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A Way Out

Editor’s note: Respecting the tradition of anonymity within Alcoholics Anonymous, only first names of members are used in this  story from 2005. 
He was sick of lying and tired of living a double life. Jack needed to tell his dad he was gay. It was a matter of finding the courage.  Whiskey gave him the confidence to conquer his shame and fear. Eight shots of Canadian Mist numbed him for the expected rejection.Through slurred words and tears, the 36-year-old deli worker from Palatine confessed his secret.  The reaction surprised him. Jack’s drinking, not being gay, was his dad’s biggest concern.A blurb in a local paper led Jack to recovery. He said his life was saved when he found a group called A Way Out.  The Alcoholics Anonymous chapter in Libertyville is the only one in Lake County with a mission to reach gays. Its purpose is to “carry the AA message of recovery from alcoholism to the alcoholic who still suffers and to provide a safe haven for the gay as well as the straight community of alcoholics.”  It is one of 33 others in the state focusing on the gay alcoholic. Beyond Chicago, groups are meeting in Palatine, Naperville, Winfield, Lombard, Hinsdale, Geneva and Joliet. The number of all types of AA groups in the Chicago area numbers nearly 4,000.

Marking its fourth anniversary, A Way Out has grown from just four people to more than 40 at its last meeting. Nearly 70 showed up to an informational gathering recently. Members say the group’s reputation for “open mindedness” and a “hard core” commitment to the AA principles is drawing straight and gay people from all parts of the county. “This is a place where you know you’ll be embraced,” said founding member Lark.

A Way Out’s members say they’ve worked hard to create a safe, compassionate environment for gays that may not exist in straight groups. The group doesn’t keep track of which members are gay or straight, but organizers guess it’s about equally divided right now. “Nobody gets labeled in this group,” Lark explained. “Openness and inclusiveness are part of the climate here. People can be comfortable in their own skin.”

Therapists working with gay alcoholics say a recovery group where people can be truthful about who they are is essential. “If a gay person doesn’t feel free to talk about problems with their lover, they’re in the wrong group,” says Dr. Sheppard Kominars. The author of the book “Accepting Ourselves and Others,” the San Fransisco-based doctor has been running recovery workshops for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered since 1982. “Dishonesty about who you are intensifies the problem,” Kominars said.

Jack’s self-anesthetic is common for those in the gay community. In many cases, the stress from living dual lives and the resulting guilt pushes many to the bottle.  There are studies claiming the rate of alcoholism among gays to be three times higher than straights. But the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says there hasn’t been a large enough nationwide survey to prove the case either way.  Experts say the stigma of being gay in a straight society contributes to a sense of disgrace for some.  “Nothing drives addiction more than shame,” said Joe Amico, president of National Association of Lesbian and Gay Addiction Professionals. “You can’t be gay in this society and not carry some level of shame.”

A Way Out member, Janet, agrees. “People look down on us,” said the 44-year-old Libertyville resident. “We hear the slurs — the effeminate tone of voice — the ‘that’s so gay’ line.”  Janet says she was tired of people asking her why she’s not married, and getting drunk took the edge off.  “It made me comfortable,” she said. “Drinking gave me the courage to be myself. It was those times I’d feel strong enough to admit I was gay.”

Jack admits it’s gotten easier to be “out,” especially because TV shows involving gay characters are more popular. However, the shows often worsen stereotypes.  “I don’t know a thing about fashion — or how to wear your hair. When my friends realized that I wasn’t like ‘Jack’ on ‘Will and Grace,’ they were disappointed,” he said.

Both Jack and Janet said people outside the gay community don’t understand how stressful hiding is.  “How many gay couples do you see walking hand-in-hand at the mall ~ or how about at church?” Janet said. “We’re hiding the whole time. We don’t feel safe in this society.”  But members are also quick to say blaming others for their addiction runs counter to core AA principles. “I take full responsibility for my drinking problem,” Jack said.

The straight people who join A Way Out say they’re drawn by how well the AA program is run and its emphasis on recovery.  “I couldn’t care less about someone’s sexual orientation,” said Don. “The quality of sobriety and practicing the AA principles outweigh any sexual agenda.”  Alcoholics Anonymous has developed other specialized groups focusing on pilots, doctors, hearing impaired and atheists.

Janet says she appreciates the gay-friendly atmosphere, but sobriety is the chief issue.  “We are so strong in the AA traditions,” she said. “We’re about recovering from alcoholism, that’s our primary mission.”