How is it September already!? We’re Here, We’re Queer! has been around for seven months now. SEVEN! I’m pleased that so many folks are not only interested in sharing their stories but, are interested in reading other people’s stories.
Thank you all.
This month, We’re Here, We’re Queer! brings you Lael’s story. Lael Atkinson is a fellow PNWer who I’ve recently had the opportunity to meet in person. She is fantastic and I love her story – it’s a real testament to how we can try to drink at who we are in order to stuff the truth down but, it won’t work forever. Who we truly are will always rise to the top.
I’m so thankful for Lael and that she has shared so much of who she is with us. Enjoy!
This is the 7th draft of this post and I still don’t feel certain that it’s right. Because I haven’t been out – as someone who falls under the LGBT umbrella, or as someone who chose to stop drinking, for very long (just over two years as LGBT and just under 1.5 years as a non-drinker). So there are voices in my head trying to tell me that I don’t qualify to share my story. They also warn me that I’m going to screw up and misuse language or offend people, that I haven’t lived in either of these worlds long enough to know the most current and accepted jargon. I’m especially nervous when it comes to the LGBT side of things. I do know that there are more letters to the extended version of that initialism, but I think it’s considered ok to use the shortened version (I think, but am not certain – there, I may have screwed up already). Even though chronologically I entered into that world before I entered into the world of sobriety, I have not yet been an active participant there the way I have been in the sober community. I am ready to change that, even though I don’t know what my participation will look like. Writing these words is one step in that direction. So, I am going to ignore those admonitory voices in my head and remember all the stories shared by others which helped expand my heart and mind no matter how much I did (or didn’t) relate to them directly. Here goes.
In the span of a year, between 2016 and 2017, I:
- Came out as gay
- Began the dismantling of my marriage
- Took a leave of absence from my job
- Sold the house my husband and I co-owned and rented it back by myself
- Gave notice at my job
- Stopped drinking
- Began exploring what sobriety meant beyond stopping “the thing(s)” (be it drinking, pills, behaviors, etc.)
- Moved out of the house
- Moved away from the city I had called home for a total of 18 years
- Came out again, this time as neither gay or straight and done with trying to label my sexuality*
I had been aware that I was attracted to the female form since I was twelve years old. There was no way I could avoid noticing how my body responded. I was aware, but it was something I tried very hard not to know. This trying was effortless. It was automatic. Wherever the messages came from that this was not a safe thing to know, my psyche had absorbed them quickly and thoroughly. The awareness stayed deep below any conscious level until my 20s. And then, the handful of intimate experiences I had with women were always fueled by alcohol. This allowed me to continue the not-knowing, to dismiss it as just a bit of tipsy fun.
Even in some of my relationships with men, I had found a way to incorporate my attraction to women so it didn’t threaten them or me. I knew it could be a turn-on if it was presented properly. Looking back, I see how in doing this I diminished and externalized this part of me, turning it into the equivalent of a lacy undergarment meant for others, rather than something that was a valuable part of me. I could not value something that it still didn’t feel safe to know.
In my 30’s, I came dangerously close to knowing. A female friend and I who both drank together and sometimes fooled around together crossed into the unchartered territory of considering changing our relationship into that amorphous “more.” We mutually decided not to, and I felt deep relief at the time. The prospect of “more” for me was terrifying. If she wasn’t completely in, there was no way I was going to push it.
And then I fell in love with the man who would become my husband. We built a wonderful life together and I was genuinely happy. Once again, any thoughts that didn’t fit neatly into my firm commitment to my heterosexual marriage dove deep into my subconscious. Life continued on, and over time I noticed I was drinking more regularly and in greater amounts. Nothing that set off alarm bells though – it seemed par for the course in the society I lived in (at least the part of it I chose to focus on). Yet my anxiety and depression were also increasing. I loved so much about my life, so why was I having an increasingly difficult time actually enjoying it? I wasn’t that pumped up about my job, so I tried pointing to it as the culprit. Maybe it was to some degree, but I had a hunch there was more going on. My “fix-it” focus then honed in on an eating disorder I had never addressed, so, with help, I finally started working on that. And the eating and related body issues brought me full circle to that damn sexuality piece which, as it turns out, had never gone anywhere expect out of my supposedly all-knowing mind. And this time I could not refuse to know anymore, no matter how badly I wanted to. And I wanted to with every fiber of my being. Because I also knew that it would mean the end of the life I was living. There was no way that I could know this thing about myself and keep it to myself, and there was no way that it would not change everything.
How much had my not wanting to face my sexuality fueled my drinking? While I can’t ever get a definitive answer to this question, I can make some guesses. Insofar as I drank at times to avoid uncomfortable feelings – shame, confusion, frustration, hopelessness, rage – all of which were some of the feelings that clustered around my sexuality – then yes, alcohol was what I used to numb out and distance myself from those feelings. And drinking allowed me to access the part of my sexuality that terrified me without having to actually acknowledge that part. I also drank to be social, to have fun, to alleviate boredom, and so on. It was a reliable go-to elixir for all occasions.
But when I reached the point where I could not ignore my sexuality anymore and the dominos of life changes began to fall, it was at this point that in a way, my sexuality saved me. I was in a state of utter turmoil and pain from all that followed from my finally choosing to claim this part of myself and I knew that pouring alcohol into the mix would not take me anywhere I wanted to go. I also knew that the pain – my own and the pain of those who had been affected by all the sudden changes – deserved to be felt and honored. It did not deserve to be avoided and numbed into oblivion no matter how tempting that might have been.
Pain is what made me turns towards sobriety. Discovering that I could navigate it and the myriad of emotions that come with being alive has been one of sobriety’s greatest gifts. Slowly learning how to not turn away from any part of myself has been another.
I’m still on fresh, sometimes wobbly legs walking in the worlds of both sobriety and as a member of the LGBT community. But I will never stop moving forward. This I know.
*Labels can be empowering or they can be restrictive, and each person gets to explore what feels most true for them. I am comfortable with the label “sober,” while I have never identified with the label “alcoholic.” The former feels expansive while the latter feels both inaccurate and constricting. I’ve struggled more with labels regarding my sexual orientation. “Gay” felt like the right fit when I first came out as something besides 100% heterosexual. In hindsight, I think this may have been because my attraction to women had been mostly hidden and unexpressed for so long that it screamed to be acknowledged in full-force. Yet as time passed, that label started to feel too restrictive. I have no desire to ignore or trivialize my past experiences with men. Those experiences, especially my marriage to a man, have helped me grow and some brought me tremendous happiness. I would not be who I am today without them. I have just started trying out the label “queer.” I like its inclusivity and breadth. It feels spacious. Try on whatever labels speak to you, while knowing that you can shed them if they cease to fit. Or don’t label yourself at all. You get to decide.