Toronto
6 min

A lifetime of lost weekends

Programs targeting gay & lesbian addicts help them keep clean

Drinkies. When it's too much. Credit: Tony Fong

When Mary decided to stop drinking, she was up to 16 beers a day, guzzling them while sitting alone in her one-bedroom condominium. The petite 40-year-old hadn’t yet lost her job in the intensive care unit of a downtown hospital, but she’d lost enough of her life. She was finding it hard to make ends meet and she’d alienated most of her friends.



Mary hadn’t started drinking alone in her room – like many in the the gay community, she says her alcoholism had its roots in the bar scene. Mary, at 27, finished university, moved downtown and came out 12 years ago.



“For those first years, I mean it was fun,” she says. “I had fun, I went to the bars, I did what a lot of us do when we come out. You know, that’s your socializing, that’s your coming out and everything involves alcohol – the bars, the parties. You join baseball and the focus of it is going to The Rose afterwards!”



Addiction in the gay and lesbian community is a thorny issue – most people feel that the problem is more acute than in the straight world, but there aren’t many studies to support that perception. The statistics that do exist are contradictory.



One study from McGill University reported that 35 percent of lesbians in the US are alcoholics, compared to five percent of straight women. Another from California found that 17 percent of gay men and nine percent of lesbians in the US abuse alcohol to compared to 21 and seven percent of the general population, respectively.



“I know it’s very controversial, which is why I steer away from numbers,” says Pam Rogers, an acting service manager for the Centre For Addiction And Mental Health’s lesbian and gay program. As a therapist at the Donwood rehab centre at Bayview and Eglinton, her gay and lesbian clients tell her they think there’s a higher incidence in the community.



“It’s kind of a ‘feel’ thing, just a sense people get,” says the other acting service manager, Christopher Hadden. He works with clients at the Addiction Research Foundation (ARF) in downtown Toronto and as been running a gay men’s support group since September 1997.



Although the evidence is anecdotal, Hadden says gay men and lesbians often lack “stabilizing forces” like a partner or contact with family that help curb drug and alcohol abuse.



That’s what happened to Mary – when a long-term relationship broke up about seven years ago, she didn’t know what to do with herself. “All of a sudden I was alone after a five-year relationship… and that just again was more fertile ground for me to continue in my addiction,” she says.



Mary was mostly out of the bar scene because she and her girlfriend didn’t go out much – and with nowhere else to go, she started drinking on her own. But her problem had started in the bars, where much of our socializing takes place.



“Even when you look at something like Pride Day, you see a lot of beer ads and beer tents. You don’t see a lot of alternatives,” says Farzana Doctor, one of the therapists involved with the lesbigay program at ARF. In 1998, the Centre For Addiction And Mental Health, along with other Toronto addiction organizations, put together an alcohol-free zone at Pride Day. It’s a gap the centre has been trying to fill over the last couple of years with programs that are tailor-made for gay and lesbian addicts.



Mary took advantage of these new initiatives – she was a part of the first lesbian rehab group at the Donwood in January 1998 and just last month she was joined the first lesbian support group at ARF.



But it wasn’t as if being surrounded by other lesbian addicts showed Mary the magical path to recovery – she spent her 1997 summer vacation in and out of detox centres. She’d been in Toronto’s Jean Tweed treatment centre for women twice – and had been kicked out twice for drinking during the three-week program.



The Donwood’s three-week rehab program was just one in a series of attempts she made to get clean. And she says if she’d started the lesbian program before her earlier attempts, she would have failed there just as easily.



“One of the things that attracted me to it was, yeah, it was all women and lesbians. I just thought that that could be an extra bonus for me. To me that was a bonus, but for some people and I’m sure some people in that group and in groups since, that’s been almost a definite requirement and it’s been a turning point for them.”



And it’s for people who need to be in a gay group that the Donwood and ARF programs were developed. In the general groups, many gay clients find that they can’t talk freely about their sexuality.



“It feels so much better to come to a group where you can be yourself – you don’t have to edit yourself,” says Doctor.



It’s not just a matter of feeling better, though – it can often mean the difference between getting the help you need and dropping out of a rehab program. Some gay and lesbian clients will stop treatment because they don’t feel comfortable, while others will go through an entire program without talking about the things that make them abuse substances. The gay groups provide a safe space for addicts to talk about why they started using drugs or alcohol – and why they continue.



“They share fears and get support in a way they wouldn’t be able to in a mixed group and in terms of recovering from addiction. That’s vital,” says the Donwood’s Pam Rogers.



But the Donwood’s programs aren’t for everyone – they insist on full abstinence, which can daunting for people who use several substances, but only see one as a problem. Mary started at the Donwood and managed to stay off both her “primary substance,” alcohol, as well as pot.



When she started smoking weed again after the initial three-week program, she wasn’t allowed to attend the year-long follow-up group program. She kept going to her one-on-one counselling sessions, but she was missing out on the group feedback that she finds so helpful. The ARF, on the other hand, offers a harm reduction program, meaning Mary could use dope and still get group counselling – but she had to wait until the lesbian program started up.



While it’s important to make sure recovering addicts like Mary stay in group programs, an even more important part of the harm reduction program is just getting people started.



“Harm reduction was created because there were a lot of people for whom the abstention model doesn’t work,” says Doctor. “This is a model that is considered a little more inclusive.”



If someone can start in any program at any level, then they’ve taken the first step – and the next step might go a little further. Mary says she may cut out using pot entirely, but for now it’s still helping her get through her alcohol addiction.



“People will say that and three months later will say ‘You know what, it is best for me to abstain,'” says Hadden, who works with the harm reduction model at ARF. He says it can be hard to work in a group both with people who are clean and people who are still using, but there are advantages over the abstention model.



“There are pros and cons to both. Harm reduction groups are a great point to get people into a program who otherwise wouldn’t get involved,” he says.



On the other hand, if a client can handle abstinence, it can be easier to work with them – they’re clean and focussed.



“One of the pros of going to an intensive program is that you get a chance to look at a lot of issues and you get away from your life for a bit,” says ARF’s Doctor. The Donwood’s three-week program provides that kind of intensity – clients are there all day, and can even stay overnight if that helps. Their lives are put on hold for their treatment, so they can concentrate on themselves and their addiction.



But eventually, real life has to begin again, and that’s why the Donwood offers group sessions for one year after the initial treatment. When the addiction has been suspended for a while, addicts learn how to fill the time they used to spend drinking.



“I had let go of all my interests, hobbies, people, social things,” Mary says, “so I had a lot of time when I wasn’t drinking any longer, and there was nothing left in my life. I had to start rebuilding a life again and filling up those spaces…. I had to try to learn to eat again, try to eat three meals a day. You know, and put structure back into my life, and routine.”



This first year of sobriety hasn’t been easy – Mary’s relapsed three times, “because I’m stubborn and I had to prove to myself that I can’t drink,” she explains. She’s still learning how to be around alcohol without abusing it.



“When I stopped drinking I thought ‘Oh my god, life’s going to stop. I can never go to a bar again, I can never be around people, I can never party.’



“You know, I still want to party – I party sober now. But that’s one of the depressing things. You think, all of a sudden, you’ve got to cut out all of this from your life, that’s a huge part. You know, going out to dinner with people – it’s just everywhere…. I want to experience life and, fortunately or unfortunately, alcohol is a part of life.”