Hey I’m Darren, a Drug and Alcohol Practitioner at the Forward Trust. I’m 43 years old and a (now) proud gay man…
It wasn’t always that way. I used to feel shame, guilt, angst… the list of negative emotions is endless. I knew from primary school age that I was different. I was born in 1978 so witnessed the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s as a child. It scared the hell out of me – who can forget those horrific adverts?! I bore the brunt of Section 28 – which banned ‘the promotion of homosexuality’ meaning if I was to go to a teacher and tell them I thought I was gay, they were not allowed to talk to me in anyway about it, it could have meant them losing their job. My experience of this institutionalised homophobia is something I would later understand to have had a hugely negative impact on my life: my mental health, my sense of identity and belonging, contributing to my experience of addiction and then recovery.
On the 18 February this year I celebrated three years sober. In those three years I’ve learnt so much about myself – mainly about my sexuality and to be proud of who I am. I was lucky enough to get support with my own addiction, completing a community detox through The Forward Trust (Forward). I found out more about myself in those 13 weeks than the past 40 years.
I was lucky enough to get support with my own addiction, completing a community detox through The Forward Trust. I found out more about myself in those 13 weeks that the past 40 years.
About 18 months into my recovery I was asked to speak at an online recovery meeting. As someone who doesn’t attend Fellowship meetings, though I know this is key to many people’s recovery, I wasn’t used to speaking to a large group and I was really nervous, but I had learnt to speak my truth. I went to the meeting and bared my soul. It was an amazing experience, I found it really cathartic. I spoke about things I struggled with as a kid and things I was still trying to work on. I spoke about, what I later learned to describe as my ‘internalised homophobia’. I spoke about self-loathing, guilt, shame, the battle between my masculine and feminine sides… all these things I thought were unique to me. Within an hour, I had received messages of love and support which, in all honesty, was quite overwhelming. These people seemed to like me and understand my experience. How?! I wasn’t even sure I liked me!
One of these messages was from the meeting host who said so much of what I talked about had resonated with him and that even he felt he was alone in those thoughts. We chatted on Twitter for a bit and came up with an idea to host an LGBTQ+ recovery meeting. So we did it… In the first meeting we had people from all corners of the globe – UK, Canada, USA, New Zealand, Ireland….Whaaaat!? It was incredibly inspiring. We shared common experiences and struggles around how a lack of acceptance in society and in ourselves was a leading cause for our addictions. I started researching the relationship between addictions and the health of the LGBTQ+ community and was shocked, yet not surprised, about what I learned. We know that drug and alcohol use among LGBTQ+ groups is higher than among their heterosexual counterparts, irrespective of gender or age. As a community, LGBTQ+ people are at a higher risk of experiencing mental health problems than the general population. I wanted to do something about it.
As a community, LGBTQ+ people are at a higher risk of experiencing mental health problems than the general population. I wanted to do something about it.
In February 2020, I started working for Forward. Soon after, I decided to start a LGBTQ+ group and suggested the Trust attend Canterbury Pride as an organisation – with this Pride event being the largest in the South East, outside London and Brighton. It was perfect timing and we got the newly formed LGBTQ+ recovery group up and running in time for Pride. We came together to create a wonderful crew of staff and volunteers and we walked the parade together: singing, dancing, whistling loud and proud and ran a stall to raise awareness of Forward’s work. We met so many lovely and inquisitive people – all ages, all letters of the alphabet and pronouns!
In developing this group, I was determined not to make it a ‘structured’ meeting. I wanted it to be informal and relaxed, so we were able give everyone the chance to speak about whatever was on their mind. We have a real mix attendees. The group is a safe space – warm and welcoming to new members. We all know what it feels like to attend something for the first time. This group is open to anyone working with Forward and we have some people who are still trying to manage their substance misuse and others at various points along their recovery journey.
Through working with this group, there are recurring themes that crop up: guilt, shame and a lack of belonging – the challenges of trying to explain things like pronouns to parents as well as trying to date whilst in recovery. We talk about the challenges of being part of the LGBTQ+ community and the pre-conceptions that exist around ‘the scene’ and its reputation for drink and drugs. Staying safe and chemsex are especially prevalent issues in our community. We’ve had long discussions about how you make personal connections, meet people and tell them you are in recovery without scaring them off. The positive impact of these discussions is huge – allowing members of our community to speak openly and freely about day-to-day concerns, challenges as well as celebrating our successes. Knowing you are not alone is empowering, reassuring and supports the positive changes we have made in our own lives.
Knowing you are not alone is empowering, reassuring and supports the positive changes we have made in our own lives.
One of the most inspiring parts of this support network is how we come together when someone is struggling. The group rallies around and offers support, advice or just listens and it is always a two-way street. Above all, the group is about acceptance and support – not only accepting others as they are but learning to accept ourselves and how we are and celebrating our successes and coping with our life challenges every week.
So, what is next? We are planning to attend Canterbury Pride again this year, representing Forward, and hoping some of the group will come along and volunteer with us. Along with my colleague, Abbie MacGregor, we’re compiling an LGBTQ+ guide and resource pack for Forward and partners. Terminology and the use of correct pronouns are ever changing and important conversations and we’re hoping this guide will enable staff within Forward to speak with, and understand more about, not only the LGBTQ+ community but also individual needs meeting people where they are. That is why community matters this LGBTQ+ History Month and every month.
If you are reading this and struggling, our message to you is: you are not alone and help is out there. Forward’s LGBTQ+ Recovery Meeting runs for an hour, every Tuesday night at 7pm via Zoom and is open to everyone who uses any services at Forward. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org