Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Live Forum - Let's take a glass together.

I'm currently standing in the glass bar at Sidetrack with about 80 other men. There's a great turnout this evening for the live podcast forum hosted by the Feast of Fools and brought to you by Life Lube.org, with Project CRYSP, The Chicago Task Force on LGBT Substance Abuse and Sidetrack. The topic this evening...Alcohol Use/Abuse in the GLBT Community.

There's a nice mix of men here this evening, everyone seems to be enjoying their surroundings, and might I add, what an interesting place to hold this forum - at Sidetrack - the best Gay Bar in the country.

It looks like they're starting, so lets take a glass together and enjoy the forum. The hosts this evening are Fausto Fernos & Marc Felion, hosts of the Feast of Fools, the #1 downloaded Gay Podcast on iTunes. Joining them on the stage this evening are:

Dr. David McKirnan, Professor of Psychology at University of Illinois at Chicago, and a Research Investigator at Howard Brown. He began studying alcohol & drug use among GLBT people in the mid-80s and he later examined the intersection of substance use & HIV risk. Think of him as the Dr. Kinsey of booze!

Lisa Rivitz, the Program Manager for Recovering with Pride Substance Abuse Program at Howard Brown Health Center. Her work focuses on addictions, 12-step recovery for substance abuse and other compulsive behaviors, working with individuals to overcome their abuse with drugs and alcohol.

And two bartenders from your favorite gay bars in Chicago, from Sidetrack Paul Davis and from Minibar, Tom Andrika. Paul’s been in recovery for as long as he’s been a bartender at Sidetrack, which has been called the “best gay bar in America.” What’s it like to be a bartender at such a well visited place when you don’t touch the sauce?

What does it mean to drink responsibly?

What is our relationship to alcohol. The boys start off by sharing some information about themselves. When Marc & Fausto first started the show four years ago they would always have a cocktail before (or during the show) because their vision of the show was that you (the listener) was stopping by for conversation and cocktails....but they do their show 5 days a week. They decided after a while that doing a show 5 days a week and drinking just didn't mix, so they started making their cocktails with water and continued on with the show, in fact Fausto's mother, who listens to the show, was concerned that he was drinking too much.

As a side note - the boys next to me have decided to play game where they take a drink everytime someone on the panel says "alcohol"

Marc is sharing another story of how he had a friend that he thought was drinking a lot, so he talked with her and voiced his concern. She told him "...from time to time, we all pass out in bars." To which Marc replied, "No, from time to time we don't ALL pass out in bars." Unfortunately due to her drinking problem Marc and she are no longer friends.

People don't think that alcoholism hurts you but a friend of Fausto's stopped drinking cold turkey - and died. Marc's sister died from an upper GI bleed - because she was a chronic alcoholic. Even though you may not think so, alcohol affects your body and your health in ways that you can't imagine.

A Toast: "Alcohol the cause of and the solution of all of life's little problems."

How do you keep track of your cocktails.

Fausto uses an ingenious way, he takes a sharpie and makes an x on the back of his hand - oh wait, no he doesn't, he just said that because David Beckham is the spokesperson for Sharpie and he wanted to work that link in there. Seriously though, after you've had a few drinks, you do sort of lose track of the total number that you've consumed.

Two of the other members of the panel join the boys on the stage: Lisa Rivets and David McKirnan,

Paint a picture of what it means to be GLBT today and what our relationship with alcohol is.

David: Today versus Yesterday....He's been in this field of work for 25 years - longer than most of the men in this room have been alive, and the one thing that sticks out is that there was no forum where GLBT could get together and talk. There's been a cultural shift that you can't over emphasize, the shift that it is. Look where we are? Look at how open it is, you can sit outside it's open, people are walking by on the street and able to see in. 25 years ago your basic gay bar was a smoky closed dump where you could never see in and once you were in you couldn't see out. It was a whole different world and a whole different field of study...and the thing is, that bars were all there were. There were no community centers like Center on Halsted, there was no place where people could converge and have a conversation like this, the bars were it.

We have more choices now

One of the first studies that David did was collecting interviews of coming out stories. At first he was amazed at the sheer number of guys that were kicked out of their homes by their parents. But a huge proportion of those men actually came out in the bars, because that was the only place that they could go.

Lisa: By the time that Lisa see's someone, they're coming to her because they know that they they have a problem. People do have more choices, the people that tend to come to Lisa for help are older men and women who came out in the bars. They typically have more issues with coming out, with socializing, or accepting themselves in the community, they always drank and it was a part of their life - and they still drink.

What is your interest in the GLBT community and Alcohol Use/Abuse?

Lisa: She is a member of that community, she enjoys working with glbt and knows the struggles they go through, she has gotten help for substance abuse in the past and now wants to help others. David's original interest was the connection between GLBT culture and alcohol abuse.

David was doing a study on Wilson Ave and his partner was working as a bartender at Different Strokes. She had mentioned to him that if he was interested in studying a group of people, she should take a look at some of her customers.

They conducted a large survey survey and the results showed that the use of alcohol was much lower than the myth of what was portrayed.

Gays are portrayed as alcoholics

It's the "Hollywood Way" - I've had a rough day so let's have a cocktail. And honestly, what is more stressful then being gay and hiding it. David continues talking about a study that they did comparing Straight Men to Gay Men of different ages and their use of Alcohol and Marijuana.

The graphs he says, look almost exactly the same, except that straight men were more likely to smoke marijuana. But an interesting thing happens around the age of 20, for straight men, the use of alcohol drops off, but gay men continue at that same rate for a much longer time. Typically in a heterosexual lifestyle, around the age of 20 a man will start to settle down, get married, have children - thus the alcohol use drops off.....but it's not the same way for gay men.

When you're gay, there's a lot of pressure. Pressure to feel/be hip, to be in shape, to be stylish. Gay men don't typically settle down at the same age as straight men, instead they're finding out what they want. It is much more acceptable to be an older gay man and be out in the bars drinking and looking for sexual partners than it is to be a heterosexual man in his 40's doing the same thing.

Do younger people struggle differently than their older counterparts? The younger ones are typically using other drugs in addition to alcohol and they're coming in for treatment sooner than they did before. The guys that in their 40's & 50's who seek treatment, are doing so because it's finally catching up to them. You can drink a lot and still not be alcohol dependent.

Why did they drink so much on TV in the 50's-60's & 70's, and we don't do that anymore?

The big difference was because that's what people did. People had bars in their home, they had a drink when they came home from work. TV was just mirroring what was going on in our own homes.

So, are we hiding it better now, are we drinking less?

People are still drinking, but now there is more of a concern about health than there was in the 70's, people are still drinking but they're more healthy. They're working out more, eating better.

Questions from the audience
What is the difference between alcohol and substance use/abuse or is there even one?

The majority of people who are drinkers are not abusers and are not dependent on alcohol. They can go out several times a week and it's jut part of the social experience. The difference is if there is a problem when drinking is involved, there are other signs that show up, they might be late to work, take too much time, spend more money than they intend to, they've given up other activities and suddenly everything centers around going out. Their world becomes more narrow.
Another element that is more relevant, are the motivations for drinking. It's not what you do, but why you do it. You drink with the strong expectation that this is going to make you a better person, more sexy. That is a predictor of problems versus the number of drinks that you consume. It's not what you do, but why you do it. People need to ask themselves: am I going too far, are there consequences, what is the personal cost, why am i doing this? Going back to Fausto's original idea to keep track of drinks - why do I have 6 or 7 marks on my hand when I only intended to have 2?

How can we determine if we are being successful in our moderation? It's when you can wake up the next morning and look at yourself in the mirror - do you feel guilty about what you did? Are you really in control?

How do we determine that the cause of the problem is alcohol?

Are the things that you do when you're drinking, things that you would do when sober. one way self-diagnose is to go for a week without a drink and if you have trouble doing that then sit down and think about why that is.....or whatever the problem is. It's not just alcohol, it could be any substance.

Is social drinking a form of addiction? There are a lot of men in their 60's who were social drinkers and performed well in their lives, but then all of a sudden they were in need of liver transplants. What do you mean by social drinking or are we trying to deny a drinking problem.

The "standard" for alcohol consumption is 2 drinks per day - for men - that's a standard shot, not an overpoured cocktail. For women it's even less, only one shot of alcohol per day, that works out to one glass of wine per day - the problem is, that's not much fun. People are really good at hiding that they're drunk.

A question is asked of the audience: How many people stop at 2 drinks? About 5 out of a hundred raise their hands.

The problem is really denial, we have our emphasis on some very serious drugs - like Crystal Meth. Everyone sees Crystal as the boogey man and they just tell themselves "Well, I'm only drinking, I'm not doing cocaine or crack, I'm just having a few drinks, what's the problem?" It's a form of denial. We seek out things to put the blame on, but we've accepted things in our life as "normal" and we blind ourselves from the real problems. In all honesty, the Crystal Meth issue is not a huge percentage of the GLBT Community, but almost all gay men drink. So alcohol is not seen as a problem because everyone uses it, but meth is a problem because so few people and the effects are so visible.

Why are we having this conversation in a bar?

Because this is the place where people who drink are coming, and we want to reach out to people, to make them aware of their drinking and give them a forum, like this, to be able to talk about it. There is no "one size fits all" solution to reaching people who have substance abuse issue, for some it's abstinence, for others they can moderate their drinking, but the message is that just because you do drink a often doesn't mean that you have to.

Bars are in integral part of our community, they are an interwoven piece of our community. The openness of the forum is a big thing and the message that it's healthy to have a bar that is not just a place to go and get cooked, there are other things that you can do there. That's why we're holding the forum here.

Tom Adrica from Mini Bar and Paul Davis from Sidetrack join the rest of the panelists on the stage.

How did you become bartenders in the first place, was this a dream job for you, or did you just settle?

Paul: He started at Sidetrack about 14 years ago as a doorman, he really just started working here as a job, he didn't drink but he could still hang out, meet people, have a few bottles of water and have a good time. He enjoyed being a doorman, but then he saw how much money he could make as a bartender. Sidetrack treats their employees well, they have Health Insurance, Dental Insurance, it's a good place to work.

What is the worst thing that you've seen?

One time he had to chase after someone who was having a bad drug reaction to anti-depressants and alcohol - they were running around the street in circles yelling and screaming.

Do you see yourselves as nurses, do you feel a certain responsibility that goes along with your position?

Absolutely! Sidetrack (as well as other bars) go through a lot of training with their bartenders, teaching them how they can approach someone who has had too much to drink, how they can help someone that may have met their limits. One thing in the state of Illinois is that if a person does anything while under the influence, the bartender is liable, everyone that interacted with that person (the doorman, the valet) is liable, so it's important to be able to see those signs in a person and react when necessary.

Have you ever had to take someone's keys.

Paul has a customer that he knows drives here and when he sees that his customer has had too much to drink he'll politely ask for the guys keys. Paul has a good rapport with his customers and he doesn't "point out" that someone has had too much to drink, instead he'll place a water in front of them to help them out.

What's the formula that you use to determine when to cut someone off?

Again it all comes down to training. The ability to see the signs and the behaviours, are they stumbling, slurring their speech, can you ask them a question and get an answer.

What can we do as friends to help our friends? How can we approach friends who may have a drinking problem?

Lisa: You can't take care of them, but you can express your concern. Explain to them the changes that you've seen in their behaviour, tell them about the things they used to do and what they do now. You can tell them what you see and you can suggest that they should get help, but they have to do it themselves.

What happens when you've shared that information with someone and they don't take your advice?

Paul: I cut people out of my life that told me I had a drinking problem, it was denial. Denial could be you standing there with a big sign up in the air saying "you drink too much" but to me it would be "why are you holding your arm up in the air?" You can be very accomplished at what you do and it will never occur to you that you should drink less.

Lisa: A lot of time when people seek us out for help, it may be because they were forced there, perhaps a DUI or work, or a lover - someone who has made the point and they've seen that they have a problem. You, as a friend, can help push them closer to that contemplation that they become aware that they have a problem, but they need to make that choice for help themselves. Some may listen and some may not.

Paul is a recovering alcoholic, does that make you nervous or anxious to see someone struggle with alcohol?

Paul: It doesn't make me nervous about my own drinking at all, when I work on a Saturday night and I see everyone partying and carrying on he is affirmed in his choice to not drink. A lot of people don't know that Paul is a recovering alcoholic and they want to do shots with him, he doesn't advertise that he doesn't drink, so while he'll make a Kool-aid shooter for them, he'll fill up a shot glass with cranberry juice and drink along with them and in fact there have been times when did "come out" to people an they chose to stop drinking after that, because they saw that you could still carry on and not drink.

David drinks, but Lisa doesn't - do you have anxiety regarding your own issues when you're helping out others with alcohol abuse?

For Lisa, she knows that anyone that comes to her for help has a chance of never having that problem again, and she wants to help as many people as she can. It doesn't make her falter about her own decisions because she sees the devastation that people have caused in their lives.

There is a lot of alcohol sponsorships in the GLBT Community, the Pride Parade has beer floats, brewers sponsor our events. What can we do as a community to address our collective issue with alcohol?

Paul: These are businesses, people, that are giving our community money,whether it be for good or ill. It's a fact: gay people like to drink and they choose to give their money back to those businesses that are supporting them in the community. I'm sure that if SC Johnson (a family company) had different programs we might be using more of their products. It just happens to be alcohol, but not all alcohol companies are supported - for example Sidetrack will not serve Coors because of what the organization supports.

Are we over reliant on money from alcohol companies?

I don't think so, I mean how much money is too much money? A lot of organizations have stopped taking tobacco money because of it's health effects. Are we so puritanical that we say we can take money from this group but not this group, it's not just alcohol, there are also a lot of automobile manufacturers that have donated money. Who do we say no too?

What do you feel you've learned over the years through your work?

Tom: he's been a manger and a bartender, he gets to step back and see other peoples reactions throughout the night. He used to be that "weekend warrior" or the person that had to celebrate his birthday for a week, but now he can say "No."

Lisa: It takes tremendous courage to become to a therapist and to say that I have a problem with alcohol, it's an honor for her to work with those people who have decided that it's time to get help.

David: Speaking as a researcher, it's always about getting funded. People don't fund projects on things they already know, so there's always that element of searching out the problems in a community whether it is alcohol, HIV or syphilis. He has seen the health and resilience of the gay community grow and expand.

Paul – the best hing about this job is that I get to meet people. The one thing that I've noticed is that they come to me for help, being on the other side of the fence he's able to offer advice and still remain friends with them and if someone does decide to stop drinking they still come to him because he's their friend.


Wow, what a great forum, please be sure to check out the Podcast version of the show over at the Feast of Fools

Keep a look out for the next Forum being held in November on "Booty Health"

For more info: Check out and subscribe to the Feast of Fools and please check out the sponsors of this great event: Life Lube.org, Project CRYSP, and Sidetrack.

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