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The long road to recovery

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I had my first drink when I was 8 — a Sloe gin fizz.

“Sloe gin fizzy/do it till you’re dizzy/give it all you got until you’re put out of your misery.” Aerosmith said that. It was the ’80s, the decade of day-glo and hair bands. My first cassette was an album by Poison. I grew up in a small town in the suburbs of Philadelphia that was populated with middle-class Catholics, a place where neighbors used their front lawns as storage, the restaurant of choice was Friendly’s and the popular Friday night activity was tailgating down High Street while intoxicated.

I showed up to my first day of high school dressed in a rayon orchid-print button down shirt, Lee’s husky jeans and a pair of sand-colored loafers. I frequently dyed my hair, tortured it with hair gel, and had pierced ears. I got my navel pierced when I was 16 at the Jersey shore, and got my first tattoo that same year. I ran, no walked, a 16-minute mile in gym class, sneaked out for lunch at McDonald’s, and when the name calling and threats got worse in school, took refuge in the music room and “All My Children” at 3 p.m.

I felt overwhelmed — an overweight, gay, soap opera-enthusiast teen. Then came acid, LSD and the ‘90s rave scene. It was a place to escape, where people were too fucked up to care if you were gay, straight or listened to Poison. I took acid. A lot of it.

I went to my first gay bar when I was 17. Armed with a fake ID and a tube of Carmex, I tripped through the front door of Woody’s, a gay hot spot in Philadelphia, with a dream of meeting a boyfriend. He would be cute, have blond hair, blue eyes and be 19.

Fast forward three gin and tonics later: He was a brunette, had brown eyes and a limp and was 45. Every Wednesday night I would drive my Mustang into Philadelphia, booze up at Woody’s, drive home drunk and try to make it through the next day. I made friends with people who bought me drinks, better friends with the bartenders and was merely acquaintances with those I would wake up next to.

At college in Allentown, Pa., there was a new set of rules. Let’s play the game “drink till you’re no longer straight.” The theatre department was full of tomorrow’s artists who were today’s misguided youth. The drinks of choice were Zima and Natural Light. Then I discovered the beer bong, a competition featuring horny, stressed college students guzzling beer out of a hose with a funnel on one end.

And what about that boyfriend? I sought him in AOL chat rooms; those meetings seemed to go better with booze. And cigarettes. I smoked a lot of cigarettes. My vocal coach smoked cigarettes, so why couldn’t I?  Finally, graduation came. Cap, check. Gown, check. Flask, check.

And now what? No more structure? I took a trip to Atlanta and didn’t come back.  Atlanta introduced me to house music, 24-hour clubs, warm weather, circuit parties, and the letters E, G, K, T and C. Ecstasy, GHB/GBL, ketamine, crystal meth, and cocaine.  They all made you high, and when used together, made you “crunk.” Considering that among that list, one is a solvent used to remove superglue, one is used as an anesthetic for your dog and one has been known to trigger explosions, it might cause you to think that snorting them up your nose while box-stepping to a Deborah Cox remix may not be such a good idea.

But, the drugs shrunk my waist from a 36 to a 34, made me feel socially acceptable, and were highly addictive. Ah, addiction. That force that causes you to do things over and over again expecting a different outcome. Or in the words of George Carlin, “Just cause you got the monkey off of your back, doesn’t mean the circus has left town.”

I was doing nothing with my life. I worked at Nordstrom, snorted ketamine in the stock room, boozed it up at night and blacked out. Wash, rinse, repeat.

I made the decision to go to grad school on a hit of E. I moved to Tennessee while high, I unpacked high, went to class high, studied high, met a boy drunk, got him high, and then moved in with him. We did coke and we were poor so we sold coke to pay for our coke, all the while telling ourselves that we weren’t getting in over our heads. I got in over my head and moved again.

You may want to consider your options when the list of your achievements starts looking more and more like the storyboard for a Lifetime original movie, rather than that of a successful person.

Consider the following criteria. You may be an alcoholic when you have a glass of wine at a meal and that meal is breakfast. Or, if you find you get your best eight hours of sleep from noon to 8 p.m. Or perhaps you decide to increase your fiber intake by drinking more Guinness. Or you carry around business cards that have your name and address with the phrases “Hello, I’m ____” and “Please take me to ______”.

I moved to Philadelphia and I drank. I moved to New York City and drank. I moved to Raleigh and drank. I moved back to Philadelphia and drank. I moved to D.C. and drank.  It wasn’t working. No matter how much I drank, I was still not the pretty, smart, extroverted starlet that a bottle of vodka was telling me I could become.

Even though I managed to shrink my waist size to a 32, I was still terribly unhappy. I was chasing something down a long, dimly lit tunnel, with no end in sight. Blackout.  Wake up. Who are you? Where am I? The walk of shame after impulses came to me from the bottom of a bottle of booze. I made many mistakes and lied a lot. My life became a fictional narrative, a choose-your-own-adventure story, with no happy endings.

It was time to do something. Something had to change. I took off my sunglasses, soaked up the daylight and asked for help. The party was over. The lights came up.  “Hello, my name is John and I’m an alcoholic and drug addict.”

I haven’t had a perfect recovery. I’ve had my share of slips, trips, falls and follow-ups, but I’ve learned how to ask for help, and to listen to those willing to share their stories and suggestions. It’s not the same script, different cast, but a different script, and more diverse cast.

I’m grateful to be sober today. Addiction is always there. It’s a Christmas present neatly wrapped in sparkly paper with a glittery bow that contains an empty box. I choose the other gift. It is the gift of stories of other men and women who are recovering and shedding the burden of their pain. They are young, old, black, white, straight, gay, bi, trans, lawyers, doctors, artists, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandparents, Poison fans and soap opera-enthusiasts and they all have one thing in common. They hope for a better way of living. A sober way of living.

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Sondheim’s art will be with us for the ages

Iconic work explored sadness, rage, irony, and love of humanity

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Stephen Sondheim (Screen capture via CBS)

“The only regret I have in life is giving you birth,” his mother wrote in a letter to Stephen Sondheim.

The only regret so many of us feel now is that Sondheim, the iconic composer and lyricist, died on Nov. 26 at his Roxbury, Conn. home at age 91.

He is survived by Jeffrey Romley, whom he married in 2017, and Walter Sondheim, a half-brother.

F. Richard Pappas, his lawyer and friend, told the New York Times that the cause of death was unknown, and that Sondheim had died suddenly. The day before he passed away, Sondheim celebrated Thanksgiving with friends, Pappas told the Times.

“Every day a little death,” Sondheim wrote in “A Little Night Music.”

This isn’t the case with the passing of Sondheim. Whether you’re a Broadway star or a tone-deaf aficionado like me, you’ll sorely miss Sondheim, who the Times aptly called “one of Broadway history’s songwriting titans.”

Like multitudes of his fans, I don’t remember a time in my life when a song from a Sondheim musical hasn’t been in my head.

When I was a child, my parents repeatedly played the cast album of “Gypsy,” the 1959 musical with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents. My folks loved the story of the show, which was loosely based on the life of the burlesque artist Gypsy Rose Lee. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Ethel Merman belt out “Everything’s Coming Up Roses!” When I need to jumpstart my creative juices, I remember that “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.”

In college, I felt that “Company,” the 1970 musical with music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by George Furth, spoke to my generation. 

As was the case with Sondheim’s musicals, “Company” didn’t have a conventional plot, happy ending, or tidy resolution. It takes place during Bobby’s 35th birthday party. Bobby, who is single, is celebrating with his friends (straight, married couples). Bobby likes having friends but doesn’t want to get married.

Sondheim didn’t come out as gay until he was 40. Yet, even in the 1970s, it was hard not to think that Bobby in “Company” wasn’t gay.

Once you’ve heard Elaine Stritch sing “The Ladies Who Lunch” from “Company,” it becomes indelibly etched in your brain.

Who else but Sondheim could have written, “And here’s to the girls who play/smart-/Aren’t they a gas/Rushing to their classes in optical art,/Wishing it would pass/Another long exhausting day/Another thousand dollars/A matinee, a Pinter play/Perhaps a piece of Mahler’s/I’ll drink to that/And one for Mahler!”

In September, I, along with legions of other theater lovers, were thrilled when Sondheim told Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show,” that he was working with David Ives on a new musical called “Square One.”

In his musicals from “Follies” to “Sweeney Todd” to “Sunday in the Park with George,” Sondheim, through his lyrics and music, revealed the internal depths of his characters and the sadness, tenderness, bitterness, rage, irony, wit, and love of humanity. Sondheim’s wordplay was so brilliant that he did crossword puzzles for New York magazine.

Over his decades-long career, Sondheim won every award imaginable from the Pulitzer Prize for “Sunday in the Park with George” to the Presidential Medal of Freedom (awarded to him by President Barack Obama in 2015). He received more than a dozen Tony Awards for his Broadway musicals and revivals as well as a Tony Award for lifetime achievement in 2008.

Thankfully, Sondheim’s art will be with us for the ages.

A remake of “West Side Story,” directed by Steven Spielberg with a screenplay by Tony Kushner, premieres this month.

Sondheim is a character in the Netflix film “tick, tick BOOM!,” directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The movie is based on an autobiographical posthumous Jonathan Larson (the composer of “Rent”) musical. Sondheim is supportive of Larson’s work.

Thank you Stephen, for your art! R.I.P.

Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

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It doesn’t take a miracle

Hanukkah a time for LGBTQ Jews to celebrate full identity

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(Public domain photo)

For Jews around the world, Sunday night marked the beginning of Hanukkah. The story of Hanukkah celebrates the liberation of Jerusalem by the Maccabees, a small and poorly armed group of Jews who took on, and defeated, one of the world’s most powerful armies. 

Upon entering Jerusalem, the Maccabees saw that there was only enough oil to light the Temple’s eternal flame for one night. But the oil lasted eight nights — enough time for new oil to be prepared. The eternal flame remained lit, and light triumphed over darkness.

The story of Hanukkah was a miracle. While we celebrate and commemorate that miracle, we should also remember that it doesn’t take a miracle for one person to make a difference. 

The entire world is shaking beneath our feet. The climate is in crisis and our planet is in danger. A viral contagion has claimed the lives of millions, and there’s no clear end in sight. Creeping authoritarianism threatens the entire world, including here at home.

Sometimes it seems like it will take a miracle to solve even one of these problems. The reason these problems seem so overwhelming is because they are — no one person can fix it themselves.

Here in the LGBTQ community, we have made enormous strides, and we ought to be proud of them. But there is so much more work to be done.

Not everyone in our community is treated equally, and not everyone has the same access to opportunity. Black, brown and trans LGBTQ people face systemic and structural disadvantages and discrimination and are at increased risk of violence and suicide. It must stop.

These are big problems too, and the LGBTQ people as a collective can help make the changes we need so that light triumphs over darkness. But it doesn’t take a miracle for individuals to light the spark.

Our movement is being held back by the creeping and dangerous narrative that insists that we choose between our identities instead of embracing all of them. 

The presentation of this false choice has fallen especially hard on LGBTQ Jews, many of whom feel a genuine connection to and support for Israel. They feel marginalized when asked to sideline their identity by being told that the world’s only Jewish state shouldn’t even have a place on the map. And they feel attacked when asked about the Israeli government’s policies during a conflict, as if they have some obligation to condemn them and take a stand simply because of their faith.

One of the ways we can shine our light is to fight for an LGBTQ community that is truly inclusive.

This holiday season, pledge to celebrate all aspects of your identity and the rights of LGBTQ people to define their own identities and choose their own paths. If you feel the pressure to keep any part of your identity in the closet, stand up to it and refuse to choose. 

In the face of enormous challenges that require collective action, we must not give up on our power as individuals to do what’s right. It doesn’t take a miracle to do that.

The tradition of lighting the menorah each night represents ensuring the continuity of that eternal flame. One of the reasons the Hanukkah menorah is displayed prominently in the windows of homes and in public squares is because the light isn’t meant to be confined to the Jewish home. The light is for everyone — and a reminder that we can share it with the world every day to try to make it better.

As long as we keep fighting for justice, we don’t need to perform miracles. But we do need to do our part so that light triumphs over darkness.

It is up to each of us to map out what we can contribute to create a truly inclusive LGBTQ community. This holiday season, be the light. If you can, donate to a group that helps lift LGBTQ youth in crisis. Volunteer your time to fight for the rights and the lives of trans people. And be kind to one another.

Whether you are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or of no faith at all, take this opportunity to share your light with the world. It doesn’t take a miracle to do that.

Ethan Felson is the executive director of A Wider Bridge.

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Fighting for equality for decades, trans elders still face endless hardships

Lisa Oakley rejected by 60 long-term care facilities in Colo.

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transgender, Gender Conference East, trans, transgender flag, gay news, Washington Blade
(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

November 20 will mark the 22nd International Transgender Day of Remembrance, an international event honoring and commemorating the many transgender people murdered in transphobic hate crimes every year.

Since 2013, at least 200 transgender people have been murdered in the United States alone, 80 percent being Black and Latinx women. This number is undoubtedly an underestimate, as many murders go unreported and trans victims often are misgendered by law enforcement.

These murders are not isolated crime statistics. They grow out of a culture of violence against transgender and non-binary (TGNB) people that encompasses stigma, exclusion, discrimination, poverty, and lack of access to essential resources, including health care, employment and housing. 

These challenges result in early death. In Latin America, for example, it has been reported that the average life expectancy of a transgender person is only 35 years.

This climate of stigma and transphobia is particularly challenging for TGNB older people, who face extraordinary hardships due both to the cumulative impact of lifetimes of discrimination and regular mistreatment in their elder years. Due to isolation from family and greater medical and financial needs, trans older people are more likely to require professionalized elder services and care. 

Unfortunately, these services and the facilities that provide them are often either unavailable to TGNB elders, or hostile to them. A national survey of LGBTQ+ older people by AARP found that more than 60 percent of those surveyed were concerned about how they would be treated in a long-term care setting. This includes the fear of being refused or receiving limited care, in danger of neglect or abuse, facing verbal or physical harassment, or being forced to hide or deny their identity once again. 

This is a sobering reality. In October, GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders filed a claim against Sunrise Assisted Living in Maine, which openly denied admission to an older transgender woman because of her gender identity. 

In Colorado, Lisa Oakley was, astonishingly, rejected by 60 long-term care facilities, which her caseworker ascribes to Lisa’s gender identity. One facility that agreed to admit Lisa would only house her with a male roommate. 

After waiting far too long for welcoming care, Lisa eventually got help from SAGE and other community supporters and found a home in Eagle Ridge of Grand Valley. Fortunately, Eagle Ridge has participated in specialized training to be LGBTQ+-welcoming. While Lisa feels welcomed at Eagle Ridge and has made friends, she has been forced to live far from a community she loves. 

These cases in Maine and Colorado are just the tip of the iceberg regarding the discrimination faced by TGNB elders. That’s why it’s so important that Congress pass the Equality Act, which would once and for all prohibit discrimination based on gender identity in key areas like employment, housing, and care and services.

And while legal progress is important, it’s not enough. TGNB elders need more equity in their day to day lives. Older transgender people are more likely to experience financial barriers than non-transgender elders, regardless of age, income and education.

They’re also at a higher risk of disability, general poor mental and physical health, and loneliness, compared to their cisgender counterparts.

These experiences have been part of everyday life for trans elders for far too long. We continue to see them struggle with the long-term effects of transphobia and violence every day. That’s why organizations like SAGE are stepping up our support for TGNB elders by investing $1 million to support TGNB-focused services and advocacy both in New York and nationwide.

And we are continually amazed by the resilience of TGNB elders, creating communities built on their strength and courage. 

Their resilience is nothing new. It dates back generations and was evident during the Stonewall Uprising. Over the years, trans luminaries like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Victoria Cruz—leaders of the modern LGBTQ+ civil rights movement—and countless others have repeatedly proved that they will not be invisible.  

We see this determination in so many programs and activities led by trans elders at SAGE. 

For example, the TransGenerational Theater Project brings together transgender people of all ages to create theater from their experiences and perspectives. These types of elder-driven programs serve as powerful reminders that transgender older people are leading their lives with resilience, creativity, and perseverance, despite the dangers they face. 

Transgender and non-binary elders have survived and fought for equality for decades. They are brave. They are strong. They are leaders. Here at SAGE, we will continue to walk side-by-side with them as we continue the fight to ensure TGNB elders get the respect, change, and acceptance they deserve.

Michael Adams is the CEO of SAGE, the world’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTQ+ elders.

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