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Out and Sober, beating dual stigma
by Noah McCarthy

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Tucked away on Chicago's West Side, the Gateway Foundation's Chicago Independence location is helping recovering addicts from the LGBTQ community get back on their feet.

The foundation offers an optional program called Out and Sober whose members meet twice-weekly in a queer-positive space, drawing approximately 10 people each week from the facilities' 100 clients. Craig Lamb, the program director, has been with the program since its inception in May 2017, and credits Center on Halsted Director of Behavioral Health Ing Swenson for initiating the program.

Emphasizing that the program was not conceived as a way to fight homophobia, but as a way to greet LGBTQ people with positivity, Lamb highlighted the program's goals in helping people work through the specific difficulties which accompany being an LGBTQ addict.

The main problems patients regularly encounter include the loss of family support due to intolerance and the nightlife that can provide drugs and alcohol. Sometimes, young people turn to drugs to escape feelings of shame caused by rejection, although sometimes the roots of addiction are more opaque. Regardless, all LGBTQ addicts must contend with the dual stigma of being an addict and of being LGBTQ as well as the reality of a club-driven queer social life.

One client, Leeann, has experienced this problem herself, saying, "I looked around and realized I had no sober, queer friends." Leeann is a native of the Southwest Side of Chicago, and comes from a volatile home. Her father would use bourbon to treat her childhood stomach aches and flu. At 14, she was kicked out of Catholic school, moved in with her brother in Lincoln Park and started attending public school. She was faced with a suddenly open, experimental crowd and was exposed to many hard drugs. At 16, she attended rehab for the first time. Thinking she had kicked her addiction, she went out to celebrate New Year's, and was soon back into her old habits.

Like many other LGBTQ addicts, Leeann has been diagnosed with mental-health conditions. After a recent downward spiral, Leeann moved away from her partner and began to focus on her sobriety. Although she said that the close-mindedness of people on the South Side means she can't be as forthcoming about her sexuality, Leeann added that she doesn't feel that being LGBTQ has complicated her recovery. Instead, Leeann said, "I'm grateful to be gay." In fact, her advice to younger people focused on honesty, saying, "Where you fall short is when you doubt yourself, when you don't believe in yourself. In every situation, the first person you have to lie to is yourself."

Another Out and Sober member, Wade, grew up with a supportive family. Wade is out to their mother and sister, but has not yet discussed their identity with their father. Wade's parents are both recovering addicts, and Wade believes there might be a genetic component to their addiction.

The first time Wade drank, their mother took them to the hospital, where they registered a 0.36 blood alcohol content ( BAC ); a BAC of 0.4 causes loss of consciousness and sometimes death. After escalating behavior, Wade's mother delivered an ultimatum: Get sober or get out.

Wade left home at 15. Their habit spread into harder drugs, but after their first rehab stint, Wade was able to move back in with their family at 17. Wade said they "never wanted to be sober," and that they "only did it for [their] family." After falling into old addictions, they were soon met by a second ultimatum, and left again.

From ages 17-19, Wade supported themselves by working odd jobs and selling drugs. After two of their friends had seizures, Wade learned they had been selling fentanyl-laced Xanax. ( Fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller often prescribed to cancer patients, is 50 times stronger than heroin. ) According to the FDA, even small amounts of the drug can have deadly side effects. Appalled, Wade stopped selling the drug.

Soon after, they reached out to their father for help, as their mother was no longer speaking with them. This led to their recovery at Gateway, and their involvement with the Out and Sober program. Wade said, "Now, I am getting sober for myself. I'm focusing on my future, my health, and my mental state." Wade adds that they have appreciated the program for providing "a space for [LGBTQ people] to talk about [their] struggles, a safe space." Out and Sober allows people to be honest with themselves and others as they move along the path to recovery.

The Gateway Foundation accepts its patients regardless of insurance status, and has a 24-hour helpline at 877-505-4673.

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