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Advice

Am I an alcoholic?

Liquor-doused social circle might be a problem

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Alcohol, gay news, Washington Blade
Alcohol, gay news, Washington Blade

About 25 percent of LGBT people abuse alcohol, about five times the rate it occurs in the general population.

Dear Michael,

 

Your letter from the person who wanted to stop her partner’s out-of-control drinking really resonated, because it could have been written about me.

 

I know I am drinking far too much but I am not sure what life would be like if I stopped. Almost all my activities with my gay social network involve alcohol. When friends come over, we drink. When I go to a friend’s house, we drink. When we get together at a bar or restaurant, the alcohol flows. If we’re doing something in the community, even a fundraiser for a nonprofit, plenty of liquor is served.

 

I don’t like having a hangover the next day and I’m unhappy that I’ve been gaining weight, so I’ve tried not to drink sometimes or not drink as much. But then I feel like I don’t fit in with my friends, who are all laughing or joking about stuff that isn’t as funny if you haven’t had a few. Also, I get asked why I’m not drinking, which makes me uncomfortable and I worry my friends feel I’m judging their drinking by not joining them.

 

Another complication: Because I’m single, it makes it much easier to flirt with people when I am relaxed from a few drinks. If I don’t drink, I’m pretty much a wallflower.

 

This is getting out of hand. A few drinks give me a sense of calm that is really helpful after work and so now I am drinking when I’m alone, too. When I don’t, I have this tension and craving that I can’t get rid of. It feels like I’m damned if I do drink and really damned if I don’t.

 

Michael replies:

 

You’re not alone. I frequently hear stories like yours in my practice.

Yes, alcohol and other substance abuse is entrenched in LGBT culture, with reason.  Anti-gay discrimination is still alive and well. Many of us have experienced slights, insults, bullying and assault, or felt the need to hide who we are, all of which lead to isolation, distress, anxiety and depression. Alcohol and other drugs push away pain, easily becoming quick paths to feeling good. And bars, historically one of the only places gay men and lesbians could meet, are still a popular alcohol-centered hangout. The effect of all this: about 25 percent of LGBT people abuse alcohol, about five times the rate it occurs in the general population. Rates for other types of substance abuse are similarly high.

Of course, there are many other individual reasons why any of us might abuse alcohol and other substances, aside from LGBT-specific factors.

If you want to cut back or stop drinking, you will have to find other ways to soothe yourself when you’re stressed or anxious. Tools that can help include therapy, exercise, meditation, yoga and a healthy diet. Your first step, though, will be deciding to make your own well being your top priority. This is tough to do if you’ve absorbed the homo-negative messages that still saturate our world or are simply plagued by your own self-critical beliefs and thinking. But remember that “tough” is not impossible.

You’ll also need to work at doing what is right for you in the face of pressure to live up to other people’s expectations. Keep in mind that you already know how to do this, because you have come out. Can you start looking around for some additional friends and places to socialize? Not all LGBT individuals are heavy drinkers and there are a lot of LGBT-themed activities in our community that don’t involve alcohol. Consider finding something you like and jumping in. Doing so may help you to feel calmer and more confident.

One more crucial point: I suspect that reducing your alcohol intake will be hard to do on your own. The anxiety and cravings you describe suggest a level of unmanageability to your drinking, a good indication of alcoholism. So I urge you to attend several meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous to get a sense of what it offers. You will find a welcoming and supportive community of non-drinkers and there are many LGBT AA meetings.

I wish you the best. And please remember that you absolutely can live a fulfilling and connected life as a sober gay person.

Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D, licensed psychologist, specializes in LGBTQ couples counseling and individual therapy in Washington, D.C. He can be found online at personalgrowthzone.com. All identifying information has been changed for reasons of confidentiality. Have a question? Send it to [email protected].

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Steve Boese

    August 28, 2014 at 11:00 pm

    Great stuff, Michael… critical issues to address in our communities.

    As an enhanced "and/also" to your thoughts, it's been critical to the recovery of many (including me) to address the many paths available to get from difficult/sub-optimal places to better ones.

    If we're ones who struggle with 12-step approaches to achieving abstinence (or are just curious about alternatives), SMART Recovery is an evidence-based, self-help-driven option with numerous face-to-face meetings in the DC area. The 12 steps are terrific tools that have been life-saving for millions; at the same time, for some (such as LGBTQ folks who have been abused by, or struggled with, spirituality- or powerlessness-based help) it is meaningful to frame their recovery in terms of asserting rational control over bad habits.

    (The SMART Recovery website also offers robust online options for those who are ready to start their journey today, instead of when the schedule allows.)

    SMART is just one of many orgs/options — just google "12 step alternatives" for more.

    Some of us have also kicked off healthier journeys at points where we weren't yet ready for abstinence, yet were committed to change sooner than later. The Moderation Management org has an active online community of folks who have and are on healthier paths via 30-day abstinence, self examination and behavior modification.

    Finally, a couple of the self-made tools that made a difference for me earlier on were DAFT and the 3Ds. I challenged myself to have DAFT (Delightfully Alcohol-Free Today) days, framing them as positive steps instead of thinking I was depriving myself of anything. Alternately, I figured out I could coach myself to follow my 3 D's — Delay, Dilute, Distract — delay the first drink until after water or good food, don't rush into the 2nd; choose diluted drinks or lighter beer; and, distract myself to ensure that any drink was a sideline, not the the focus, of whatever I was doing.

    Every step in better, healthier directions matters — no need to let the desire for perfection get in the way of progress.

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Advice

Working from home is taking over our lives

We need to create boundaries and return to offices

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working from home, gay news, Washington Blade

Back in the late 1980s when I was a young financial analyst at a New York bank, I’d leave the office at five and go home to my little Upper West Side studio. With no cable, internet, or cellphone, a landline was my only connection to the outside word till I went back to work the next day.

What was it like? Tranquility is the word. Surrounded by Manhattan, I was as isolated as a monk in a cell, with uninterrupted hours to read a book, cook, or listen to an album. And of course I could go out on the town without a work crisis reaching out to ruin my plans.

I’ve been thinking back to those days a lot, lately. Working as a psychologist, I’m hearing more and more clients complain lately about how much time they’re putting into their jobs. Folks have been working from home for a year now, and as the months have gone by, many of us are spending more and more hours on the job.

What’s going on? I hear a few justifications.

First, many people tell me that they don’t feel they have an excuse not to reply when they get a text or email from a boss or colleague after normal work hours. After all, what else would they be doing? This is especially true of my single clients who don’t have children. Even dinnertime isn’t off limits.

Second, as the pandemic drags on and most of us have so few sources of fun and stimulation, people are turning more and more to their jobs for something — anything — to keep them occupied.

And, of course, there’s the reality that we’re working from our homes. There’s no physical boundary keeping work at work.

So while it’s great not to have to commute or wear pants, working from home is making it even easier for our jobs to take over our lives than they already were. Put bluntly, this sucks.

We all need a break from work. Every day. Your job likely isn’t paying you for 16-hour days. Even if it is, you need to have some fun, rest, and recharge your brain.

Of course we can’t shut ourselves off from the world as completely as I did in those pre-internet/cellphone days. But we need to draw a boundary, even if it means disappointing our employers and colleagues by doing so. I’m not talking about not doing your job. I’m just talking about setting a limit on how much of your life you are willing to give to your work.

Standing up for your own well-being can be scary. There may be real risks in terms of job security and compensation. Only you can decide for yourself when it is vital to say “no.” But advocating for yourself is necessary at times. To quote Hillel, an ancient Jewish sage: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?”

Taking action on your own behalf is also a skill you want to develop, because it will help you in all areas of your life. If you can’t say “no” in order to eat dinner uninterrupted, watch a movie you’d like to see, spend time with someone you love or get a good night’s sleep, you’re going to get chewed up and spit out by others, quite a lot.

Recently, I’ve been reading that D.C.’s downtown is in danger of financial ruin. As many people may not be be returning to the office after the pandemic, some believe that the whole web of service businesses may collapse.

I’m hoping that the doomsdayers floating this theory are wrong, and that as the pandemic ends many of us will head back to the office, at least much of the time. We need to get back to setting a stronger boundary between work and the rest of our lives.

Yes, we’ll be helping our city rebound. And we’ll also be making a big step toward taking care of ourselves, by re-constructing a life that’s about way more than work.

Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with gay couples and individuals in D.C. He can be found online at michaelradkowsky.com.

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Advice

ADVICE: Despair vs. resilience in trying times

Coronavirus lockdown has many down but you’re stronger than you think

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As the COVID-19 crisis goes on without our having any clarity about how or when this crazy situation will improve, most everyone I know is super-anxious about getting sick, fed up with being locked down or both. Is there a way for us to get through this any easier? 

Here’s a start: Acknowledge that there are no guarantees in life.

When we accept that life is going to throw all sorts of challenges at us and that there is sometimes nothing we can do to stop these challenges from coming, that leaves us with one great option: Work on becoming more resilient so we can better deal with the hard stuff, including the very hard stuff.

This is called resilience. Being able to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and keep going forward. Cliché, yes, but it’s what we need to do if we don’t want life to beat us down.

Good news: resilience is a trait we are born with. As I’m writing these words, I’m watching my 4-month-old, who recently learned to turn from his back onto his belly, trying to turn from his belly onto his back. He’s been at this for days, and has succeeded just once. He keeps crying and trying. He won’t give up. That’s resilience.

Further good news: If you’re LGBT, you likely have already done some work in this area. All the difficulties that we experience as we grow up — struggling to accept an identity that’s stigmatized, teasing, rejection and worse — and here we are. How? All of us found a way to keep moving forward in our lives rather than letting circumstances defeat us.

Of course, this is pretty much true of anyone who has been through tough times and survived. Many of our elders who experienced the Depression, wartime, or worse tell us that they aren’t fazed by the virus or having to stay at home. Having endured previous struggles, they know they can do their best to endure this one.

That’s what all of us must keep in mind now. Knowing that we have had the resilience to get through past difficulties can support us in getting through this new hard time.

Another important point to keep in mind: When we give our suffering meaning, it helps us endure the suffering. Reminding ourselves that striving to endure this tough period will make us even more resilient can actually help us to more easily endure it.

Other ways we can strengthen our own capacity for resilience: 

Do our best to take care of ourselves, of course. When we eat well, find a way to exercise, get adequate sleep and take breaks from virus-worrying through meditation or just focusing on something pleasant or uplifting, we’re less anxious and better able to keep calm. The ability to soothe ourselves is key to being resilient.

Stay connected to people around us so that we don’t wind up feeling isolated and alone, which can deepen feelings of hopelessness. We all need supportive friends and family whom we can ask for assistance when we really need it to survive. Knowing that they are there is part of feeling resilient. And if we’re able to help others in some way — dropping off groceries for an elderly relative or neighbor, or simply being willing to listen — we’re likely to feel stronger and more able to cope.

Appreciate what we have. This can include a roof over our head, food to eat, people and companion animals we love and simply being alive right now. Doing will serve us much better than lamenting.

While none of us will live forever, we all want to stay in the game as long as we can. Striving to be resilient can help us keep going forward through life with the belief that if it’s possible to survive, we have a good shot at doing so. And that belief can give us hope, determination and a positive outlook.

Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with gay individuals and couples in D.C. He can be found online at michaelradkowsky.com

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Advice

ADVICE: Nerves easily fray while social distancing

Look within to avoid unnecessary tension with your significant other

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social distancing advice, gay news, Washington Blade

For many years, I’ve told couples I work with that being in long-term relationships is like taking a long journey by ship in a very small stateroom. You know, the kind where the couch unfolds to be a bed, you have to step over your partner’s legs to get to the bathroom and there’s no place to stow the suitcases. You have to find a way to stay calm, not drive each other crazy and enjoy the voyage.

I’d never actually traveled by boat, so this was just my theory. So when my husband and I were lucky enough to take a journey by ship up the Norwegian coast a few years back and had a cabin exactly as I’d envisioned (i.e. teeny), I discovered I was right. Despite the unbelievably gorgeous scenery right out our porthole, after a few days we could see how easy it would be to get irritable with each other.

Now here we all are in a much more difficult situation. We’re stuck at home, on top of each other, trying to do our jobs while taking care of companion animals and children, attempting to avoid an invisible enemy that could be anywhere.  We can’t go out on deck to watch Norway float by. Instead, we’ve got the television to look at, keeping us posted about all the bad and scary news.  

So it’s natural that as our nerves fray, we’re going to get irritated by our mates. They’re in the way. We don’t like their tone. They aren’t doing enough or responding when we ask a question. We feel like we’re the one doing everything.  

Sound familiar?

It makes sense that we react like this at such a stressful time, but when we do, it’s all downhill from there. In our current predicament, we don’t have the usual escape outlets that let us take a break and come back to our spouses calmer and with a refreshed attitude.  

What to do? Here are some simple strategies to help you, your significant other and your relationship through this extraordinarily miserable period:

Don’t point fingers: Think about what you can do to make the situation better rather than focusing on what your spouse should be doing. And then do it. This is a great strategy even in normal times. Remember, we have very little power to get another person to do something, but lots of power over our own behavior. So if we want things to change, we should look first to ourselves.

Be generous: Does your spouse feel strongly about something? Now is likely not the time to get into a struggle over whose say goes. Unless you have good reason to go in the other direction, be generous. Again, this is a policy worth adhering to when we get back to normal (soon, I hope!).

Take responsibility for soothing your own anxiety: This is always a great idea, but especially now. Yes, when we’re worried about something it feels great to get a hug and be told everything will be OK. But right now, your partner is just as anxious as you are and likely without the bandwidth to soothe you. Moreover, none of us really know that everything will be OK. 

So the best thing you can do when you’re anxious is look to yourself to find ways to keep as calm as you can, under the current circumstances: Meditation, slow deep breaths, whatever exercise you can find to do, striving to be in the present, working to accept uncertainty — these are all ways you may be able to help yourself feel even a little more calm.

And if you’re able to reach out and offer your spouse some loving reassurance — even if none of us know how this will end — so much the better.  Giving your partner emotional support is always a good move.

Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with LGBT couples and individuals in D.C. He can be found online at michaelradkowsky.com. All identifying information has been changed for reasons of confidentiality. Have a question? Send it to [email protected].

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