Addiction & the Winding Path to Recovery
Rolling hills and green pastures are abundant in Tennessee and Kentucky, and even more so in horse country. With their rolling hills and picturesque fencing, state-of-the-art barns and stables, and lovely homesteads, modern horse farms exude a quiet, country confidence that almost immediately instills a sense of serenity that is hard to replicate in cities.
Perhaps that’s why it was best to meet Bret Shea on his home turf, so to speak. Bret, who is featured on our cover, currently lives and works on an operational horse farm and is an addict in recovery—well on his way, but still early enough in the process that the conversations we are about to have are difficult, maybe even a little dangerous.
Part of the way that Bret stays sober is avoiding situations that might lead him to dwell on thinking about or romanticizing his experiences as an addict. “If someone talks about using for more than wanting to know about sobriety,” he told me, “or seeming to need help, I try to distance myself.” On the other hand, he said, knowing that he can help people is one way he keeps himself on the path to recovery. It’s a path he knows you don’t reach the end of, you just have to embrace the ride.
Addiction is a deep and worsening problem for the LGBT community. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, when compared to the general population LGBT people are more likely to:
- Use alcohol and drugs,
- Have higher rates of substance abuse,
- Not withhold from alcohol and drug use, and
- Continue heavy drinking into later life
Addiction is so stigmatized that we often don’t hear from those suffering. I spoke with three individuals who agreed to share their stories publicly, as well as numerous others who preferred anonymity, with the hopes that their experiences would help others understand better what we face.
Bret was introduced to me via Addiction Campuses. Eric Ginsberg, who is currently O&AN’s director of marketing, sales, and events, graciously shared his story with me. And Amy Sulam, who writes “Snarkology” for us has been open about her struggle with addiction and offered some insight into her experience as well.
The Roots of Addiction
Many in the LGBT community internalize feelings of shame around sexuality that create or feed drives that aren’t always healthy. Shame about the body can develop, and the need to be validated or feel wanted can be overwhelming. And sometimes there is psychic or very physical pain that seems like it can’t be dealt with and needs to be silenced. The reality is that escaping all of these risk factors is extremely unlikely for any given LGBT person.
Unfortunately, it is an established fact that members of the LGBT community are more likely to experience familial rejection: fear of such rejection affected Eric deeply. “I started using when I was 14,” he said. “By that time I had figured out I was gay, and I was so worried about how my parents would react. I knew my parents loved me, and I needed to keep feeling that love. I started using because I wanted to get rid of the fear and pain.”
Of course there was a lot more behind it than that. “A lot of it was escaping the reality of being gay,” he added. “As a kid I was always called sissy or queer, because I was effeminate… I hated that feeling, having the word faggot thrown at me. To stop that feeling I used to the point of annihilation.”
Bret, like so many in the community, suffered from body image issues. “From the age of six to eighteen,” Bret said, “my dad always made statements about me being fat, about being overweight. In grade school and high school, it wasn't any different. Kids are mean, and I didn't have a whole lot of friends. I became this extreme introvert, and I stuck with my three friends throughout school.”
These issues directly compounded each other. When he “found” the LGBT community it was in bars. “I'd go there, but I never knew anybody, so I stood in the corner and never talked to anybody.” This in turn made him feel undesirable, reinforcing the body image issues and making him more introverted.
Another cause of pain that Bret was fleeing was the pain of sexual violation. “When I was 17 … I was raped. I begged him to stop and cried, but he didn't. That was my first sexual experience.” In addition to the primary trauma, this compounded Brett’s body image issues, and his “introversion.”
Amy shared a similar story. “I'm not an addict, I was raped,” she reflected. “Sounds weird but that's how I think of it, anyway. I went through something traumatic. I couldn't cope. Smokable heroin was given to me and presented as something slightly stronger than weed or, ‘It's like Xanax, really no big deal.’”
Many addicts who don’t have sexual trauma in the roots of their addiction will experience it as their addictions progress, adding to the well of pain that they are escaping. “I got into some very dangerous situations,” one young addict admitted, “going on the net and meeting with people I didn’t know. A lot of crazy shit went on, but I knew how to get rid of that pain… There were two different rape situations that happened when I used online sex to strive to feel good about myself and feel loved. I did things that normal people wouldn’t have done. Sex was a drug…. This entire time all I ever wanted to do was feel loved, and I didn’t.”
The LGBT community’s social structure contributes to our problematic relationship to drug and alcohol: historically LGBT bars and clubs have been one of the few “safe spaces” where we can openly express our sexual identities.
“I was 17 when I went to my first gay club,” Eric said. “I got snuck into The Connection. That was the coolest thing I’d ever felt, being surrounded by all these gay people. I’d never seen this many gay people in one place. The only gay people I ever met before then were online, and one friend in school.”
However, in the same place one finds others like themselves, one also finds a means of burying the pain. “So many of us are dealing with a lot of pain and shame,” Eric added, “and this gives us a way to escape both.”
For Bret, deeply withdrawn due to his body image issues, going to the one place he could be himself exacerbated his experience, unless he was drinking. “I would walk into a bar that [standoffish] kid and then three or four drinks later I was somebody completely different,” he said. “I was Chicago Bret, not hometown Bret.”
This puts the LGBT person who struggles with addictive behaviors in a tight spot. Because the LGBT bar is the primary place to socialize with others in the community, LGBT people may find themselves with a hard choice between community “safe space” to socialize and staying sober but keeping to avoiding the community’s main gathering place.
The Drowning of Sorrows
There are many other issues that could be pinpointed, but these sadly represent some of the most common. Not everyone who experiences such traumas, of course, will find their answer in addictive behaviors, but it is a common enough response.
For Brett, sex was an early retreat, and his relationship to sex showed addictive tendencies. But it wasn’t always that way. “I didn't do anything else until I was 18,” he said, “and when I first started dating, I was one of those people who thought that love was real, you know? I thought you went on a date and fell in love, and if you had sex that let you loved each other.”
“I was naïve,” Bret opined. “So when people would sleep with me I thought that meant we were in a relationship, and I got jaded because I got burned. I started doing what people were doing to me and sex became this emotionless thing, basically like a drug.” Bret used it to satisfy a deep seated need that it couldn’t satisfy.
When he was twenty-one, Bret added alcohol to the mix and things began spiraling even more quickly. “I turned twenty-one in Chicago. I lived in Boystown, and my 21st birthday I had five Long Island iced tea pitchers. I blacked out, and loved it...” Thus commenced the drowning of his sorrows. “I continued drinking, socially drinking, but it's not really socially drinking when you're just creating opportunities to do it more.”
Amy understood even when she began that she was self-medicating. “The first time I smoked I felt the kind of gone and had been dying to that feel since my attack,” she admitted. “People say it's a warm blanket. I think that's accurate. It feels like being in some sort of safe space that Alice would've found on the other side of the looking glass.”
Eric discovered alcohol in his mid-teens and went hard from the beginning, he admits, because making the feelings go away was paramount. “The first time I drank, I drank to get drunk and it continued from there. I always drank like an alcoholic and used drugs like an addict,” he said. “I would get completely smashed and wake up with a horrible hangover and my thought was, ‘That was AWESOME. Wow, I escaped and got out of that feeling.’”
By the time he was nineteen, Eric had progressed to everyday use of that combination of choice. “Opiates and alcohol combined was just perfect… I really didn’t care, the place that I was in. If I couldn’t find what I wanted, I’d sill use ANYTHING to get out of my frame of mind, and it nearly killed me.”
For Amy, that security blanket quickly turned harsh. “As my addiction grew, it changed from a safe space to more the feeling that I was cuddling with the monster under the bed,” Amy explained. “I knew logically I should have a healthy fear but it hadn't killed me yet…”
She feared the thought of facing the the underlying pain more than she feared the drug covering up the pain, however. She just needed to bury it deeper. “The high from smoking led to snorting, and finally to the fateful night I ‘banged it out’ for the first time. I was in love. Shooting was the release I'd wanted. It was this ‘next-to-god’ high. I kept chasing a bigger high when I shot and was smoking for main range doping daily.”
Once Bret entered the bar scene, given his relationship to and use of often anonymous sex, it was almost inevitable that he would have found his way to meth. “I got involved with the crowd that does party and play, PNP, whatever you want to call it… I was sexually promiscuous before, but it was like a nitrous boost for that.”
Once he moved to shooting up, everything escalated quickly. “I never wanted to smoke it again… When I started shooting, it went from occasionally to constantly… There were days when I would stay up for seven or eight days on end. At one point, I tore the skin off my cornea, because I thought my contacts were in and they weren't. I put myself in horrible situations. I mean I used sex to get drugs, I stole from drug dealers which is not smart, especially in Chicago.”
Addiction escalates until you crash: some are able to walk away, one way or the other, and others aren’t. It’s often called hitting rock bottom. Sometimes it only takes once, and sometimes people get up only to find out there is still further to fall.
Eric was hospitalized a number of times, waking up to find out he had no idea what he had done or what had happened to him. He ended up in rehab a couple of times. But in the end it, what sent him there wasn’t his rock bottom.
“I had started stealing from my parents and I got kicked out,” Eric admitted. Eric bounced from a homeless shelter to a dealer’s house, where he had computer access. While there he got a message from a friend, Chris.
“He said he cared about me and was willing to help, but only if I was willing,” Eric said. “He brought me to his place, and I was trying to stay sober. Ultimately, we became a couple. About a year in, I was not going to meetings, I was still using. He was about to kick me out, and this was the man I loved, the first man I loved, and I was about to lose the one thing I had been after all along. Someone who really loved me for me. I didn’t really grasp that until it was down to the finish line: I almost lost him, so I detoxed for my very last time.”
Bret too bounced a couple of times on his way down. The first time he really knew he had to get sober was when someone he was using with told him he had a problem and needed help. That prompted him to enter rehab for the first time, at Hazelden Betty Ford, known for its cognitive behavioral approach. “They do massage, you swim and focus on relaxation and meditation,” he said. “That may work for some people but it didn't work for me”
When he left rehab, Bret stayed sober for a few months and relapsed. After that, he said, “My mom gave me the 'I'm not going to enable you anymore' speech. Later, after I didn’t call her on her birthday, she called me and she could hear in my voice that I was f***** up, and I could hear it break her heart… My mom that I've gone through a lot together, and that's what kind of did it for me...”
For those struggling with recovery, it’s not always a straight path, and it’s important for anyone who has stumbled to realize that. “Relapse is a part of a lot of people stories,” Eric said. “It doesn’t mean you’re less of a person or can’t get sober. I had a lot of lessons to learn. There was a point where I wanted to be sober but still have the good feelings while sober, and I thought it wasn’t possible. My recovery showed me it is possible.”
Bret’s path was tangled with snares: After Bret returned home, a friend of his mother who worked for Addiction Campuses, helped him enter a different kind of therapeutic center, TurningPoint. The focus of the program there was on developing skills for accepting and dealing with difficulties which might trigger negative responses.
“After Bret arrived at Addiction Campuses,” his therapist Luanne Gilbert said, “the first thing each morning, I was greeted at my office door by Bret with him telling me what someone did to make him mad. And each morning, I’d ask him what DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) skills he was using to deal with his frustration. After a week of our early morning chats, Bret said, 'I guess I should use my skills.'"
While he did relapse once more after his treatment there, the center’s model worked much better for him. “It helped me accept the trauma I had in life, it helped me accept my body issues, and it helped get back to the roots of what was fueling the addiction. Obviously I didn't take it all in, I relapsed, but when I went back I feel like it stuck better. I hope.”
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of this wonderful young man,” Gilbert said of Bret. “June 30 will be his one year sobriety anniversary. Bret’s story is one of radically accepting oneself, another DBT skill, and learning other skills to build a better life.”
Bret can see the change too. “I still get frustrated and still get angry, but instead of acting out I sit and think about it. I don't burst out and explode or keep it all in. I handle my feeling. Before I'd let it build up to this point where I'd ask, 'Do I want to kill myself, or do I want to get high?’”
Recovery from addiction not a state one achieves, it’s something one is always working on—and that’s true whether one is in a 12-step program or not. “Recovering from heroin,” Amy said, “is like breaking in a pair of heels, it's uncomfortable and tolerably difficult. Then the next thing you know you've made it through a whole hour, then a day, then another one, then another.”
All of those I talked with agreed that, to endure and be successful in recovery, it has to be something the addict wants for themselves. Doing a program of recovery for someone else is precarious. But neither is it something one should go through alone. “Recovery is not something most people can do alone. If it weren't for the recovery movement,” Amy said, “I'd be dead. I know that. If I hadn't been able to be public about being clean, I could've hidden and relapsed much more easily.”
Seeking help isn’t just wise when trying to get sober, it’s also necessary. For some addictions, even trying it on your own can be physically dangerous or fatal. “There are two drugs you can die from withdrawals,” Eric explained, “alcohol and benzos. Heroine and things like that you certainly might feel like you’re dying, but you’re not.”
When Eric sobered up the last time, his now-fiance Chris saved his life, perhaps twice. “He was there while I was very sick, took my blood pressure, he watched me, in case I needed to go to the hospital.” After that, Eric “started going to support group: August 13, 2012 was my first day sober, and I started going to support group, started making friends that were sober who could help me stay sober by talking to me about what they had been through.”
For Bret, seeking such help is one of those skills he’s learned, but he has to self-monitor closely. “Also if I find myself getting distant from wanting to going to meetings, I make myself, if I find myself getting spiritually unfit, I pray more, if I find myself not calling a sponsor, I make myself do it. I have a therapist now, I have a psychiatrist, I have people who hold me accountable. I have a home group. I make sure that these places keep me coming back.”
Being part of a community, not only seeking help but giving it, is important too. “You need help, but that’s the last thing most addicts want,” Eric said. “But it’s what we need. It’s humbling. I’m almost four years sober, and there are people who help me and there are people I help. Part of me staying sober is through helping others stay sober. If I want to use, the first thing I do is look around at who needs help to get out of my own head—which is the worst place to be.”
Leaving Fear Behind
Getting caught up in your head—for an addict or for anyone who struggles with anxiety and related issues—is almost always counterproductive. Problems are magnified and escape seems wiser. But escape—wasn’t that the problem? If we bury pains and fears and live around our problems rather than work through them, they put down roots.
There are, of course, things to be avoided, like triggers. Bret’s recovery involves staying away from those as much as possible. When, after leaving rehab for the last time, members of his sober house relapsed, Bret had to reach out for help. “The people who own the farm I live and work on gave me that, and I took the opportunity. I'm forever indebted to them for that. I get drug tested once a week, I have a curfew, I get to go on family vacations with them, and I get to be involved with the horses and equine therapy in itself is amazing. It gives me a purpose to wake up in the morning.”
Bret admits to being deathly afraid of horses when he arrived, but a breakthrough with that fear taught him a larger lesson deeply related to his recover. “It just kinda clicked that I had built up all of this fear in my head for nothing…. I don't want to sit in the passenger seat and let fear drive my life anymore… Had I never gotten over this fear of horses, I would have always been driven by the fear, and I never would have made this connection, and I never would have seen this spirit, this energy that they have.”
Drugs buried problems and entrenched them. Bret’s fears, and other problems weren’t dealt with, they were covered over. So the fear not only remained, it built up. And he couldn’t see the world for the dark spots.
“There is one horse in the barn,” Bret said. “Every time she looks at me she always puts her head down and nuzzles me. What's going through her head? It makes my problems seem smaller…because there is this giant, beautiful horse in front of me. The world is amazing!”
For more information on addiction, reach out to one of the many support groups in Nashville. “There are gay support groups in Nashville and all over,” Eric said, “and they’re very helpful.” For information on rehab facilities, research online: there are LGBT-oriented rehab facilities, like Pride Institute, that are designed to serve the particular needs of LGBT clients. For more information on Addiction Campuses, visit addictioncampuses.com.