Season 1 Episode 7:
Substance Abuse & Addiction


Phil: Hey, this is Phil aka Corinne.

Alex: And I’m Alex Berg. And you’re listening to…

Phil: The I’m From Driftwood Podcast.

Alex: So today, we are going to be hearing two stories that are about addiction and substance abuse. One of those stories comes from Ashley Jackson, from Brandon, Mississippi. In Ashley’s story, she talks about how she was drinking excessively as a way of kind of numbing her feelings about being gay. And she specifically talks about one night…

Ashley: I was seeing a woman when I was 21. She was a little bit older than me. You know, I was telling myself I’m not really gay. I just liked her as a person. And I was seeing a guy at the same time and they both knew about each other, but I was… I was kind of going through the motions with him, obviously really cared for her, but it was a very unhealthy relationship.

On my birthday, which is Christmas Eve, I had been out with friends and they were buying me shots and it was great. And the girl I was seeing came to one of the bars I was at and she’s like, “Oh, I’m going to take you to go see a friend. It’s gonna be great.”

And I was like, “I’m really close to home. I’ve been drinking a lot. I should just go home.”

And she was like, “No.” And she convinced me and so I went with her. And we ended up having a huge argument because she was upset that I was seeing the guy. And I ended up attempting to drive myself, which I should not have done.

You know, I was like, Yeah, people get in accidents. They have DUIs, whatever. That’s not going to happen to me that only happens to those other people that are complete idiots. You know, that’s… it won’t happen. I passed out driving on the interstate. I was not wearing a seatbelt and I fell into the passenger seat as I was driving.

And I remember telling myself, Okay, Ashley, you’re driving. You need to get up. And when I did that, I used my left hand on the wheel as leverage to pull myself up. And I did that and I jerked the car to the left and it went over four lanes on the interstate and smashed into a concrete guardrail.

I don’t know how long I was there. I don’t know who found me. But I ended up in the… in the hospital for over a week and shattered my left ankle. I had 50+ stitches in my face. And had to move back in with my mom.

It was easy to drink all the time. And you know, that was one thing I could control in my life. I couldn’t control the feelings I had for women. I couldn’t control what other people would think about me being in a relationship with a woman, but I could drink. And that made me fun. And that made it easier to date guys. Or to be in reckless relationships and, you know, unprotected sex and being promiscuous and all of these things.

Having that self destructive life led to me almost killing myself, unintentionally driving on an interstate at 70 miles per hour, no seatbelt and flying across and not hitting anyone else and surviving. If that’s not a wake up call, I don’t know what it is.

I realized I was hiding from who… who I was born to be. And, I couldn’t do that anymore. I couldn’t live my life for other people anymore. And I told myself, Okay, you’re gay.

Phil: One of the things that I found so sort of riveting about the story was this idea of using drinking to sort of control things such as she felt that she couldn’t control.

Alex: There’s a piece of Ashley’s story that was really scary. It reminded me of other conversations I’ve had with LGBTQ people who have struggled with substance abuse and, in particular, with drinking excessively. When I think about drinking and LGBTQ people in particular, I definitely think of that idea of numbing yourself to having to deal with these feelings. And also using drinking as that, like, social lubricant that people call it.

Also, it made me think about how a lot of LGBTQ social life revolves around drinking and bars. And I know that those are, like, two very separate tracts, like the idea of using booze to numb your feelings, but kind of in tandem with using bars as a space to meet and socialize with LGBTQ people. I feel like those are two reasons why this is like a uniquely LGBTQ experience around substance abuse.

Phil: You know, in Ashley’s story, she just talks about like, “I crossed it four lanes of traffic and hit the guardrail and didn’t die. You know, it’s like, if that’s not a wake up call, I’m not sure what it is.” And it just kinda makes me think like, What am I running from? Like, what am I running from that would create this behavior? 

Alex: And then also have to go through just the healing process. Like, she talks pretty specifically about, I think, shattering her ankle, some of the injuries she sustained. Moving back in with her parent. And with every step of that, having to tell your parents or people around you what happened and having to be accountable for that. Like, I feel like there are so many steps and pieces of that story that just… I would imagine to be so hard to deal with. Yeah.

Phil: It’s true. Because there’s a level of ownership you have to take. When you’re retelling that story, you have to hold yourself accountable in some ways to say, Wow, I made a really bad decision.

So the next story you want to talk about is Vernon Magsino from Chicago, Illinois.

Vernon: I was 15 years old.

And I was in my sophomore year of high school. I was on my way to class and I was passing by the football field and saw the guys practicing. And it was the first time when my life where I’m like, Wait a minute. Why am I, like, thinking of those boys in a different way than most other people were.

And I thought to myself, Maybe I am gay. And that was the very first time in my life I thought about that. So that same morning, went to scripture class and my teacher got up to the podium and told us, “Today, we’re going to learn about Sodom and Gomorrah.” And I… my hands shook. I had to shake onto my desk, thinking whatever I thought that morning. It’s like maybe the thought I was gay. What do I do now? Who do I talk to? I can’t tell anybody.

And then, so, you know, in college years drugs came into the picture. I got kicked out because my grades were failing and I ended up moving back to here to Chicago, to my parents’ house, getting a $7 per hour retail job being a cashier because that’s all I was capable of doing. Because in the evenings, I was still doing drugs and the weekends doing drugs, and living in the base of my parents’ house thinking that that was going to be my life.

On December 30th of 2002, I went to an after hours party. I went there like I normally do to my friend’s place, you know, just going to hang out. And one of my friends came over and he told us, “Hey, guess what guys? I have something new.” It was crystal meth, but at the time they called it Tina. So I did it and it felt amazing.

New Year’s Eve was the next day. So we were going to a party at a hotel in downtown Chicago the next night. I’d been awake for 40 hours. I hadn’t slept in 40 hours because of this new drug I just tried. And, you know, because it made me feel like Superman.=, I thought I could tell anybody anything.

At the stroke of midnight, I jumped on the table. “Guess what, everybody! I’m gay!” I had spent nine years hiding the fact that I was gay and now I’m out. I’m out to everybody.

I only used drugs at first because things were going great, but then things were not going so great. And it got to a point where I OD’d. I OD’d on crystal meth and other drugs on January 31st of 2005. And at that point after I became so dismal in my life, I became powerless over crystal meth. I didn’t care at that point if I lived or died, but I didn’t want to use, but only thing I knew what to do was use.

And it got to the point where I was living with this guy here in Chicago and I hadn’t slept in 17 days. And I’ve passed out on the couch. He proceeds to, while I was sleeping, to call my parents up in the middle of the night demanding them to put him up in the hotel because the FBI was after him because of me. And my parents removed him from that situation and brought me back to their house.

I woke up the next – very next day and they brought me to treatment. At the treatment center, one of the things that the intake person said, “Why are you here?”

And I said, five simple words. “I don’t want to die.” You know, I’m in there for a few days. They teach me about how to live my life; how to have safety, security, wellbeing. And my treatment center started telling me that I needed to start getting support groups outside of the treatment center because I was only going to be there for four weeks.

I went to my first meeting and I met 30 gay men who are not using drugs and/or

crystal meth… maybe there is something to sobriety. Maybe there is something to my treatment, what my counselors had been telling me. The capacity for me to become sober is a gift… is God’s given gift. Like, I have a right to live.

Alex: This story so clearly illustrates the connection between coming out and using various substances. Because he talks about how meth made him feel like, I think he says, Superman at one point, that he was literally his first time, his first weekend using it, he was literally able to like stand up on a table in front of all of his friends and pronounce to everyone that he was gay. The drug made him feel that way because he had never been affirmed in other spaces.

So to me, it was just, like, such a clear-cut connection the impact that these different kinds of substances can have on you and how they can make you express yourself in ways you don’t feel safe to otherwise.

Phil: Like, he was clearly very fearful about coming out. And even though it sounds like years past, he was still not in a place where he felt like he had seen good examples of what it was like to just be an out person, not leaning on these substances.

I can imagine that for – maybe for Vernon and I’m not sure if I actually heard this in the story or felt this, but it made me think when he was in rehab for four weeks, what it must feel like if you’re in a rehab facility where you’re finally not using, you’re finally feeling like you have a grip on this disease. And then you realize in four weeks, you’re going to have to kind of reintegrate yourself back into life, which is why again, why the support groups are so very important.

But now you’re back on your own and you’re not in this cocoon of like where you’re in an environment that’s very much geared to you’re, like, staying clean, sober, and it must be kind of scary to think. Okay, now in four weeks, I am kind of on my own in a way. That has to be a little frightening.

Alex: I’ve heard people say, like, you have to change your people, places and things. So when we have a lot of these conversations, we try to bring a lot of compassion and empathy and understanding. But I just had to have a moment where I, like, reminded myself that not everybody is that understanding and, like, not everybody is going to – is always willing to like change their Saturday night plan to be more accommodating to a friend who doesn’t want to go out and drink.

Phil: Do you think, though, that the being a good friend and being supportive to somebody who’s maybe suffering from substance abuse problems, do you think it’s about just having a conversation with them or do you think it’s about you yourself getting resources outside of that person, just to understand maybe more about, you know, in terms of being a supportive friend?

Alex: I mean, I definitely, from having many friends who’ve gone through this, like I definitely have had to get resources and I definitely have had to be really upfront with friends being like, How is it that I need to support you? Do you want me to go to a meeting with you? Like, what can I literally do with my time to provide a distraction so that we can go do something that, like, makes you feel good that doesn’t have to do with putting you into a situation where you might feel tempted to drink or something like that?

And I even think about like, Pride. Like, Pride is a time that is intended to celebrate and remind us of the various social movements and uprising that led to the progress of LGBTQ people. But some people only see Pride as a time to party. Being a sober person could be really challenging because every social activity inevitably ends up somehow being connected to partying.

Phil: I completely agree. I used to feel so overwhelmed at Pride. Like I had to do it all. I had to go all the parties. I had to do all these things. So I can’t imagine if you’re struggling with an addiction, what that must be like.

Alex: What you were saying just reminded me of how in Vernon’s story, he talks about how he was only in rehab, I think, for four weeks. And one of the things that he was told in rehab is that he really needed to start connecting with groups that could support him outside of rehab. And I know just from hearing stories of people in my life that, like… when I was coming out, I used to go out all the time. I mean, I had this very close group of friends who would go out all the time to every queer or lesbian party. And of that very close-knit group of me, plus four other queer-identified, primarily women, three of them are now clean and sober. And then unfortunately one of them ended up passing away.

And to me, just these tangentially related to substance abuse. But to me, it was like this various spectrum among them of once that partying turned into something more. I felt like that was a piece of my growth in my early twenties and being able to go out to parties and enjoy it. And that’s what it was for me. But yeah, now, whenever I try to hang out with people, I always try to offer, like, a range of options of stuff we can do with those. Yeah. Like, well, like with those friends, it went from being like, Okay, we’re going to go to the bar. We’re going to have some drinks… to, like, all of a sudden, Okay, like we’re going to go have a cup of tea. Or like, We’re going to go for a walk. Or we’re going to go get a coffee or go to dinner. And that’s what it’s going to be.

And it just made me think of, like, the easiest asks that I have now in my life is that I give people a range of options and I try not to assume what their relationship is like with alcohol or that going to get a drink is always going to be the best default for them.

Phil: Yeah. That’s… that’s really interesting. I’m so sorry to hear about your friend. There is so much more to it and there, again, are usually underlying issues that are driving it that make it so that it’s not a matter of just turning off the switch and deciding I’m going to stop. 

So when you think about, okay, you know, I don’t want to lose these friends. I don’t want to lose these people who have been in my life, who I love and who I enjoy being around, but when it comes to your life and if this is life or death, then it involves maybe removing some of that. Just saying, I have to restructure. 

Alex: Yeah. And it also makes me just wish that there were more queer-competent and specific resources. Like, I’ve had some friends who went to various groups and meetings and organizations, and they felt like the people who were guiding them and had built these organizations, said it was very geared towards white straight men. Or, like, a particular kind of person that did not match their experience. And some of those unique issues that LGBTQ people would face. And so that sobriety or being clean was, like, framed in a very particular way that felt very alienating to them.

Phil: Yeah. And I think that that’s the problem because there are a lot of places that will tout themselves as being able to treat LGBTQ people, but they’re not really addressing those underlying issues. And so therefore they’re not necessarily the best places for LGBTQ people to get the treatment that they need.

Vernon: So now I’ve been sober for 12 years. Exactly 64,626 days. And those are 64,626 miracles. The drug addict or alcoholic, or if you don’t even know who you are, there are so many ways to get sober. So if you need help or you’re seeking help, there is a way. There is recovery. There are ways you can not pick up.

Phil: So when you talk about the differences between substance abuse and addiction, these two stories sort of clearly define what both of those things are. Both are very harmful. Both can ruin a life. The idea that they both had these sort of situations with Vernon – rehab – and with Ashley – accident – that sort of brought them back into themselves and back into acceptance of who they are. It really speaks sort volumes.

Alex: It got me thinking about competent healthcare and like competent mental healthcare and that in order to really address these issues in the most sensitive way possible, you do need to be able to access care that understands that maybe part of the reason why you’re looking to these substances is because you’re an LGBTQ person. And because you’re trying to cope with all of that vis-a-vis using some of these substances.

I’m  From Driftwood recently caught up with Ashley for an update on her story and life. And she’s now living in Atlanta.

Ashley: It’s just amazing to see, to think about where I’ve… where my life has ventured from the time of – I remember you guys being in my house and hanging out and, you know, recording that video and then thinking about where I am now, it’s just completely wild.

I hope that people don’t judge me on my mistakes. I definitely know that I am one of the luckiest people in the world that I did not lose my life or injure someone else that horrible night. You definitely have to make healthy decisions, the best you can. Having a support system, if possible, is huge.

You know, being okay and proud with who we were and how we’ve grown, I think is so important. And I’m so lucky to have the life I have. I’m not rich by any means, you know, but I have a really awesome partner and a super sweet little kiddo and a chubby old dog. And we’re happy.

So I just hope people can find their happy and not let the opinions of others stop them from living their lives because life is short and we all have our own life to live and to live for you.

Phil: The I’m From Driftwood podcast is hosted by Phil aka Corinne.

Alex: And Alex Berg, and is produced by Andy Egan-Thorpe.

Phil: The podcast is recorded as part of I’m From Driftwood, a worldwide nonprofit, LGBTQIA+ story archive and is funded in part from the TD Bank and Heritage of Pride New York.

Alex: I’m From Driftwood was created by Nathan Manske to help queer and trans people learn more about their community, help straight people learn more about their neighbors and help everyone learn more about themselves, all through the power of storytelling. The IFD program director is Damien Mittlefehldt. The stories you heard today are available in their entirety, plus thousands more…

Phil: At Please follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. And our score is provided by Elevate Audio. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast wherever you get your podcast.

Alex: Thanks y’all for listening.

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