By Chris Heide
March 19th, 2013 is a day I will never forget. After years of destructive alcohol and drug abuse, that clear spring day was my first day of sobriety. It was the first time I had taken a sober breath since relapsing after treatment two years prior. Hopefully, I will never take another drink of alcohol, or take another drug, ever again.
As early as I can remember, I felt different from my peers. It was as if something was missing; like I had a secret, and if anyone found out, I would be hated and despised. It didn’t matter that I had no idea what the secret was; I just knew I had to wear many masks to assimilate into the world around me. I had to protect my secret at all costs.
Because of this desperation to stay hidden, I sought out various means of instant gratification that would allow me distraction from that feeling of uncomfortability. After a time, this process of immediate satisfaction led me to drugs and alcohol. Those substances provided me with the euphoric relief that I had been searching for my entire life. Relief from the voice inside my head that constantly screamed that I would never be good enough.
I felt comfortable in my skin; connected to the world and accepted by my peers. The idea that I wasn't good enough temporarily dissipated. I could be present and comfortable, even if only for a moment. It was during this time that I was also struggling to come to terms with my sexuality. Ever since I was a child, I knew, deep down, that I was gay. Drugs and alcohol fueled my experimenting with my sexuality, and made it more tolerable.
Of course, as with all methods of altering feelings, the rewards were short lived. As my addiction took control, the consequences piled up. After just a few short years, I landed in treatment after an intervention from my family and boyfriend. It is exhausting trying to manage a disease over which you have lost all control. Addiction is paradoxically comforting, as it is both demoralizing and ultimately fatal. Alcohol and drugs had become my best friend, albeit that toxic friend who constantly brings drama and negativity to your life.
Unfortunately, treatment was not a significant enough of a stop gap. Within weeks of completing treatment, I returned to using drugs and alcohol to cope with the stressors in my life. During those last two years of my active addiction, I became virtually homeless and unemployable. My selfish and erratic behavior had pushed away nearly all of my friends and family and I was on the verge of losing my freedom. For years, my bipolar disorder and subsequent drug addiction fooled me into thinking that what I needed was the familiarity of chaos. As I began to pick up the pieces of my shattered life in my early recovery, I slowly realized that what I was truly craving was a sense of belonging and a sense of peace. To the surprise of no one, as sobriety progressed and my life became whole, my bipolar symptoms began to abate.
I am grateful to have found recovery, especially since America is in the midst of an opioid epidemic. In 2016 alone, over 64,000 Americans died as a result of a drug overdose In fact, drug abuse is now the leading cause of death for Americans aged 25-50. Given the gravity of my disease- my addiction- I should surely be dead.
While sobriety has enabled me an opportunity to be present for my life, it hasn't made the process of living in the world any easier. I am still a proud gay man, who has witnessed how drugs and alcohol continue to ravage my community. For many gay men and women, bars are a safe space, but many LGBT social opportunities involve drugs and alcohol. Even on apps like Grindr, many gay men are seeking chemically enhanced sex, based on the idea that sex will be heightened by the use of meth, ketamine and other hard drugs. As addiction continues to ravage my community, it is increasingly difficult to find my place within a culture that so heavily glorifies drugs and alcohol.
Ultimately, I want to belong, to feel apart of something larger than myself. Over the last decade, I have come into full acceptance of my sexuality. It has been nearly 5 years since I reclaimed my sobriety and my life is better than I could have ever imagined. However, there is always room to grow.
Like many young gay man, I’ve utilized apps like Grindr and Scruff. Hookup culture is common within my community and those apps seamlessly facilitate the process of meeting new people, whether for sexual or platonic endeavors. Given how chemically driven my community seems to be, how do I hookup or date without jeopardizing my sobriety?
Dating and meeting new people is hard enough. I’ve never been a big fan of that process, as it breeds awkward conversation and repetitiously expected behavior. Sobriety has provided me with the opportunity to expose my true self on a daily basis, without the glossy shield of a drink or a joint. Unsurprisingly, the dating process can be even more anxiety provoking for someone in recovery from addiction. Dating in sobriety has been a massive process of trial-and-error.
Through the process of awkward dates and failed relationships in my recovery, I have learned a valuable lesson. Being yourself and loving yourself must come fundamentally before anything else. As I have grown in my ability to enjoy life chemical-free, so too have I grown in my understanding that other people (non-addicts) are much more than the drinks they may consume. Although my community does struggle greatly with addiction, it doesn't mean I will end up single forever. If anything, my standards when looking for a partner have increased dramatically in sobriety. I can apply the same mindset to dating that I do to helping my community overcome this epidemic; an authentic voice has much more power than an illusory mask that I chose to wear.