As the pandemic fuels addiction and mental health concerns, UNtoxicated Queers helps people in the LGBTQ+ community who are battling drugs and alcoholS
aturday at 6 p.m. seems like a strange time for a support group meeting. But for people recovering from substance use, the call of addictive behaviours is strongest on Saturday night.
Patrick Maubert and Liane Khoury know how hard it is, so they decided that was the perfect meeting time for their sober support group, UNtoxicated Queers.
“This is when people are starting to think about using or drinking in order to go out for the night, you know? So we’re like, let’s do a meeting right before and help them with that,” says Khoury, a mental health promotor with Nova Scotia Health.
UNtoxicated Queers is a Halifax-based sober support group for the LGTBQ+ community, which meets (currently via Zoom) two Saturdays per month. It grew from OUT Alive, an LGBTQ+ mental health and addictions project. Maubert, a social work student and harm reduction advocate, took over leadership last year, changing the name and structure of the project, but keeping its ethos.
The guiding principle is harm reduction, reducing the harmful effects of substance use rather than promoting strict abstinence. But they aim to welcome people whether they’re adhering to abstinence-based recovery or if they’re taking another approach.
Maubert says that although the harm-reduction and abstinence approaches don’t typically mix, UNtoxicated Queers affirms both.
“Coming together is essential, especially with our population,” Maubert says. “Learning from each other with different perspectives has been, I think, quite beneficial.”
Meetings focus on sharing, listening, and mindfulness. They start with introductions, a safer spaces statement, and a land acknowledgement. Then, the group will pick three topics related to recovery and queerness, and members will share their thoughts and emotions with each other. The meeting ends with a five-minute guided meditation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a dramatic increase in anxiety and loneliness for many Canadians. According to Statistics Canada, Canadians who reported poor mental health during the pandemic were also more likely to report an increase in alcohol and drug use.
In a study of the experiences of queer Canadians during the pandemic, LGBTQ+ participants scored higher than non-LGBTQ+ participants on scales measuring depression, anxiety, stress, and symptoms of PTSD. LGBTQ+ participants were also more likely to use drugs and alcohol to cope. In a survey of American LGBTQ+ university students, 32% of respondents reported that they were drinking more alcohol since the pandemic started.
“Looking at addictions and how prevalent it is within the queer community brings it home,” says Maubert, who is also in recovery, “the numbers are staggering.”
UNtoxicated Queers is creating a space for those who do not feel comfortable in groups populated primarily by cis-gender and heterosexual people.
Peri (name changed due to privacy concerns) has been attending UNtoxicated Queers since December 2020. She says she was looking for a sober support group that would fully accept her as a queer, transgender woman.
“You just don’t know how people are going to react to that,” Peri says. “it was another barrier to entry of not only going to a sober support meeting, but also being queer and trans in a space that’s usually kind of dominated by cis-het people.”
Peri felt more comfortable opening up about her recovery because she knew that other members of the group were coming from similar backgrounds. She says that people are able to share traumatic experiences, struggles with shame, or stories of marginalization in an understanding space.
“People [in the group] that I really respect and admire and I think are doing really, really good work and live good lives, they also struggle with the same type of stuff that I deal with,” Peri says.
Peri knows how difficult it can be to take the leap and join a sober support group. She’s already been telling the queer people in her own life about positive experience she’s had with the group.
She says that people are often hesitant to join a sober support group because they don’t want to be defined as a “real” addict. She says there’s a built-in confidentiality clause: what someone shares in a meeting stays in that meeting.
“I always get really excited when someone is like ‘this is my first meeting,'” Peri says. “Every [meeting] I’ve ever been in is really encouraging of people joining.”
Keegan (last name withheld), a queer man, learned about UNtoxicated Queers after entering rehab in Annapolis Valley last year for cocaine addiction. He decided to attend a meeting after trying other meetings where he felt that he couldn’t be open about his queer identity.
“UNtoxicated Queers has definitely given me a safer environment to really explore what sobriety means to me,” he explains. “I’m not feeling like this lone wolf in these other meetings where I, a lot of the time, was the only queer person.”
He says that UNtoxicated Queers isn’t as rigid as groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, where participants stick to a prescribed program. Such programs can be effective, but he says that UNtoxicated Queers can be more accessible for newcomers or people who don’t feel they’re able to be completely sober.
“Even if your goal is just to use less on a weekend or something, that’s still valid,” Keegan says.
For decades, gay bars have been safe havens for members of the LGBTQ+ community to gather together and be themselves. They continue to provide specifically queer spaces where LGBTQ+ people can meet, interact, dance, watch drag shows, and yes, consume alcohol and other substances.
Although gay bars are meant to be positive spaces, they can be alienating for members of the LGBTQ+ community recovering from problematic substance use. Keegan says he feels like he’s missing out on parts of LGBTQ+ life because he doesn’t feel comfortable in gay bars at the moment.
“Even if I look at Pride, it almost became synonymous for me as a week where I was going to go on a coke binge,” Keegan says.
He hopes that when in-person gatherings are allowed again, groups like UNtoxicated Queers can create more sober queer spaces and events.
Maubert and Khoury are both on the board of Halifax Pride, and they’re aiming to change the association between Pride events and heavy drinking and substance use. In the summer of 2020, they held one of the first-ever in-person UNtoxicated Queers events as part of Halifax Pride.
“It was really nice, not having the pressure to drink at Pride,” Khoury says.
They want to begin having more in-person sober events once they’re able to safely. Until then, they’re going to continue holding UNtoxicated Queers twice a month.
“When we talk about our experiences on such an open and honest level, it’s magical,” says Keegan. “It just makes you proud to be queer. It makes you proud that we have some imagination in our community that allows for such a broader way to tackle substance use and to really validate each other’s pain, whatever that may be.”