A Place For Us

Celebrating One Year of Addiction Recovery for LGBTQ Individuals at the B. Riley Sober House

Northeast Ohio is in the midst of a drug addiction crisis. Meth, heroin, alcohol… you name it, we’re addicted to it.

These substances are also easy to find. Fortunately, there are several recovery services in the region where individuals fighting addiction can seek help and, hopefully, retake control of their lives. If you’re a part of the LGBTQ community in Cleveland, however, things become a little more difficult.

“What we’ve come to discover is that oftentimes the residents we get are individuals who have not even sought treatment before because of fear of discrimination and prejudice,” Tony Correa explains. Correa is the founder of the B. Riley Sober House, an addiction recovery facility specifically geared to members of the LGBTQ community. It’s one of just two such facilities in the country, and this July marks a full year since it first opened its doors to those struggling with substance abuse disorders.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), LGBT individuals are “more than twice as likely as heterosexual adults (39.1 percent versus 17.1 percent) to have used any illicit drug in the past year” and “have a greater likelihood than non-LGBT persons of experiencing a substance use disorder (SUD) in their lifetime.” The virtual absence of LGBTQ-oriented treatment centers is surprising considering statistics on substance abuse in the gay community.

Treatment centers like the B. Riley Sober House have shown to make a real difference, too. According to NIDA “addiction treatment programs offering specialized groups for gay and bisexual men showed better outcomes for those clients compared to gay and bisexual men in non-specialized programs.” In spite of that reassuring data, one study notes that “only 7.4 percent of programs offered specialized services for LGBT patients.”

Correa discovered this lack of LGBTQ-oriented services firsthand during his early attempts to seek help for his addiction as a gay male in treatment centers. “It was not conducive to my recovery,” he attests; the heteronormative climate he found inside the treatment centers was unaccepting of his sexual identity at best and openly hostile to it at worst.

An unwelcoming and unaccepting atmosphere is just one of roadblocks to recovery for the LGBTQ community. Oftentimes, treatment centers will turn LGBTQ individuals away outright. “Places say, ‘Oh, our beds are filled,’ and then allow another woman or another man in,” Correa explains. “We get a lot of our referrals from the homeless shelter, from detox centers, other treatment centers that say, ‘Oh, we don’t know what to do with these people.’ What do you mean, ‘these people?’ I just don’t understand.”

Transgender individuals can have an especially difficult time. “They could be transgender male or transgender female and they’ll try to go to the respective house,” he explains. “And they turn them away.” If transgender individuals decide to enter a treatment center of the opposite gender identity, drugs that are prescribed by doctors for transitioning purposes are often prohibited and expression of their gender identity is suppressed. “There was one transgender female who they told her she can’t paint her nails, she can’t do her hair, she can’t wear makeup,” Correa recalls. “I just could not deal with that.”

Additionally, many addiction treatment programs invoke religion as an aid to recovery. “In the LGBT community, where so many of us have had a really fraught relationship with faith, often that connection to a higher power might not be as readily accessible as it might be in the straight community,” explains Ken Schenk, an associate professor of education at Baldwin Wallace University with a background in drug and alcohol education. “There are any number of gay people who have an incredible relationship with faith, but we know that’s a fraught relationship in many sectors of the LGBTQ population.”

The lack of LGBTQ-specific recovery houses is especially concerning when you consider the rates at which LGBTQ individuals experience addiction. While LGTBQ individuals aren’t any more predisposed to substance abuse disorders than non-LGBTQ people, the LGBTQ community experiences a unique degree of exposure to interactions with drugs and alcohol.

“If you look at all of corporate sponsors of most pride parades, you know, if you just looked at list of their sponsors your jaw would drop,” says Dean Horn, a volunteer at the B. Riley House. “It’s mostly liquor companies and bars. So much of LGBT life is centered around the bars, or at least historically centered around the bars. It just seems to be almost a shoulder shrug when we talk about the overwhelming statistical need for recovery in the community.”

The presence of drugs and alcohol in the gay community can often feel inescapable. “One of the basic tenets of some approaches to recovery is ‘people, places, and things,’” Schenk explains. “When you change the people you’re hanging out with, the places you’re going, and the things you’re doing; that supports a healthy recovery.” By removing bars from an LGBTQ individual’s social life, he says, “You’ve just taken away so much of their gay identity.”

This concept is reinforced by representations of the LGBTQ community in media, too. “In the presentation I did for B. Riley, I actually used clips from movies throughout the decades, and almost every gay character in a movie that I found was interacting with alcohol and other drugs in some way,” Schenk explains.

These few moments of LGBTQ representation can go a long way toward normalizing substance abuse in the community. “If you’re in the middle of nowhere and saying, ‘Oh my god, there’s a gay character, and I don’t get to see those!’ and that character’s interacting with alcohol and other drugs, it sends the message of, ‘Oh, this is what gay people do,’” Schenk continues. “It’s not correct, but it’s still pervasive.”

For LGBTQ individuals living in a heteronormative society, identity is fragile and must be fought for if it’s going to be maintained. The LGBTQ community faces attacks from all sides by a world that seeks to invalidate them, deliberately or otherwise. Oftentimes, simply ignoring the existence of the gay community and its struggles can be incredibly damaging.

In fact, part of the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s LGBTQ report reads “many federally funded surveys have only recently started to ask about sexual orientation and gender identification in their data collections,” concluding that “it is not yet possible to establish long-term trends about substance use and SUD prevalence in LGBT populations.” The lack of data inhibits public funding of organizations like the B. Riley Sober House, forcing private individuals like Correa to take matter in to his own hands.

“That [lack of data is] probably going to get way worse,” Schenk says. “As the Trump administration—and this is an apolitical statement, it is truly factual—as the Trump administration moves towards removing questions about sexual orientation from data-collection efforts, most notably with the 2020 census, it’s going to be more difficult to tailor services to these communities because we’re not collecting the essential information.”

In the face of all of this adversity, Correa and the volunteers at the B. Riley Sober House have their work cut out for them. “The need far outweighs the resources that the house has,” Horn says. “There’s a long, long waiting list. I know for a fact that at least two people have overdosed that were on the waiting list, while they were waiting. So the need is certainly there.”

In its first year of operation, B. Riley Sober House has seen 24 individuals complete its treatment program and remain sober after leaving, and it’s helping many more individuals along the road to recover in spite of the fact that the maximum occupancy of the house is just 15. These early successes of B. Riley House speak for themselves, and Correa is excited to see them continue. “We are beginning to expand,” he proudly proclaims. “We’re seeking Columbus, Ohio. There’s a large LGBT population there, and then we’re going to branch to other ¾ houses here in Cleveland.” In addition to running B. Riley House and covering expenses when necessary, Correa works and goes to school full time.

His overall goal is to provide hope, and ultimately recovery to anyone in need, regardless of whether they’re part of the LGBTQ community. “If anyone out there that’s struggling needs a way out, or seeking a way out, they can feel free to call us and we will help guide them in the right direction,” he promises. “That’s straight, gay, rich, poor, black, white; it doesn’t matter.”

CALL TO ACTION:

If you’d like like to help out B. Riley House, donations of toiletries, hygiene products, and office supplies are much appreciated. Checks can be made out to ‘B. Riley Sober House.

A NOTE ON ABBREVIATIONS

The decision of what term (gay, LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTQA, etc.) to use is a point of contention with many people in and out of the LGBTQ community. Efforts to be inclusive of all non-heteronormative gender identities and sexualities has created a vast array of variations in the terminology which, like all cultural lexicons, change with the times. While we acknowledge these distinctions and the tremendous value of the inclusiveness it represents, for the sake of readability, we are going to use “LGBTQ,” unless a quoted source uses a different term.

“WHAT’S IN A NAME?”

The name “B. Riley” has a special, personal significance for Tony Correa. “My mother was the first person I witnessed get sober,” he explains. Her substance abuse took an incredible toll on their relationship. “I couldn’t stand her. I hated her for never being there for me, ever, in my entire life.”

When she was diagnosed with HIV, however, she made massive changes in her life. “I watched her get sober, I watched her get everything back in her life,” he recalls. “She ended up getting a house, she got a boyfriend, her HIV status was undetectable—this was like 20 years later—and she was doing really good for herself.”

In spite of this, Correa still resented her for the years of neglect, and he himself was in the middle of his own addiction. Once he sought treatment, part of his recovery was the “12 Step” program, a widely used course of action for recovery.

“This last time going through my 12 steps, I got to the fourth step—which is a personal inventory of my life—and I inventoried my relationship,” he says. For the first time, he saw past his mother’s mishandling of their relationship and acknowledged his own. “I could have been more loving, more patient, more kind, more tolerant, more understanding.”

The ninth step in the program has recovering individuals make amends with those they have wronged in the past; unfortunately, it was impossible for Correa to do so with his mother, as she had died due to complications from HIV and AIDS. Instead, he decided to honor her memory in a way that would make her proud. “My mother’s name was Bridget Riley, so I named the house B. Riley Sober House after my mother, as a living amend.”

“Building B. Riley Sober House”

When Correa first conceived of the B. Riley Sober House, he had his work cut out for him. After completing the vast quantity of paperwork required to become a licensed treatment center, which Correa said was only possible through “prayer and meditation,” the first order of business was finding a location. The house he found might be described by a realtor as a “fixer-upper.”

“This house was a disaster,” Correa says. “We had to put in all the work. We put in over $20,000 worth of work inside of this house. We kicked drug dealers out of it that were trapping out of it, it was disgusting.”

After all the work was done, something special happened that let Correa know that it was going to be worth it.

“The day that he gave me the keys, at the front door as you see the steps going up, he handed me the keys and—I’ve got goosebumps talking about it—the guy told me to look down,” Correa says. “I looked down and there was a butterfly AA coin on the ground. And I just knew, ‘Alright, I’m on the right path. I’m on the right track.’”

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