— Working definition of recovery, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
I’ve been a therapist at Mazzoni Center for three years, and in addition to seeing individual clients on a one-to-one basis, I facilitate one of our weekly recovery support groups, known as “New Beginnings.” This is one of the most rewarding parts of my job, as it allows me to support people who are actively working to live healthier, more engaged lives. Since it’s a free, drop-in group, each week serves as its own unique community; some members have been clean for years, and others are just starting their recovery. Regardless of where they are in the process, everyone brings a valuable perspective.
Having LGBTQ-focused recovery groups is important, because the community is disproportionately impacted by addiction and substance abuse — and because not every addiction-recovery program is fully accepting or understanding of the particular needs or challenges that LGBTQ individuals may face. It’s also important to consider that by having an LGBTQ space, a group member can walk in knowing that his or her preferred gender (conforming or nonconforming) and sexuality will be accepted and respected and they can then focus on their recovery without the added stress of possible discrimination or ignorance. According to the Center for American Progress, approximately 20-30 percent of gay and transgender people abuse substances, compared to about 9 percent of the general population. This can be attributed to various factors, ranging from strained relations with family and trauma to the stress associated with stigma and marginalization, as well as internalized homophobia and shame, to name a few.
Some LGBTQ folks self-medicate with drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with or numb negative feelings brought on by these kinds of stressors — just as happens in the general population. But there is also a particular history to LGBTQ culture, which for many years was heavily focused on bars as the only safe spaces to socialize and encounter other “like” individuals. The fact that folks were forced to socialize and create community in bars and clubs is just a small glimpse into the ways the community has historically been marginalized and stigmatized. While there is great strength in creating community, it’s important for group members to brainstorm sober spaces to have a sense of safe belonging. In my role, I try to keep in mind the aspects of substance abuse and addictions that are “universal,” as well as the ways in which being part of the LGBTQ community might impact a person’s issues or approach to recovery. We commonly discuss the notion and importance of “chosen family” and creative ways to nurture sobriety while avoiding isolation.
For most people, hearing the words “groups” or “recovery” brings to mind the 12 Step model. And while many people find these types of programs very helpful, at Mazzoni Center we take a different approach. There are relatively few rules for attending our support groups — aside from the basic requirements that we respect one another and don’t show up under the influence of any substance.
Perhaps the key difference in our groups is that we use a harm-reduction model. We don’t believe there is one “correct” way to maintain recovery and we want each of our group members to feel safe voicing what works and doesn’t work for them within recovery. Our goal is to provide a safe space for folks to discuss, to ask questions, to consider the impact of their behavior and (with the help of the group) to establish their own goals and strategies for changing negative patterns and enhancing their overall health and well-being.
We start each session with a brief check-in, where folks can share where they are that day in regard to recovery. The group then opens up to a larger discussion around a recovery-focused topic. Group members can share as much or as little as they are comfortable doing.
Support groups are different from one-on-one therapy in that the feedback you receive comes from other people in recovery, as opposed to a therapist. As the facilitator, I am definitely engaged in the group and involved in the conversations. But I believe the real support comes from members sharing and connecting with each other.
A support group isn’t meant to replace individual therapy, but it can provide a very healing and therapeutic space. For some folks, it will serve as a supplement to therapy; for others, our meeting (and/or other meetings and supports) will be enough to maintain stability and progress. Every person comes with different wants and needs when it comes to self-care, and that’s how we try to support them — building on the many different capacities, strengths, talents, coping abilities and resources of each individual.
Many people who struggle with addictive behaviors find it difficult to approach loved ones (family, friends, colleagues) to ask for help, thinking that they will be rejected or judged. I have found that most people coming to our group are looking to find community and safety in their sobriety. One of my favorite things to hear from a new group member is: “I was so nervous to come to this group, but I’m glad that I did. I can really relate to what other people are saying.”
There are certainly challenges to starting or staying in recovery, and I wouldn’t downplay those. But one of the guiding principles mentioned within SAMSHA’s definition of recovery is that “recovery emerges from hope,” and the belief that people can and do take the steps every day to overcome challenges and obstacles in their lives and achieve a better future.
Here’s what I would add to that: Recovery is not about denying yourself or staying at home, missing out and feeling isolated and unhappy. People living in recovery are courageous and strong. They have the opportunity to think about themselves and their futures with clear and sober minds and give themselves the time and space to examine how they can live their most authentic life.
As with any major change or goal you set for yourself, it can be scary to consider and take the first steps. That’s where support groups can be extremely helpful, to offer that extra encouragement and support. My goal as a group facilitator is to create a safe space to explore the challenges and accomplishments folks face through their recovery journey.
For anyone considering recovery, I would recommend they come check out our support group sometime, and know that there aren’t any obligations or expectations. We’re always here whenever you’re ready. You only have to show up.
Julia Gottlieb, MSS, LCSW, is a therapist at Mazzoni Center and facilitates the weekly “New Beginnings” support group, which meets Wednesdays from 5:30-6:30 p.m. at the William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce St. Stepping Stones is another recovery support group offered by Mazzoni Center that meets Mondays from 2:30-3:30 p.m. at William Way. For more information, visit www.mazzonicenter.org.