By Kekoa Kealoha
It’s never been easy for me to find my place in the world- I think my bout with drug addiction has made that poignantly clear. As a gay man, I always knew that finding my way would be challenging because I never really felt like I had a support system. I felt lonely for most of my life. Coming into recovery broken, homeless, and alone compounded that feeling of loneliness. Serendipitously, I stumbled across a unique support group on Facebook called Gay & Sober Men.
Because I live in a small town where there is a very small LGBT community, and an even smaller LGBT community in recovery, I needed to find people I could identify with. I found that immediate need for identification within a small, very close group of friends. Eventually, though, I needed more. I needed to see that there were more people like me. I needed to see that people like me succeeded and built lives worth living. That is where Gay & Sober Men gave me the most precious gifts: comradery, support, friendship, and the experience of a lifetime.
The Gay & Sober Men Facebook group gave me a community of gay men in recovery where I had none. I found the group when I was only a few months clean and sober and immediately knew I had found “home.” The group gave me reassurance that I was not alone and that I was doing exactly what I needed to do. I used the group to share my struggles, my milestones in recovery, and my successes. The group and I shared in our mourning after the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando. The group members came to know me and have, on more than one occasion, been the reason I managed to stay sober- even if I didn’t want to. So, when I heard there was going to be a conference in New York City to bring together members of the group, deciding whether or not to go was a no brainer! I HAD to go to this conference.
Gay & Sober Men: The Conference was in New York City, during Pride Week in June. I had made the decision to attend the conference a little over a year before it was held. I wasn’t making very much money at the time, but when early bird registration opened I jumped on the opportunity. There were moments where I wasn’t sure if I could afford to go, I ended up taking on a second job to finance the trip! While applying for a second job, I was offered a position that was later revoked because I couldn’t pass the background check.. This situation, which was time consuming and very disappointing, is not uncommon for an addict in recovery, and did not hold me back. I was also expecting a large tax return which I would’ve used to pay for my flight, but that tax return ended up being too small to make a difference, so I more urgently sought employment. I ended up finding a position (six months before the conference) that supplemented my primary income and helped to get me to New York City.
In the months leading up to the conference, I participated in service work with a very dedicated team. I was included in a group of people who were excited to meet each other and to see a vision come to life. GSM, as the conference is so affectionately referred to, was all the buzz in the Gay & Sober Men Facebook group. Everyone was getting excited, and I was no exception. I embarked on my journey having no idea what I was in for, and not having any clue that my life was about to change.
I arrived in New York City on June 22, 2017, after spending fifteen hours in airports or on airplanes. I hopped into an Uber and sat in traffic for two more hours. It was in my Uber ride from JFK to Manhattan that I realized, “HOLY SHIT! I’m in New York City!” I felt excited, but I was also nervous. I was nervous that I wouldn’t make friends and that I would get in my own way of having a good time. I felt all those common things an addict feels: insecure, insufficient, and unworthy. I started to let my thinking get to me. What if I don’t make any friends? What if they think I’m weird? How can I navigate a city I’ve never been to? What if I get lost? Will I have a good time? I don’t deserve to be here! How did I manage to pull this off?
All of these thoughts were silenced once I arrived at the hotel. I got a cup of coffee at the hotel cafe and, while I waited, met the first round of guys. My fears were relieved! These guys were not just friendly and kind, there was an instant kinship. Even though this was the first time we met, we knew each other. Every encounter that followed was a similar experience. These men were no longer just Facebook profiles, they were people sharing in this experience. I knew right away that I had become a part of something special.
The first day, though a bit of a blur, got me out of my comfort zone and introduced me to the people that would become very close to me. The following days of the conference set the stage for amazing workshops, entertainment, and fellowship. I listened to speakers who made me laugh and cry, speakers whose stories resonated with me. I opened up about personal insecurities with large groups of people because I finally felt safe. I even had the chance to share with everyone at the opening meeting what it meant for a young gay man from Hawaii to meet other gay and sober men.
The conference reinforced my recovery. I was able to give myself back to my program with renewed enthusiasm. What was even more satisfying, though, was marching with the Gay & Sober contingent in the Pride parade. I have never seen anything like the New York City Pride parade, it was larger than life! I was absolutely floored by the participation and the audience! I felt an acceptance and excitement for being gay that I didn’t know I could feel. Walking with my brothers in sobriety and solidarity, I finally felt the wholeness I had been seeking. I knew where I fit into this world as a gay man recovering from addiction. So, I celebrated. We sailed on a dance cruise after the parade where I danced like a fool and let myself go. I was among people who understood my struggles, and didn’t pay any mind to my idiosyncrasies.
I have spent a lot of time reflecting on my experience and planning for next year. After GSM 2017 I know that I am not alone. I know that I am loved. I feel overwhelming gratitude for the friends who have become family and I am humbled by the opportunity to attend a conference like this. Although I was sad when the conference ended, I am extremely excited about next year. I want my family to grow and I want to share another amazing experience. And, as much as I can continue to talk about it, I don’t have words that sufficiently describe how truly blessed I am to be a part of Gay & Sober Men: The Conference.
For more information, please visit www.gayandsober.org