Taking Pride in LGBTQ Recovery

By The Fix staff 06/14/17

“We make people feel safe, feel that they can speak their truth, and that there is hope."

The pool and residence at Desert Palms

Getting into recovery is challenging under the best of circumstances. For members of the LGBTQ community, the journey can be especially difficult since they are more likely to have experienced trauma and internalized homophobia, all of which can complicate recovery. 

“A lot of these issues go very deep and without proper coping it’s hard to come out well adjusted, so people turn to drugs and alcohol,” says Jonathan Wynne, the director of clinical outreach at Sunspire Health’s Desert Palms treatment facility. “We work directly with the trauma and internalized homo-negativity.”

Desert Palms is a small treatment facility with 36 beds in Cathedral City, California, just outside Palm Springs. The facility provides evidence-based recovery programs with a 12-step focus for men and women struggling with addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. The program has a strong focus on recovery for people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and other sexual orientations and gender preferences.

“We make people feel safe, feel that they can speak their truth, and that there is hope,” Wynne says.

At Desert Palms, clinicians and staff are familiar with addressing the specific issues that members of the LGBTQ community face when getting into recovery. Wynne notes that people who identify as LGBTQ are three times more likely than the general population to struggle with addiction and four times more likely to have poly-substance dependency, where they abuse more than one substance. The staff is also familiar with the particular patterns of substance abuse in this community. For example, Wynne noted that many gay men who abuse methamphetamine can have a sexual compulsion that must be addressed.

“There are very specific things that we address,” he said. At Desert Palms the culture of support and alliance for the LGBTQ community is built into the recovery program at all levels, something that is different from many recovery programs.

“A lot of programs will say we have a gay track, and that means they have a gay clinician,” Wynne says with a laugh.

Desert Palms has clinicians who are well-versed in the issues that LGBTQ people face, and there are specific groups for people who are gay, lesbian, and other specific identities. There are also groups to help navigate the coming out process and address internalized judgments.

Although Desert Palms does not exclusively serve members of the LGBTQ community, the goal of making everyone feel welcome begins at admission. Many clients are gay men, but the center also works with transgender individuals, lesbians, and other members of the LGBTQ spectrum. Staff works with individuals to ensure that the correct pronouns are used for clients and that a safe, caring environment is cultivated. 

Wynne noted that up to 75 percent of people in the LGBTQ community who seek treatment for drugs or alcohol abuse do not disclose their orientation when they check into rehab. That can prevent them from receiving the full mental health care that they need and establishing supports for their lifestyle in recovery. At Desert Palms clients are encouraged to integrate their sexual and gender identities into their recovery plan.

In fact, some clients who did not identify as LGBTQ when they enter Desert Palms realize during their recovery that they are a member of the community.

“Once they get taste of safety, a lot of stuff comes up,” Wynne says. “The coming out process can be traumatic, so it’s important to do that with people who understand what comes up.”

In addition to the environment at Desert Palms, clients benefit from the strong LGBTQ and recovery communities in the Palm Springs area, including specific meetings for members of the group.

“It’s such an important piece of longterm recovery,” Wynne says. Many people, especially gay men, fear that getting sober will impact their social life because bar and club culture can be an important part of the gay community. However, the thriving sober LGBTQ communities in Palm Springs show that a fulfilling social life in recovery is possible. 

In addition to group and individual therapies, Desert Palms focuses on mindfulness and facilitates hikes into the desert. Wynne says that the environment encourages people to find whatever higher power resonated with them, whether that be nature, mindfulness or the group.

Desert Palms is part of Sunspire Health, which is a network of drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities throughout the country. The boutique nature of the facilities allows a focus on individuals that is perfect for LGBTQ people.

“At Sunspire it’s all very focused on the clients,” Wynne says.

Clients can start their recovery process at Desert Palms with detox, knowing that they will be supported throughout their entire recovery process, whatever individual needs may present. 

“The physiological stuff is the same,” Wynne says. “It’s when the onion starts to get peeled back that some issues come up. The most important thing we can provide is a safe, welcoming, affirming environment.”

Learn more about Desert Palms at their website or on Facebook.

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