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Empathy to help LGBT community

Ronald Piaseczny fondly remembers the days when he used to help his father, Zenon, deliver rolls to Hertel and Elmwood avenue restaurants from the family bakery, Zen’s, in Kenmore.

“I’m still working off cheesecakes I ate when I was 5,” Piaseczny said with a smile last week.

Those were halcyon days for his father, a Polish immigrant whose family was rounded up from their town, Torun, during World War II, and sent to German concentration camps. Zen, then 15, was liberated as the war ended in 1945 and, with help from the American Red Cross, reunited two years later in the United States with his mother. His father and most of his siblings were not so fortunate.

The Nazis killed an estimated 20 million people during the war because they were Jewish, trade unionists or gypsies, political opponents, disabled or gay. For his father’s family, being Polish was reason for imprisonment, his son said.

Piaseczny said his father became a U.S. citizen and served in the Coast Guard and Merchant Marine before opening his bakery in 1967. He retired in 2001 and died four years later at age 75. He and his family embraced the warmth and tolerance of Americans, though his son has learned over the years that there remains some work to do. The mental health counselor has seen that play out in the Western New York lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and queer (LGBTQ) community – and experienced it himself while looking for a new doctor five years ago.

“When I told him I was gay and had a partner, he immediately went into this lecture about how homosexuality is a sin,” he said. “Obviously, I didn’t go back to him.”

Piaseczny, 38, grew up in West Seneca. He has bachelor’s degrees in English and Polish, and public administration and political science, and a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling, all from the University at Buffalo. He also has a law degree. He has worked for a decade in social service agencies across the region, and now is a vocational rehabilitation and employment counselor with the Buffalo VA Medical Center.

Piaseczny also leads a Recovery With Pride support group for those in the LGBTQ community who struggle with addiction. The group will meet at 6 p.m. Thursday, and continue to meet the third Thursday of every month, at the Pride Center of Western New York, 200 S. Elmwood Ave.; for more information, call 852-7743.

Q. When it comes to the tug of addiction, how does it work across a community?

The Centers for Disease Control’s best estimate is that 20 to 30 percent of gay men are dealing with some sort of addiction, versus 9 percent in the general population. It’s a much higher prevalence in the LGBT community. They’re saying that’s because of a combination of stressors that the general population doesn’t have to go through, such as the coming-out process, fear of being discriminated against, being ostracized from family or community or religious community. All of that adds to depression and anxiety for LGBT people, which can lead to drug use or substance abuse as a coping mechanism. The CDC also looks at cigarette smoking as an addiction. With gay men and in the transgender community, the prevalence is 200 percent higher than the general population.

Q. How does the support group work and what topics tend to be covered?

I will have topics ready. We talk about the impact of addiction, the impact of mental health, with the focus on building positive support. People come in and talk about issues they’re having, what they’re struggling with. There’s a peer-support aspect.

Q. How important is it for someone who is LGBTQ to be accepted by family and friends?

Who doesn’t want to have the support of their family or the love of their family, to have unconditional love? When it comes with a caveat, ‘I love you but I don’t love your lifestyle’ – and I hate that phrase; wearing cowboy boots or polo shirts is a lifestyle, not necessarily who you love – that can grate on somebody. It can lead to a lot of family tensions, separation. … This ties into mental health and addiction. Empirical evidence for those with mental health issues shows that those with support of family and friends have done better healthwise. The same is true with addiction. If it’s working with the general population, why would you not want all those support pieces in place to help somebody who is LGBT?

Q. What would you say to family members who may be accepting but are struggling under the weight of a loved one’s addiction?

This can be challenging. You’re going to hear something from your family member that may shock you, may surprise you, may hurt you while they’re going through their addiction. As the person who’s going to try to be supportive, you’re going to need your own support network. The other piece of it: Get educated. Find out as much as you can about the process, about the services out there.

email: refresh@buffnews.com

On the Web: Read more about Ronald Piaseczny, see links to LGBTQ statistics and resources, at refresh.buffalonews.com.