When Spencer was 11, he came out to his family as gay. However, his family took the news as a shock and thought it was just a phase, so Spencer ( who requested we not use his last name to protect his privacy ) went back into the closet, convinced it was just thata phase that would go away.
But it did not feel that way. To cope with suppressing his identity and the overwhelming thoughts in his head, Spencer began to drink alcohol and abuse drugs. When he was in high school, he began smoking marijuana, which led him to cocaine and, later, heroin.
"Lying to yourself is an eternal pain [and a] dark rabbit hole," Spencer, now 29, said looking back on his adolescent years.
He tried to fill the hole with alcohol and drugs but after almost 10 years of substance abuse, he decided to seek help and stop living a lie in his head. He went to rehab at 20and that was when he embraced his true identity.
"I wasn't scared to say I was gay anymore so when I got out of rehab I was practically wearing a unicorn suit," Spencer said.
Substance abuse in the LGBTQ community is higher than the general population, according to the Center for American Progress. In a 2012 study, an estimated 20-30 percent of gay and transgender people have a substance abuse disorder, compared to 9 percent of the non-LGBTQ population. The study indicated that stress from daily battles with discrimination and stigma is a principle driver of these higher substance use rates.
Spencer experienced this first-hand and, after rehab, he worked to change his lifestyle and stay clean from alcohol and drugs, but it was not an easy path. During a visit to the ER, he was handed a flyer about Gateway Foundation, a Chicagoland addiction recovery organization. He decided to check out its services in 2017, and it has since remained a constant resource in his life and helped him on his path to recovery.
He said the local organization attracted him because it has a volleyball league, which Spencer loves. It is also a great way to connect with other people who have suffered from substance abuse and learn from them, he said.
"Gateway helps me by seeing people [and it] sponsors different meetings and activities," Spencer said. "Whether you're being held accountable or preaching something that you need to hear yourself, it helps you more than the person you are helping [by] giving back."
Gateway, which has been helping with addiction for over 50 years, will be expanding its LGBTQ services to Lake Villa in September with a residential treatment unit. This effort will better help the health organization grow with new research, reach vulnerable populations and support the LGBTQ community, said Karen Wolownik Albert, executive director of Gateway Foundation Lake County Services.
"We look at this population as one significantly in need of specialized services," Wolownik Albert said.
Wolownik Albert, who has been with Gateway for nine years, said more resources like the residential unit will help the progress of the LGBTQ community, which still faces inequitable healthcare challenges compared to other groups and is more likely to suffer from substance abuse because of discriminatory practices from family, in the workplace or their own doctors
"Patients are not willing to come forward because they are worried about some of the stigma and biases they may encounter from their own doctors and other healthcare professionals," she said. "It's important to look at practices that are inclusive and knowledgeable of unique needs of all populations."
Gateway's 14 Chicago-area locations aim to help with withdrawal management, partial hospitalization, intensive rehab centers, medication-assisted treatment and an alumni/aftercare component, of which which Spencer is a part. Wolownik Albert said the foundation helped serve about 6,000 residents in the Chicagoland just last year.
Spencer said he was sober for two years after joining Gateway but recently relapsed in March. Now he has been sober for three months and is working to stay strong, though he recognizes that relapse is part of the addiction and healing process.
In addition to finding a support system, Spencer said he regularly goes to the gym and found faith; he now prays every day.
"I always thought I was going to burst into a ball of fire if you spoke the word faith," he said.
This year, Pride means something different to Spencer since he is clean. Formerly, he admits it used to be a time to "get obliterated, get lost and go on adventures," but now it represents a stronger tie to his identity and an appreciation for the LGBTQ community's history.
"Now it's showing a huge group coming together no matter what they look likeblack, white, purplethey are all coming together for a common thing: love," he said. "I love that it's growing and becoming more acceptable."
Looking back on how far he has come since he was a teenager, he remembers feeling alone and isolated. Gateway taught him that was false, and he wants to remind others struggling with substance abuse or acceptance from family and friends that they are not alone.
"Because I am more butch than normal gay people, I guess I thought I was unique but sadly not," he said with a laugh. "I thought there was no one like me and I ended up finding someone just like me and now I'm getting married to him."
And the future for Spencer looks bright. For example, he and his fiance are getting married in Julywith a mini-German Shepherd as the ring bearer and a Great Dane as the best man.
Gateway Foundation can be reached at its 24-hour hotline at 877-505-4673, or at GatewayFoundation.org .