BY MARK McMILLAN
We have all heard how the opioid epidemic is ravaging communities. In 2014 alone, drug overdose was the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., but prescription drugs are not the only killer, so is alcohol and illegal drugs. What you don’t hear is the specific numbers for how the LGBTQ community is being impacted: we are more than twice as likely than our heterosexual counterparts — 39.1 versus 17.1 percent — to have used any illicit drugs. In addition, rates of binge drinking among lesbian women are almost double those of their straight counterparts — 29 to 15 percent — and very similar numbers for gay men exist, too: 34 to 19 percent. Unfortunately, our LGBTQ youth are also not immune. Studies have shown that substance abuse for them is twice as prevalent when compared with their peers.
These statistics position our diverse community as uniquely linked to addictive behavior, or what I like to call “out-of-control behavior” associated with alcohol or other drugs. But, while there is little argument the stressors associated with being queer might make us more susceptible, that doesn’t mean misusing alcohol or other drugs is part of the fabric of the community or that addiction is inevitable. In fact, I have assisted many of my LGBTQ clients with creating new and useful life strategies to help manage stressors that occur in their everyday LGBTQ lives.
This blog will examine five essential strategies my LGBTQ clients have found useful to avoid out-of-control addictive behaviors.
1. Build the right support system.
Surrounding yourself with trusted friends, family or extended relatives is critical to navigating an LGBTQ identity, especially if you’re still struggling with your true identity or considering “coming out.” Your support system should not only build you up, it should act as a “validating source” — a sort of “moral compass,” if you will. This support system will assist with questions like “when I should come out,” “where I should be open about my identity/gender expression” and would I be in danger letting people know my authentic self?” In addition, a good support system increases positive coping skills, self-esteem and self-confidence.
2. Develop your (unique) coping skills.
Coping skills are a critical component to any healthy lifestyle, and most especially for us who identify as part of the LGBTQ community. I’m talking about skills as simple as listening to your favorite pop diva as a stress reliever, taking on a small home improvement project to have a sense of accomplishment or simply making that awesome Snapchat post that gets, like, a gazillion likes. These are more than just ways of dealing with more intense emotions like anger or sadness, these will help other less talked about intense emotions like loneliness and isolation. For example, maybe consider more mindfulness activities, like taking a yoga or dance class. The important thing is learning to process more intense emotion and modify the behavior accordingly.
3. Set Boundaries. Then enforce them.
We can’t always cut negative people out of our lives — our more conservative family members, our overly dependent mothers, etc. — but setting firm boundaries and enforcing them can have a big impact. Friends and family who don’t support us, see strategy 1 above, shouldn’t necessarily be “cut off” from our lives. What we can learn to do is protect ourselves by setting up and enforcing appropriate boundaries. For example, do not tolerate homophobic or transphobic language, ensure those in our home respect us with words and behavior and limit contact with unsupportive family members. Appropriate boundaries assist us in finding our voice to self-advocate for safe and non-hostile environments.
4. Practice self-care every day.
Spend at least 15-minutes practicing self-care every single day. This time should be all about you and it often includes a coping skill or two. Self-care can be as easy as taking a long, luxurious bath, making and/or eating a good meal or simply a night of Netflix. Also, consider a “technology off” night, either with you or a loved one. Try limiting or modifying your social media consumption, especially the news feed, or simply turn them off.
5. Get the appropriate amount of sleep
Did you know the CDC reports that sleep deprivation can increase many health conditions, including obesity, high blood pressure and depression? In fact, the U.S. National Center on Sleep Disorders Research reports all psychiatric and substance abuse disorders are associated with sleep disruption. We should be getting between 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night, but according to a recent Gallup poll, 40 percent of Americans get less than the recommended amount of sleep. FOMO, late-night Netflix binging, Grindr, social media … don’t let these and so many other distractions put you at risk of misusing alcohol or other drugs to “help” you sleep.
These deceptively simple strategies come directly from my experiences counseling my LGBTQ clients in recovery. They are critical building blocks to not only managing and maintaining a more healthy lifestyle, but also in becoming an active participant in the life you want to live.
Mark McMillan, LMSW, CAADC is a behavioral health therapist and certified addiction therapist at the Center for Relationship & Sexual Health. He can be reached by phone at 248-399-7447.
BY MARK McMILLAN