Does Being Gay Add To the Difficulty Of Being An Addict?

By David Smallwood


I am gay and I am an addict. I have a great interest in understanding if there is a connection between the two. I believe very much that there is.

I don’t mean to argue that the gay community is special and different, but the large number of gay addicts seems to be out of proportion to the size of the gay population.

There have been a number of articles in this publication linking trauma (especially childhood trauma) and addiction.

From my perspective there is another factor that will influence the possible inception of an addictive process. That factor is emotional sensitivity. Eventually, this sensitivity will become distorted into great shame.

I believe that the root of addiction is that the addict (potential or actual) has a heightened sensitivity as a genetic predisposition. So we come into the world feeling scared from day one.

My understanding is that we arrive with little or no cognitive ability, but with a fully functional limbic brain that triggers our responses of fight, flight or freeze – although we mostly have only freeze available in our first months and years.

Anything that affects us adversely in our early childhood will therefore have more impact on us. It will stimulate the limbic system and will trigger a response that will remain in our limbic memory for use in the future.

Each time the memory is triggered we experience the same response as the original one. If we try to deal with this response by using a mood-altering behaviour or substance, then we have the basis for addiction.

Initially we will use a response such as tears (to gain connection) or maybe sugar. (It is only much later that we get into the real candy shop of mood altering nirvana.)

So let’s take sensitivity, limbic trauma and our early childhood experiences. How do they stack up for someone who is gay?

The first thing is that whilst I’ve met gay men who are mindless and oblivious to anything going on in the world, in my experience they are the exception. Most gay guys I meet are very sensitive, almost ‘painfully’ so.

Secondly, gay guys find coping mechanisms early on and use them very effectively. Who has not seen a gay man use his wit like a whiplash – always having the last word, using ‘camp’ as a defence, disarming any aggressor and avoiding any confrontation?

Also dressing and grooming ‘perfectly’ gets us approval and we hope acceptance.

In his book Velvet Rage, Alan Downs describes how a gay boy is by definition born into a heterosexual environment.

Parents can see that their little boy is not quite what they expected. Whilst parents don’t always raise this as an issue and they still love their child, the boy will pick up the emotions around him and assume he has done something wrong.

You can see that the more sensitive we are, the more likely we are to be distressed by this. It immediately creates a ‘wound’ and starts a process of the child adapting itself to better fit what it perceives that the parents want (this process is described very well by Pia Mellody in her book ‘Facing Codependence’)

If we (addicts) find a substance or process that helps to medicate or numb our anxiety, then we feel relaxed and much happier. This process unfortunately kicks in the law of diminishing returns (another way to describe this effect is to call it tolerance).

I once read a book from Hazelden called ‘Denial is not a long river in Egypt.’ The quote that leapt off the page was ‘if one is ok, one in every colour must be better!!’

This then is the small ‘T’ trauma that can colour everything that we do. And I do mean everything. If we perceive that we are ‘not quite right’ then every action we take and every thought that we have, will have an element of defence and adaption.

We will make a comparison between what we might do or say and what we think other people will think is ‘right’. We then ‘act out’ off the back of those thoughts in the hope that we won’t be challenged about the validity of our words or actions.

For a gay boy this is a constant companion. We are ultra aware that we are different and somehow ‘wrong.’ We have a huge amount of ‘evidence’ to this effect. You have only to listen to news items about the pastor who says that natural disasters are punishment from God for our acceptance of homosexuality, or loony religious people praying outside hospitals for gay guys to die. Then there are the boys at school whose homophobia has been taught by their parents, just as their parents were taught it themselves, by their parents.

So we seek to not offend and instead we want to blend in, whilst at the same time we are angry that we are judged and reviled.

The effort required to facilitate this constant stress is huge and to some degree or other unsustainable. As I indicated above, we then start to adapt ourselves to suit society, which of course does not work.

The next very logical but ultimately destructive thing we do to seek something to relieve this stress is to find something powerful enough to medicate the feelings.

In my case, I ‘adapted’ by going to my doctor when I was 16 and I told him that I could not cope. Without looking up from his prescription pad, he wrote me a script for Ativan (lorazepam), which worked so well that I became immediately dependent upon it.

Despite current guidelines that say the drug is only for short-term use, I took it for 20 years!

It dissolved my fear and anxiety instantly. And I could cope with life again.

It did NOT however deal with the underlying issues, merely blotted them out.

This is a pattern that I see repeated again and again (both in gay and heterosexual clients) and it gets enhanced as time goes by. I know no better epithet to describe what gay guys end up doing than ‘sex, drugs, and rock and roll’.

Sounds cool and aspirational, but actually it’s a treadmill that is almost impossible to get off. If you ask the average young gay boy where he can meet other gay boys he will almost always say Gaydar/ gayromeo /grindr (to get sex) or at a club (sex/ alcohol/ drugs) or a bar (alcohol / drugs). Furthermore, because he will feel judged and unhappy about being gay, he will turn to alcohol or drugs before he feels able to interact with other gay boys for love and sex.

Upon becoming sober again there is an inevitability about repeating this again and again (this repetition also happens among non addicts, but having an addictive nature makes it even worse).

If you can extract yourself from this merry-go-round, where are you left?

It is easy to see that there is a certain pathway here that can only end in one of two ways. If you are a non-addict and gay you have a chance of extracting yourself due to age and getting fed up with repeating the same process.

However, if you have the addictive problem it will be progressive and the need to fix is incessant. This can end with even more powerful substances and processes (i.e.: cocaine, crystal meth, group sex), which in turn generate more shame, risk, and stress.

This constant shame and fear drives the need to be cool and perfect and right. As a therapist I have lost count of the number of gay men I have assessed who are in great pain and unable to function.

Despite this, they are unable to take on board any possible solution, instead saying ‘Thank you but I am going to do it a different way.’

They dismiss everything with a waft of the hand that only a gay guy can do. I know that they are just going to repeat the same behaviour until they are almost at death’s door. It is saddening and difficult to accept.

What then is the solution? It’s certainly not “gay pride” (this is just an opportunity one day a year to put down the fear, club together and give the world the finger). Instead we need to own our fear and shame and tell the world: ‘If I had the opportunity to become heterosexual I would not want that at all!’ That is not pride. It is acceptance.

I would ask only that anyone reading this may be able to open their hearts and minds to the needs of gay addicts. We do not need special treatment, just understanding.

David Smallwood is Treatment Director at Oned40 Ltd in Harley Street in London. He holds a Master’s degree in addiction counseling and a post graduate diploma in therapeutic counselling.

He helped to pioneer Mellody model trauma reduction workshops alongside non- cognitive therapeutic treatment. David Smallwood is the author of Who Says I’m An Addict?
Published by Hay House at £12.99.