One man's quest to battle stigma and shame
Jason Arsenault

Hi. My name is Jason, and I’m an alcoholic and an addict.

It took me a long time to be able to admit that. It took me even longer to say it clearly, boldly, and without shame.

So, how did I get to a place where I could pen an article baring my soul in the opening line?

The beginning of my addiction

Being a gay teen in small-town New Jersey in the 90s wasn’t easy. I was bullied by my classmates. I felt isolated and yearned for more friends. I wanted badly to belong. Most of all, I just wanted to be “normal.” I was uncomfortable with my identity as a gay man, and felt there was no one else like me, or who understood. Nobody in school or in my community seemed to accept me; why should I?

These feelings of insecurity and loneliness catalyzed a lifelong struggle with depression and anxiety. When I was 16, I discovered that drugs and alcohol brought me temporary relief from my emotional pain. Everything terrible I was facing was distorted into an easy, fuzzy, warm state. I wasn’t thinking about my social isolation or the way people treated me when I was drunk. I didn’t know it then, but I eventually learned that people in the LGBTQ community are more likely to suffer drug and alcohol addictions than the general population.

The road to rock bottom

I moved to New York City in 1998, and there I found a community of people like me. I began a career in high fashion and found that my being gay wasn’t something strange or different—rather, it was embraced. Still, the depression that had emerged when I was a teen persisted, and it would come out and rear its head seemingly whenever it pleased. What’s more, I had hardly ceased to drink or use drugs in the years between high school and my career, and in the fast-paced and heavy-partying New York fashion scene there was no shortage of opportunities to use drugs and alcohol. I had never coped with my adolescent trauma or worked on accepting my true self; I had just piled on layers of numbness with alcohol and other drugs.

My addiction and mental health took a turn for the worse when I was diagnosed with HIV in 2000. I felt anger, resentment, and fear of what would happen next. It felt like a death sentence. I felt unworthy of being accepted in society—on a new level of low than I had ever experienced in my past. My self-medicating grew worse.

At some point, I started using crystal meth, which can unfortunately be quite common among gay men. Crystal meth produces feelings of confidence, power, and happiness with one’s self and surroundings. It can also mute feelings of shame and guilt. I’m sure you can understand why, as an HIV-positive gay man who had struggled for much of his adult life with depression and self-acceptance, this drug would have such power over me. I saw crystal meth kill people close to me—but that didn’t change my ways.

Some years were good; some years were bad. I tried to get sober on my own, but it wouldn’t stick. Each time I relapsed and started drinking or using drugs again, the consequences mounted. I eventually stopped showing up for work, ceased my socializing with friends and family, and failed to fulfill my normal adult responsibilities.

In 2014, I hit rock bottom—or as some in the recovery community call it, the “gift of desperation.” I was about to lose my job, a friend had recently passed away from an AIDS-related condition, and I was plagued with depression and a sense of isolation. I had no connection to myself, no self-love; I honestly didn’t even know who I was anymore. I realized I was slowly trying to kill myself through my drug abuse, and that if I didn’t make a change soon, I would die.

The gift of desperation

Part of my tipping point to change was my willingness to finally admit that I had an issue. Despite my life crumbling around me, it took a massive amount of energy and motivation to make the decision to no longer live the way I’d been living. I checked myself into rehab in the summer of 2014.

The first few days I was in treatment were terrifying. I started out in a five-day detox, during which I faced a range of intense and confusing emotions. I repeatedly questioned if I really needed to be there. I also couldn’t do much of anything but sleep at first—my body so exhausted from years of abuse and now detox. But eventually, I started to feel better physically. And once that happened, I could embrace the counseling and wellness activities that ultimately helped me get sober.

Thirty-three days later, my new life began.

The past helps shape the future

One of the primary reasons people don’t seek the help they need for alcoholism or drug addiction is that there’s still enormous stigma attached to addiction. Personally, that’s why I didn’t access treatment for many years when I should have: I didn’t want to be labeled an addict. HIV/AIDS is also still shrouded in stigma. The convergence of these two diseases caused me a lot of trauma and paralyzing shame for many years. I believe that I am sober today because I’ve made peace with my HIV status. Through rehabilitation and continued therapy, I’ve realized that I could live with these two chronic diseases; I’ve realized that I have many reasons to wake up every morning and live my life.

I never imagined that my recovery would, in addition to giving me a renewed sense of hope, also end up shaping my career. For the last year and a half, I’ve worked as a Recovery Coach at the treatment center that saved my life, through which I help individuals maintain their sobriety and healthy lifestyle choices after they leave rehabilitation. After so many years being on the other side of the table, it’s amazing that I’m able to use my experience to help others who are seeking guidance and support for their addiction recovery. This role has given me a higher purpose—which is something I didn’t have before I got sober.

It’s also given me the courage to share my story more widely. Over the past three years that I’ve been sober I’ve realized that my past isn’t anything to be ashamed of. It is simply part of who I am, and it’s contributed to the person that I am today—and to my future. Through embracing my past, my addiction and my HIV-positive status, through examining these issues without judgment, through just talking to others about what I’ve been through and how I arrived at where I am today, I hope that I can help chip away at the still-persisting stigma attached to addiction and HIV. I hope that I can help others realize that we’re all human, and we all face down our demons at some point or another. Most importantly, I hope that this story inspires someone out there who is struggling to get the help that they need.

Jason Arsenault is a Certified Addiction Recovery Counselor and Senior Manager, Recovery Coaching and Community Relations, at Mountainside Treatment Center, in Canaan, Connecticut, which involves connecting Mountainside alumni with resources to help them maintain the healthy lifestyle changes they have learned in treatment. Arsenault has also assisted Mountainside with the development of programming specific to LGBTQ clients. This story was previously published online at The Good Men Project.