The shame we experience from society as LGBTQ people can run deep and impacts many aspects of our lives. In this honest account, Riaan Norval writes about coming out yet another closet – this time as an addict.
Superman was an alien, an outsider with a hidden identity. Clark was a geek, not a man’s man. Misunderstood. As a young boy, I loved Superman. Not because he wore his underpants on the outside, but because he was underestimated as Clark, and yet he stood for the greater good.
Both my older brother and I were ‘good’ children. Adults and teachers always used to comment on how ‘good’ we were. I was kind, caring, bubbly, always singing and sensitive. No one tells you when you grow older that the world is not always kind to people who are kind, caring, bubbly and sensitive. To many, these are signs of weakness and not how a man should act. Like many gay teens, I was made aware of this through hurtful remarks like fag and ‘moffie’ and being physically bullied too.
Adolescent years have been called ‘The Wonder Years’ but for others like me, they were more like the wandering years. Years of ‘straight’-acting, hiding, trying not to stand out too much, faking, trying to change. I even chose to go to a boys’ high school at the end of standard five because I believed it would make me straight. How ironic that the Johannesburg School of Arts was across the road from my chosen school.
Struggling with religion and sexuality is not a new phenomenon:
When I look back upon my life its always been a sense of shame I’ve always been the one to blame For everything I long to do No matter where or when or who Has one thing in common too It’s a sin
-Pet Shop Boys
The first person I ever told I was gay was someone at Rhema church, when I was 16 who said that ‘this’ was not what God wanted for me and that I needed to believe and pray that God could rectify this. As he attempted to exorcise this “demon” to leave my body I wept and thought to myself: “What the hell does he think I have been doing for all these years? I had prayed, pleaded and bargained with God. I’d made promises to God and begged, but nothing about me changed.”
I no longer felt I was welcome when it came to Christianity and I began to perceive God as a judgmental white daddy-type, with a perfect son I could never compete with. I resented not feeling like I was man enough, that I didn’t belong. Not in society, not around my peers and definitely not in church. I knew nothing about what being gay was and I desperately needed something that made more sense to me.
When I came out at 19 I had a journal in which I collected various quotes, poems and song lyrics. I cherished them. I gave each one a different font and color and some I glued into the book. When I close my eyes now I can see the entries page after page because I read it so often it has been permanently etched into my mind. The one entry was photocopied, glued in and folded over. When you unfolded it, it had a prayer in it and at the bottom, I drew a serene ocean with color pencils with a setting sun. The prayer was:
God, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change The courage to change the things I can And the wisdom to know the difference
A couple of weeks ago at 7:30 in the morning, I stood in a circle holding hands with five strangers around a big mosaiced coffee table with the word HOPE on it. As we said this prayer I had major déjà vu. I now knew what this prayer was about…
My name is Riaan I’m gay I’m HIV-positive I’m a recovering addict I recently came out of rehab
Some of you might think “Jeez Louise! How many more closets is this guy gonna come out of?” (Just one more closet, which is probably the one in my studio stuffed with files, cables, paint, old school certificates and other arb shit). I can already imagine some of you thinking “Shame!” after having read my confession above. Perhaps I have triggered a ting-ting-ting like at the 5 ‘ront’ slot machine at Montecasino. But before you run to get the tomatoes, eggs and other groceries from the kitchen to chuck at me, I’m going to ask you to please reconsider, as groceries are expensive.
You might expect this to be the moment where the violins come in, where I’m stripped of my robes and made to Cersei Lannister down the street, like in a bad sequel to ‘Games of Shame’, but I’m not here for anyone’s judgment. Sorry, but this is not how this is gonna go down. This is a story of liberation and a celebration of how fucked we all are. I am not gonna blame anyone else or try and justify my behavior. I’m not a victim.
I’ve had an on-and-off substance abuse habit for almost 22 years, and for the last 12 years I have been using meth frequently. I can honestly say that if it had not been for my drug-use I would probably not be HIV-positive today. The last two years I have been slowly morphing into Sue Ellen Ewing.
A couple of weeks ago I was driving to work, and I knew enough was enough. It wasn’t my rock-bottom, that happened years ago with my HIV diagnosis, but it was still a major moment of reckoning. I had no real plan of action, but I knew something had to change. I confided in my boss, Nina and told her about my addiction. I hated what I had become. I had been putting up a happy front on social media, but the reality was that I had become a recluse. I was living a lie, I felt like a fraud and. that I couldn’t be an authentic voice in my community until I faced my own inner demons. I needed to go to rehab and (unlike Amy Winehouse) she said “Go! Go! Go!”.
The day I booked myself in I sat outside The Foundation Clinic’s gate for like 20 minutes and just cried. I was emotionally shattered and had to build up the courage to go through that gate. As I drove in, David Collins (from The Foundation Clinic) walked up to greet me. He asked me “What are you feeling?”. “Shame”, I replied. He hugged me and all I could do was cry.
I had all these preconceived ideas of what I thought rehab was: a mixture of Clockwork Orange, Girl Interrupted, with people strapped to beds screaming while withdrawing and someone (kinda scary looking) rocking in the corner in an agitated sweaty state. Not so much. It was nothing like that.
I was put on a detox programme and slept for four days. When I finally had to integrate with the other people in the house, I thought to myself “Fucking great! I am stuck for four weeks with people I have nothing in common with, no cellphone, limited contact with the outside world… This is going to be a challenge.” I thought to myself; at least I didn’t inject, at least I wasn’t doing heroin, at least I didn’t steal, at least I didn’t lose everything and end up on the street, and so the list of comparing myself to others and self-righteousness continued.
I encountered so many different people from all walks of life. Crack addicts, coke addicts, cat addicts, sex addicts, meth, gambling, sex, alcohol… Initially, the one thing we had in common was addiction, later on, our connection became so much more. I met some of the most wonderful people in rehab and in the support groups. They were kind, caring, good people. People who have become good friends. I realised that addiction is not a moral issue but an issue of the soul. Listening to the numerous shares and stories of people in recovery, I became conscious of how severe this problem really is: The world is a fucked-up place, and everyone is just trying to survive and carry on.
Almost every person you know personally or have met in your own life, has a story that can break the heart. Some move through their challenges unscarred, some live in denial, some are not even aware that they are still affected by their childhood in their adult lives. Some find healthy ways of coping, others are completely oblivious to the fact that they might be addicted to work, nicotine, selfie affirmation on social media, self-medication or even food. Others don’t know why they act destructively or irrationally towards people in their lives. So many people have no idea who they are or are completely unaware of how they mistreat other people.
When do you ever get the opportunity to step out of life for four weeks just to focus on yourself? Where you get taught life skills that are so brilliant and easy to grasp that you ask yourself: Why are these things not taught at school? Never underestimate the long-term repercussions of trauma, fear, hate and shame. Negative, unresolved issues and feelings are toxic, and we are exposed to it on a daily basis. The stigma around addiction is a major problem but the core issues are left out of the discussion.
There are many public opinions about addiction. Most people (especially people who have not been in active addiction or have not been exposed to it), view it as narcissism, selfishness or just a need to have fun. Then there have been numerous studies around a genetic predisposition to addiction. One of the things I had to do in rehab was tell my life story and to explore my family tree. In my family (my parents not included), from my grandparents right down my lineage, I counted 21 alcoholics and two other addicts. Some have even died because of their addiction. So, am I saying I am not to blame? In some ways, I am not (and neither are the people in my family for their own addiction problems) but in other ways I am.
When I entered the gay club scene, the first gay club I ever went to was a club called Krypton. As a student, I worked as a barman at a fabulous place called Pandora’s Box where I also had my very first E (ecstasy pill). I experienced my own (smaller) real-life version of the film Studio 54, (only Ryan Phillipé was Riaan, Me Hey). Irony much?
When you come from a world where you don’t feel welcome and you enter a whole new world where you have people you can relate to, you feel at home. If you take a broken soul, maybe with a predisposition to addiction, put them in the right time, the right place then you have the perfect recipe for a kiki trip to LaLa-land. I’m not going to bullshit you, drugs are fun! It’s a great way to escape. For a while drugs and alcohol are a solution…until they become the problem.
The longer and more you live in that world, the more you become immersed in it. You meet great people, you build your own ‘families’. But you also see the cliques, the bitchiness, the competitiveness, the need to fit in, to be part of certain groups, to look a certain way. The same fucking cycle (as school) all over again. Its only in hindsight that I realised I was surrounded by souls who had been hurt in the past just like me. A lot of straight people who dabble in this club culture, meet a partner, get married have children. They move on. For the gay club kid, you end up in Never Never Land where everyone is a Peter Pan (and quite a few Tinkerbells).
Boy George wrote in the musical TABOO, based on his early coming out years in gay club scene in a song Stranger In this world.
Whoever told you that these were the days of our lives The sweet boys they crumble while the wicked ones rise and survive And they’re running our lives
At this point, you might say, “Yeah ok but you had choices within that.”. Yes, I did, and this is the twisted, sad bit. Addiction is like an abusive relationship. You know it’s not good for you, but you keep going back to your bad romance. My one recovery coach, Leigh-Ann, unpacked the word addiction, she explained the Afrikaans word for addiction is ‘verslaaf’. The word ‘slaaf’ means slave.
She went on to say: “It’s like you are a gimp crawling around with a collar around your neck, and addiction is like a dominatrix that follows you around with a stiletto pointed at your head”. I meant to think it, but I accidentally said out loud “That’s kinda HOT!”. In that moment I envisioned a stylised photoshoot with Lady Gaga from the Born This Way album. Later that night I thought about it again and I realised how fucked up it is. You have this entity that follows you around wherever you go that you make excuses for, that you lie for and constantly have to defend. I realised why I was crying in front of the gate of the clinic; because I had to break up with my bad relationship.
This is what is called a culture of addiction. Everything and everyone you are surrounded by is affected by your addiction: friends, family, colleagues, romantic relationships, even pets. You are not in touch with your real self, your heart goes cold and you are not conscious. The path that most addicts end up walking is one of isolation and depression.
In rehab people often speak about the people on the outside, the ones who don’t understand addiction. Somebody in one of the ‘anonymous’ groups spoke about how people in recovery slip, lapse and relapse and often you have to walk on and step over “dead bodies”. These words haunted me. I understood that people in addiction fall and get up and others will remain down, some die. It’s for this reason I choose not to remain silent about my addiction.
David once asked a group of us in wellness “Who of you have people that know you are in rehab and have people who are supportive of your recovery?”. He asked each one in turn. Almost nobody in that room had support and were going through recovery in secret. He saved me until last. My answer, “Every person I have disclosed to is supportive”. I almost cried thinking how terrible it must be to do this alone and how blessed I am to be loved like this.
In my stay, I met quite a few people who came in and left the house. I grew fond of and started to care for these people because no one was wearing a mask and we got to see each other’s dark sides. Amidst the washouts, junkies, slammers and addicts I experienced more honesty and authenticity than I have in years.
Imagine four straight guys (Two Indians, a Portuguese and a black guy) and one Afrikaans gay guy sitting in a circle in rehab. (Sounds like the start of a bad joke, but this was on my last day.) Three of them confessed that coming into the house they were initially very homophobic but then they each said to me: “I love you, my brother”. The one even said: “I love you so much you can even sit on my lap”. My eyes welled up because to me it felt like we really were like brothers.
If you have been immersed in and have worked with the LGBTI community for as long as I have, you have a deep understanding of how much hurt, fear and shame there is. Stigma around HIV, mental health, addiction and even going to rehab is prevalent not only in our community, but the world at large. We need support, love and understanding from one another, not hate, prejudice and discrimination. We need to look at what we share, what we have in common and not focus so much on our differences.
I have had many people tell me how to run my recovery. People in the groups while in rehab and also people on the ‘outside’. What I should or shouldn’t do. “Don’t come out about it, you will regret it.” “You shouldn’t tell this story.” “What are you gonna do when that one finds out?” “Get some credibility behind you before you speak out….” etc. I know that so many of these people have the best intentions at heart but with all due respect, this is my recovery and I choose not to be quiet, I am not going step over dead bodies and carry on faking. I want to live authentically. I choose humility and honesty. This is my spiritual path and decision. This is not just for my own sake, but for all the people who can’t, for the families who have been affected by it and also to try and bring a deeper understanding between the ‘us’ and ‘them’ because if we look very carefully we will realise that we are all the same.
I fought for my community because I understand pain and injustice but within that, I forgot to love and fight for myself. I have hurt a lot of people and have done some fucked up things and for this, I am truly sorry but most of all I regret what I have done to myself.
It took me 42 years to learn this.
I forgive myself I am not my story My Kryptonite was shame My superpower is sensitivity I’m a recovering addict I’m still Ri
Now take these shackles off my feet so I can dance!