Hear Me Roar: How Recovery Unplugged Helps Women in Addiction

by Jill Gleeson

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday May 7, 2020

Samantha Gordon, Recovery Unplugged alumna
Samantha Gordon, Recovery Unplugged alumna  (Source:Matthew Wexler)

The widespread abuse of party drugs by the gay segment of the LGBTQ population has been extensively researched and reported. But there has been less focus on queer women's struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, despite studies showing they share similar issues.

With National Women's Health Week (May 10-16, 2020) approaching, there's no better time to explore the complexities around this mostly-silent crisis, as well as the ground-breaking solutions that music-based addiction treatment network Recovery Unplugged has pioneered to help end it.

According to the National Institutes of Health, queer women, like gay men, share a troubling predisposition to addiction, enough so that the organization has labeled it "a serious health concern." But that's not to say that queer women crave the same drugs of choice as their male counterparts. Research has shown that lesbians may have greater problems with alcohol than gay men.

And while crystal meth is wreaking havoc with gay men, Samantha Gordon, a Recovery Unplugged alumna, says that cocaine is "very, very big in the lesbian community. Doing cocaine in the bathroom, doing it off of your bodies... even what I did when I wasn't out yet as a lesbian, just meeting women in bars or bathrooms, and hearing stories from my partner. Cocaine is the biggest party drug in the lesbian community."

Rachael Gray, Recovery Unplugged's director of admissions.
Rachael Gray, Recovery Unplugged's director of admissions.  

When Kindness Can Kill

Substance preferences aren't the only difference between male and female addicts. There is often a four-to-one ratio of men to women in substance abuse treatment centers. It's more difficult to get women help, in part, because they tend to be enabled by both their loved ones and society. The ways that enabling manifests varies, but it often looks like kindness.

"Families are often more willing to enable women than men because men are supposed to be 'macho' and they can take care of themselves," says Rachael Gray, Recovery Unplugged's director of admissions. "This leads to families supporting addicts financially for much longer than they should. Women also have more resources among the community (women and children shelters, domestic violence shelters, etc.) so they can continue to use without the fear of being homeless."

Whether it's taking care of kids or elderly parents, women also tend to be the primary nurturers and so may be unwilling or unable to enter in-patient drug and alcohol treatment. "So many times, when I'm working with a woman who is refusing treatment, I'll get the rebuttal 'I can't leave my children,'" says Sehar Ryan, Recovery Unplugged senior outreach manager and court liaison. "They don't want to feel like they're a bad mom or doing the wrong thing by leaving their child for treatment."

(Source: Jupiterimages / Getty Images)

How Music Moves Mountains

Once women enter Recovery Unplugged, they will find a unique treatment paradigm, whether they identify as lesbian, bisexual, trans, cis, straight or anything in between. Since the first Recovery Unplugged opened its doors in Florida in 2013, it has utilized music's long-documented curative powers to help combat addiction. Now with additional locations in Tennessee, Northern Virginia, Texas and Colorado, Recovery Unplugged has become a leader in the drug and alcohol treatment industry, with patient outcomes four times better than the national average.

Music is what makes the difference, according to Paul Pellinger, Recovery Unplugged's co-founder and vision leader. It's the theory on which treatment plans are built, facilitating trust and communication — critical abilities often stunted in addicts. From intake, when a client's favorite song is used to support and welcome that first step, to therapeutic music-making, recording and listening sessions, music helps transform addictive thinking into sober living.

"Although we validate people's unique cultural, religious, sexual and gender identities," Pellinger says, "the wonderful thing about incorporating the music is that it's very unifying. It reinforces that we're all much more alike than different."

Along with an MP3 player loaded with "musical prescriptions" to assist them in long-term recovery, Recovery Unplugged clients are discharged with a new-found and powerful sense of community. For women — lesbian or not — this may mean finding kinship and support in the company of other women for the first time.

"I've seen a lot of women who have the whole 'I don't trust other women thing' over the years," says Kourtney Stefano, a queer woman and Recovery Unplugged's director of client relations. "For me, personally, my mom used when I was growing up. It brought up a lot of feelings of being unworthy. When I came into recovery, I struggled with trusting women because of that. My first sponsor was a woman... it was very hard to trust her in the beginning, but she actually became a very maternal figure to me."

Recovery Unplugged strikes the delicate balance of dismantling the idea of being terminally unique, in which an addict feels as if her experience is unlike anyone else's, and acknowledging the complexities as a member of the LGBTQ community. Music by women and for women, as well as solidarity among those in treatment, can create an empowering and lasting road to sobriety.

Are you or a loved one struggling with addiction? Visit RecoveryUnplugged.com.

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Jill Gleeson is a travel and adventure journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. Find her on Facebook and Twitter at @gopinkboots.