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How a Support System Can Help Overcome Addiction and Toxic Relationships

by Lauren Emily Whalen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday February 10, 2022

How a Support System Can Help Overcome Addiction and Toxic Relationships
  (Source:Getty Images)

Six years ago, Brittany O'Malley, LCDC-CI, was eight months into her own recovery and cleaning houses for a living when a friend alerted her to a job opening. She started at music-based addiction treatment center Recovery Unplugged as a tech before graduating to group facilitator, then peer recovery specialist (PRSS). The road to recovery hasn't been easy, but it's been paved with a robust support system that is the foundation of Recovery Unplugged's success rates.

Now O'Malley is earning internship hours for her Licensed Clinical Dependency Counselor training while also working as the clinical manager at Recovery Unplugged's Austin facility (there are also locations in Fort Lauderdale and Lake Worth, Florida, Northern Virginia, and Nashville) and gaining first-hand experience about the complexities facing LGBTQ+ people in recovery.

O'Malley thinks LGBTQ+ individuals may encounter specific obstacles in society — and relationships — that can spark abuse and addiction. "I believe because they're unable to find a comfortable place to be their true, authentic selves, that turning to drugs and alcohol may seem acceptable; an escape to numb the feelings of shame and guilt," O'Malley says. And she's witnessed this in her personal life as well as at work. "I have had a few friends who were gay and could not say it aloud due to either family or friends judging them," she recalls. "One passed away from an overdose, and another one ended up relapsing after seven years. It really and truly...eats the spirit alive when the person is unable to be themselves."

Recovery Unplugged harnesses the power of music combined with other treatment modalities to get to the root cause of an individual's addictive behaviors — a method with a proven track record.

A Legacy of Success

Martha Raye entertaining troops c. 1943.
Martha Raye entertaining troops c. 1943.  (Source: Wikimedia/Flickr)

Musicians began touring hospitals after World War II, and medical professionals noticed the positive effect on veterans struggling to cope with their previous experiences.

Since then, music-based treatment has been used as a non-invasive and nontoxic therapy option for depression, trauma, and substance abuse, for various reasons, such as releasing the feel-good chemical dopamine and pain reduction.

According to Recovery Unplugged, its music interventions "help spark positive changes in an individual's emotional, perceptual, cognitive, and behavioral tendencies." This treatment also allows for individual freedom, says O'Malley, Recovery Unplugged's clinical manager. "[W]e utilize music as a tool and a timestamp for the individual's recovery, and provide an environment where they can experience being their authentic self."

Along with proven music interventions, Recovery Unplugged fosters healthy support systems, which is critical to LGBTQ+ patients vulnerable to unhealthy relationships. "[LGBTQ+ people] are seeking love, approval, connection and being accepted," O'Malley says. "It would be easy to be taken advantage of [if] they don't find these things."

She continues, "In recovery, we say that the opposite of addiction is community. Having a support system is a lot like living in a village with people who are all contributing to your life, as well as you to theirs," she says. Additionally, O'Malley says, a true community isn't just there for the rough times. "The ideal support system looks a lot like people coming together, not just to talk about deep life situations but to create laughter, create fun, create space, and create time."

When Relationships Turn Toxic

(Source: Getty Images)

Even the most solid support system will evolve — and that's a good thing. "As your support system changes, it is always a positive sign because you know you are growing internally and progressing," O'Malley says. However, not everyone grows at the same rate, she says. "Sometimes people will fall and go back to old behaviors and patterns." And sometimes, even once-healthy relationships can turn toxic.

Toxic relationships can threaten a person's well-being by making a person feel demeaned, unsupported, or even attacked. These relationships aren't exclusive to those in recovery. "LGBTQ+ individuals are extremely vulnerable when it comes to their relationships," O'Malley says. "If they are attempting to stay sober or need help with addiction, the toxic relationship must be put aside, and [the individual] must return to focus on themselves."

How does one know they're in a toxic relationship? O'Malley gives a few red flags:

  • Putting the relationship first and letting other priorities slide.
  • Compromising one's morals and values.
  • Internalizing the other person's emotions to an unhealthy degree.

    O'Malley knows she's in a toxic relationship when "I start absorbing the other person's feelings, and I want to change myself and fix myself to be able to shape their life," she says. "If they're not happy, I'm not happy. If they're not sober, I'm not sober."

    She adds that a true support system will know what a toxic relationship looks like and won't hesitate to call out an individual. Ignoring one's support system is another red flag. "We know the warning signs when we don't want to talk [to] our support system about the relationship," O'Malley says.

    When it comes to forming a support system, O'Malley's advice is simple: do the work, even when it's tough. "I believe that when we are seeking the community we desire, it will start forming itself," she says. "We must do the uncomfortable action first, and that's just begin and show up."


    Are you or someone you love struggling with drugs or alcohol?

    Recovery Unplugged offers LGBTQ+-welcoming substance abuse treatment.
    Visit recoveryunplugged.com or call 855-909-8818.

  • Lauren Emily Whalen is a writer, performer and aerialist living in Chicago. She's the author of four books for young adults. Learn more at laurenemilywrites.com.