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Making Sense of Substance Abuse

22 August 2017

CONTENT WARNING: MENTIONS OF SUICIDE, SUBSTANCE USE, SELF-HARM, MENTAL ILLNESS, MENTIONS OF QUEERPHOBIA

“I did something stupid, again.”

Fingers writhing, legs jittering, lips burning. My stomach feels like I keep missing a step. There’s guilt sitting at the base of my trachea, blocking my lungs like phlegm. A blonde woman sits opposite me, watching me struggle to get my body, my brain, under control. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be in this calm, grey room, with wide, grey windows, looking out onto tall, grey buildings. I don’t want this woman to hold me up against a spectrum of disorders and fit me into yet another category.  But judging my mental stability is exactly what I am paying this woman for.

“What happened?” My therapist asks.

The stars are slipping between my outstretched fingers, as my friends pass a joint between us. Everything is smudgy purples and blues as the ocean and the sky blur into one, and I’m giggling because isn’t it just so funny how a cocktail of weed and wine has made me feel better than the last year of psychologists, medication and confiscated razors ever has? I’ve forgotten all my standards, my responsibilities, my rules. And it’s so fucking liberating to not care anymore. 

I like it. 

The thing is though, I’m not the first person to use getting fucked up to cope with being fucked up. As a member of a marginalised group that faces stigma and exclusion from society at large, I have a higher risk of developing mental health issues. I started to question my sexuality at fourteen. I was first diagnosed with a mental health disorder in the same year. I started abusing alcohol and other substances at fifteen.

You couldn’t have dragged me out of the closet with anything short of Jesus’ Second Coming, but there are a plethora of other reasons as to why I developed the disorders that I did. There’s no denying the role which realising my sexuality played in my depression and anxiety. It made me feel isolated, abnormal, and at times, suicidal. I wanted to be perfect, and being intoxicated was – and is – the only time I didn’t care that I wasn’t.

There’s a bottle of vodka. I’m not sure where from. I’m not even sure how much of it was meant to be mine. But I’m sad, desperately, achingly sad and I don’t know why. I want to be drunk, I want to have fun, I want to kiss boys – or I want to want to kiss boys. And, maybe if I’m drunk, nobody will think it’s weird if I end up kissing a girl. Because drunk, seventeen-year-old girls do that. 

When I wake up, I’m on my side, in my friend’s little sister’s bed. I’m still wearing my bikini. There’s a pile of vomit next to me. I’m alone. I don’t remember a thing.

Four years later, it’s the same old story. Occasionally – once a week maybe – I’m still supplementing my normally strict diet of 150mg of venlafaxine with a more fun form of self-medication: binge drinking. Mostly, it’s fine. I wake up with a headache and a dry throat. I have a few blank patches, but I remember the gist of the evening. My one respite from the anxiety and depression that hang over my head lives to drink another day. And when I’m out, having a few drinks, a few laughs, I feel like I can conquer anything. For a brief few hours, my demons turn into wings that fly me up towards the sun. But then sometimes, I realise my wings are just feathers held together with wax, and like Icarus, I fall further into the labyrinth.

I’m not an anomaly. Around 20 per cent to 30 per cent of LGBTI+ individuals – compared to 9 per cent of our cisgender, heterosexual counterparts – struggle with substance abuse disorders, with other studies suggesting that rates are even higher in LGBTI+ young people. The LGBTI+ community experiences mental health disorders at twice the rate of the rest of the population – and the risk is even higher for transgender people. LGBTI+ folk have historically been criminalised, pathologised and analysed from every degrading angle in both medical institutions and Western societies at large. To this day, transgender people have to traverse an obstacle course to have their gender legally recognised, while in other areas, same-sex attracted and gender diverse people struggle with blatant erasure and blatant prejudice.

Because of our past and ongoing struggles, such as the constant threats to the funding of programs like Safe Schools and the legislative barriers to changing gender markers on official documents, we as a community face a huge strain. This impacts our access to healthcare, education, income, social spaces and safety. Some of us cope by using mind-altering substances as a form of escapism to deal with both internalised and externalised homophobia.

Someone puts another pill on my tongue, and I pass them 20 dollars. I’ve had a few shots. I’m blissed out and dizzy. A guy is moving his body against mine as we dance, loose limbs and shirts plastered against our skin. The bass is pulsing through the room. I can almost forget, if I tilt my head back and blur my vision, about having sex with that girl last week. About how it felt, and how I felt, when I finally realised that that was what attraction actually felt like.

But I do remember. So I reach up, and pull his mouth down to my lips. I whisper in his ear that if he buys me another drink, he can come home with me. And later, while he moves in me, I blur my vision again, and try to imagine he’s fucking the gay out of me. In the morning, that’s all I can remember. 

This is not just personal. I’m part of a community which is largely only given space to exist in places that promote substance abuse. And don’t get me wrong – I never feel safer or more at home than when I’m out at a gay club. It’s a refuge for many. But it’s a place where alcohol and drugs are easily accessible, and just because it’s a refuge doesn’t mean it exists in a vacuum. Substance abuse and mental health disorders don’t disappear; they’re still an issue, still raging on outside, still audible over the Spice Girls remixes.

And our identities are so sexualised that we’re relegated to these closets where that is all we become, and all we are allowed to exist as. I’ve taken my straight friends to LGBTI+ events, but I’ve also had abuse hurled at me for holding a girl’s hand while I walk down the street. Bridal parties will go to gay clubs on their hen nights, but my right to marry at all is up to public opinion. People will pay to see a drag show, but shout insults and slurs at my gender diverse friends in a McDonalds. We’re trapped; ballerinas in a music box pirouetting round and round, never allowed to stop dancing, never allowed outside the box.

The restriction of the LGBTI+ community to nightlife and its culture perpetuates the very feelings of isolation which drove us there in the first place.

I know I’m never going to find answers in the bottom of a pint glass, the end of a cigarette, a line of cocaine. But are you going to deny me a moment of bliss, those precious hours of feeling like I’m on top of the world? It’s self-destructive. I feel beautiful in the brief seconds before I fly too close to the sun. I haven’t got any answers. I’m so fucking tired.

If you, or someone you know, found any content within this piece upsetting, you can find help and support at:

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Beyond Blue:  1300 22 46 36

Reach Out (LGBT Helpline): 1800 184 527