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Wednesday 08 October 2008

Our drinking and drugging: Recreation or addiction?

Posted in: Living Well, Community
By Matt Akersten - 3rd July 2007

“NZ gays are chemical caners” screamed an overseas headline last week, after a study showed higher use of alcohol and other drugs in our gay, lesbian and bisexual population.

Ministry of Health-funded interviewers canvassed 15,000 New Zealanders by phone in 2003 and 2004. When Massey University researchers studied the results, they found that compared to the general population in the past year, those who identified themselves as lesbian, gay and bisexual were:

‘Only slightly' more likely to use alcohol
Almost twice as likely to have smoked tobacco regularly
Twice as likely to have used Marijuana
Nearly four times as likely to have used amphetamines regularly
More than four times as likely to have used LSD
More than three times as likely to have regularly used Ecstasy

The conclusion? “Health promotion initiatives and substance use interventions targeted specifically at gay, lesbian and bisexual populations need to be established,” said lead researcher Frank Pega.


The findings didn't appear to surprise anyone. Our community's tendency for ‘benders' could perhaps be understood as a reaction to the stress we're under, says Gayline's Neil Denney. “There's a lot of pressure on – especially young – gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people,” he explained. “They're living in a minority and with a marginalised group of people – it makes it more intense for them. Especially with the issue of having to come out every day of their lives to different people. That produces a set of pressures that they relieve on Friday or Saturday night when they're out partying.”

Auckland University sociologist Michael Stevens agrees: “What [drugs & alcohol] also do is numb discomfort and pain – put a pair of rose coloured glasses on the hard parts of life, so they can come to be relied on as ways to escape the difficulties of social isolation. And I would argue that for many people being queer does result in some level of social dislocation and isolation and drugs and alcohol are a way of coping with that.

“Marginalised groups across society will be higher on alcohol and some drug consumption,” he points out. “Groups that are seen as somehow deviant by the mainstream often adopt that label in a defiant fashion, and gay men have certainly done that in the past. Thus with the label of 'deviant' successfully applied, the group is more open to behaviour that mainstream society thinks is wrong, such as drug use.”

The environmentalfactor of the fact that our gay bars and nightclubs are built around alcohol consumption – we often don't have many other options of comfortable places to meet – is another reason for increased consumption, Stevens concludes. Overseas studies have shown that whereas the general population's alcohol use reduces significantly with age, gays and lesbians tend to drink more and their rate of drinking did not decline as much with age.


It didn't take long for our Message Board to get going on this weighty topic. “I don't buy into the whole ‘we are oppressed' argument, or bucking social trends because we aren't ‘mainstream' either,” one posting challenged. “All of those reasons are just excuses to make allowances for actions we know to be outright wrong.

“It is my opinion that weak people have to take drugs to have a good time. It's sad that in order to get out, have fun (and in severe cases just get through a day) there are people out there who need to pop a pill, light up, etc… all because it was cool to start with, but now it's a need.”

Another posting had a very different view: “I get irritated with the presuppositions in studies like this. Here we have the opinion that drug use isn't inherently pleasurable but is done through stress at being oppressed. A big yawnarama for these dreary ol' researchers at Massey.

“If I could suggest causes for this difference they would more likely lie in oppressed subcultures uniting and enabling easier access to drugs, the gay habit of irresponsible play later in life differing from the bedded, wedded and childed heterosexuals. It is also easier for gays and lesbians having bucked social stigma in one area to buck it in others.”

One opinion on TV3's website about the story saw a ‘Peter Pan' syndrome in action: “The key is a lifetime devoid of structure and responsibility. The milestones or traditional rites of passage are largely absent. With no children and high discretionary spending why not a hedonistic lifestyle devoted to self-interest and self-fulfilment. From what I've seen the typical gay male of 40 is likely to enjoy much the same lifestyle of endless partying as he did at 20, but with more to spend. I'm not surprised at these findings. I'm envious!”

People typically start consuming alcohol and other drugs to have fun, and because they like what they do for them, says Michael Stevens. “Even though we have higher levels of consumption, it doesn't mean that everyone who is using them is being dragged down into some sort of spiral of drug dependency and misery,” he reasons.

“Many people are able to balance their drug and alcohol consumption with a full, busy and productive life, so just because we have higher rates of consumption doesn't mean that everyone using them is a sad addict.”


So, without assuming anything, how would you know if your drinking or other drug use has gone from recreation to addiction? Diana Rands is a lesbian who works in the Community Alcohol & Drug Service. Her role includes ‘Affirming Sexualities' training, as one of three counsellors employed specifically to work with our LGBT communities. “Statistically, people in queer communities are more likely to have problems with over use – and I think that as a community we need to increase our insight,” she reflects.

“There are several ways to know if your substance use is heading towards addiction. The first sign is when ‘social' use becomes more than social, when it begins to increase in importance. Dependence can be emotional – “It makes me feel normal”, “I can only unwind after a ---“. Physical dependence usually follows later, but with some substances it kicks in much quicker than with others. Physical dependence on alcohol, for example, is generally slow to develop but for ‘P', valium and opiates it is much quicker.”

Addiction involves a loss of control over use, where use continues despite harm to self and others and the substance (or substances) become the focal point of your life above all other things, Rands explains. “An indicator of physical dependence is when you have to use more of the substance to get the same effect (tolerance), and when you stop using you experience unpleasant side effects (withdrawal). You get withdrawals because your body has to make changes to the nervous system in order to tolerate the amount of the substance you are putting in. Then when you stop putting it in, your body has to reverse those changes – and it ain't usually pleasant.”

A few warning signs of addiction are:

- Letting others down due to your use;
- Finding you drink/use more than you intended to (on a regular basis);
- Needing a morning drink or hit to make you feel better.

If you're worried about your own use, the litmus test is to see if you can stop all drug and alcohol use for a couple of weeks. This will give you the ultimate insight into the real role the substances play in your life, advises Rands.

Matt Akersten - 3rd July 2007