such as the annual Pride parade and festival. This put me in a situation of first of all not being able to attend many of the events that had become tradition for me, as well as not knowing if I did decide to attend some of them, whether I would be tempted to drink.
For most gay people, our first gay bar is one of many milestones that we have on our path to becoming our authentic selves. Being able to be unabashedly queer in a space where it is not just tolerated but also celebrated, is a freeing moment, one that helps you realize that our community is more than just the characters we may see on TV, or celebrities that are brave enough to come out. We see actual humans, flawed and otherwise in front of us, doing their best to enjoy all that life has to offer. Many of the activities that have to do with the gay community are centered around alcohol. Even brunch with friends becomes a discussion of which place can offer the best mimosa, and camping trips always involve lots of beer. I would never suggest that any of this should change, especially not on my account. The challenge then becomes: how do I stay sober, while staying a part of my community?
I made the decision to quit drinking without the help of rehab, without going to A.A., and along the way I have discovered a system that works for me. The first discovery that I made on this journey of reinvention was that each person walking this path has to make it their own.
One of the other things that my friend told me when I first got sober was that after he had gone through rehab twice, his counselor told him that he needed to find a community. For him, that was church. It makes sense, considering that for those that have found success using a 12 -step program, a higher power and regular meetings are part of what becomes their new lifestyle. It wasn't enough for me, though. I did give church a try; unfortunately my identity as a queer man is not always welcomed in such places, and I have some other traumas directly related to religion that I needed to sort out. What I wanted was a way to be part of my community that I had always known, while still abstaining from alcohol.
The fact that I have always been such a public figure within the LGBTQI+ community led to me being terrified about what everyone was going to say about me. I heard from several people immediately after I had quit drinking about how the details of my addiction and mental health were being told to them. It took a long time, but eventually the fact that I was so well known ended up working in my favor. I didn't have to come out all over again as an alcoholic. People knew. People knew before I quit drinking, and they heard quickly after I stopped. Yes, my story was easy to turn into gossip and rumor, but clearing up inaccuracies about exactly what had gone down, and what had led to my being let go was a lot easier than telling each and every person that I had ever served a drink to that I would no longer be imbibing.
This led me to my next part of maintaining my sobriety — honesty. I had to be authentic and transparent about my struggle. When I first quit drinking and tried to go to bars, people would attempt to send me shots, or buy me drinks. I learned quickly that if I had a non-alcoholic beer in front of me it at least slowed them down, but it wasn't enough. My friend Benjamin realized the same thing when he started to go back to bars after realizing that sobriety was the right choice for him.
“I have found that my best ally is being very vocal about it, so that everyone knows and they can keep me accountable.” he told me. “I tried to be quiet about it for years and it never worked.” We both agree that when those that know you are in your corner, you are much more likely to have someone call you out when they see you slipping.
I have also taken this approach when it comes to my social media. The day before I quit drinking I had a photo of me taken by my friend Walt. It was a professional photo, in great lighting, and because he is my friend, he even edited it to try and make me look my best. I look terrible. I use this photo every time that I reach a milestone in my sobriety with a photo of myself from that day. The comparison is striking. I post these on my social media so that even people that I don't see on a regular basis become part of my support team, and more people that I am help accountable by.
The accountability part is tricky, though. At the end of the day it is only myself that will know if I decide to go back to drinking. There are ways to keep it secret for a while, and for a short time nobody would know. The most important part of this journey has been myself, making the choice each and every day that I will not drink.
I finished out the rest of my time as Mr. Bear Alaska, and now with more and more frequency I attend events with my LGBTQI+ community that happen in bars and around alcohol. In these two years I have also found new hobbies and communities to be part of. I have several friends that offer not to drink when I am around, but where I am at right now, that is not necessary. The choice to drink was one that I made. The choice not to drink was also only mine. What is in someone else's glass does not affect my sobriety. When I first quit, it was because I had to. My life was going to be destroyed if I didn't. Today I don't drink because I don't want to. I like who I am becoming each day.