Written by David Toussaint
On a beautiful summer night a couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine consoled me as I complained about being a non-practicing alcoholic. He asked, sympathetically, “So why is it that you liked to drink?” We were sitting outside at a trendy Chelsea restaurant, where flavored margaritas were flowing as freely as spiked laughter, and my friend had just ordered his second Chardonnay. I was nursing a Diet Coke.
I took a moment, then said, “There are about five bars on the three-block walk to my gym and one liquor store. Everyone I see on TV drinks. My friends who go to the Hamptons and Fire Island come back and tell me about fabulous cocktail parties. Drinks are expected to commemorate every holiday, promotion, new job, wedding, pretty much any time you’ve had a rough day. Oh yeah, and the three best highs I’ve ever experienced in the world are sex, acting in front of a live audience, and alcohol. But the first two drugs aren’t always accessible. Why wouldn’t I like to drink?”
He got the point, finished his wine, and ordered the check. Cheers!
Accepting that you’re an alcoholic is not an easy task—trust me—and convincing yourself to stop is an even harder one—trust me. But with approximately 14 million alcoholic adults in the United States alone, not counting other addictions, it’s an issue that must be continually addressed, not hidden in the shadows. Within the LGBTQ community, the number of alcoholics lands at about 1 in 4, more than double the estimated stat for non-queer folk. Shame, isolation, self-medication, systemic discrimination, and familial abandonment are among many factors that contribute to this statistical leap. Hell, our community is so alcohol-absorbent that Grindr has added “sober” to its list of tribes.
I’ve often said that queer city life is like those gay publications we used to pick up at, well, bars. The cover photo showed you an image of the perfect man hosting the perfect party (half-price shots till midnight!), inside were endless advertisements for clubs and drinking and cruises and drinking and Pride and drinking, and the final pages included lists of sober options and numbers to call once you’ve hit bottom. The Stonewall Inn was our liberation and we’ve been in liquid love ever since.
Like most men who arrived in New York in the 1980s, drinking culture was as prominent as gym culture, two means to an end of feeling fabulous and meeting like-minded folks. Clubs were everywhere, and if you needed to escape those bigoted people back home or the straight-centric streets of 9-to-5 life or that unwelcome HIV test result, the hatch lay in a glass.
Dealing with coming out and homophobia, especially in the age of AIDS and brutal bashings, brought the community closer together, but it also made alcohol into a kind of medication. Watch a single episode of Pose if you need to be reminded of how hard-hit the 1980s transgender community was when it came to hatred and discrimination.
We’re still at battle, just with better body armor and more prominent friends. About 80% of the young gay men I meet today who have drinking problems cite both coming out and the isolation of adapting to gay life as the main causes for alcohol abuse. Some cite finding out they were HIV-positive; others cite getting involved with the wrong crowd/boyfriend in a town that, at times, still pretends to be the male version of Sex and the City: drink all night, wake up hangover-free, rinse the stench of alcohol off, repeat.
For me, and many of my queer friends, summer is by far the hardest season to stay sober, and not just because of events like Pride. Like so many gay kids, I grew up watching New York movies on television, comedies mostly, where everyone drank, day and night, and it was as glamorous and seductive as Rock Hudson romancing Doris Day. What could go wrong with this picture? I couldn’t wait to get here, among the penthouse terraces and Village jazz clubs and rooftop parties. And I couldn’t wait to drink in the vibrating summer heat.
By the time I was living here in my 20s, the particulars changed, but the thrill of alcohol remained. Fire Island trips meant starting to drink with friends on the train, then the ferry bar, the island, High Tea. The Hamptons was one beautiful martini after another, one sunset glass of wine after another, one fucking hangover after anoth—What? Bellinis at 10 in the morning? I won’t say no…
It got bad, then it got worse, and I’ll spare you the details, mostly because I don’t remember them. But now that summer’s over, and I made it through the sober wilderness (humor always helps), I want you to know that you’re not alone, and that if you need support, it’s here. Fall’s coming, and that means Halloween and the Slutty Drunk (and that’s not even your costume); Thanksgiving and thanking the wine to help you survive your relatives; Christmas parties and rum cake (after you chug rum with it, that is) then spiked eggnog; and, finally, Champagne at midnight on the very last day of the year. Unlike smoking cigarettes, alcohol is still encouraged in our everyday lives. Forgive yourself if you slip up and accept society’s invitation to the party.
I’m not one to praise Jesus over Alcoholics Anonymous, and I find the God aspect off-putting at best, condescending at worst. Is it a cult? Only for the members who think everyone in the world needs to attend, and will die trying to convert the non-believers. I do go, I don’t pray, and I tend to think my higher power is the donut I grab on my way out of the meeting.
To stop drinking, I think you need support, and the best part about AA for me is the people I listen to who have similar experiences. It helps to know you’re not alone, and it helps tremendously to have a contact or five if you feel the urge. Also, there are secular and agnostic meetings now in most cities, including New York, where God is neither endorsed nor dismissed. Sometimes people tell me these places are not “real meetings,” to which I respond, “I think you might have a problem.”
Other friends I know have successfully stopped drinking with the help of a therapist, either in a group setting or solo, while others have made a conscious decision to stop drinking and then just quit cold turkey. The difficult part about going solo is that no one’s there when the former drinking buddies disappear (and they, and their friendship, probably will). You get used to it, and it’s a good chance to re-evaluate who your real friends are. While the common denominator of alcoholism unites us, our methods of quitting vary. If it works for you, never let anyone tell you you’re doing it the wrong way.
Whether you want to call alcoholism a disease, an addiction, an allergy, or a royal pain in the ass, it’s out to get you and it puts up a good fight. If you don’t know your triggers, learn them like you learned the alphabet in grade school. Unlike algebra, knowing what makes you crave alcohol will actually help you in real life. Sometimes those triggers are bars or vacation spots (I still have a hard time traveling sober), sometimes it’s friends or loved ones—boundaries!—sometimes it’s your own isolation or even your own happiness.
If you struggled this summer season—my high-alert time—and spent most of the months drunk, or if you’re seeking alternatives for next year and are worried it’d require chaining yourself to your bed, know that other options await. Mocktails are a total thing now, and wherever you are—be it Fire Island, the Hamptons, Asbury Park, Provincetown—there’s an AA meeting nearby. Above all else, remember this: The guys who are encouraging you to drink, rather than encouraging you to make the best, healthiest choices for you, may need to look in their own gin-frosted mirror.
Save your workouts till night if it helps, and remember that summer bodies aren’t made with alcohol infusion and hangovers, and that alcohol is costly in more ways than one. Sex is so much better if you’re sober enough to still get it up and awake to someone you actually think is attractive in the morning light. Speaking of light, I much prefer to get up at five then to go to bed at that time. And if the places or the people offer too much temptation—I nixed a group of functioning-alcoholic Fire Island friends—then seek out new destinations, literally and figuratively. There’s your liver to think about. It needs a vacation, too.
I usually attend an AA meeting on Monday nights, especially during the tempting summer evenings. It’s in a church off Park Avenue, and directly across the street is an Upper East Side high rise with expansive terraces, the kind of place I used to picture Marilyn Monroe plotting her future while sipping cocktails in How to Marry a Millionaire.
I always glance over and get a little down that I’m not up there, sipping drinks outside with glamorous friends who feel buzzed but never drunk. New York skylines sparkle so much more when viewed through a martini glass. Then I walk inside the church, sit down, and remember how much that vision almost killed me.