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Social distancing creates unique challenges for Minnesota’s LGBTQ+ recovery community

Social isolation — even when done for the good of the larger community — can be particularly difficult for LGBTQ+ people in recovery.

Pride Institute
Pride’s residential treatment program for individuals aged 18 and up in Eden Prairie remains open, but other options have shuttered or moved online.
Pride Institute

For Anthony Sorensen, recovery is all about community.

“Every Friday night,” he said, “I usually go to an NA meeting in northeast Minneapolis. Afterward, a bunch of us go out to dinner. It’s something I look forward to all week.”

Anthony Sorensen
Anthony Sorensen
As a gay man in recovery, Sorensen said that time spent with these friends has been key to staying sober. When Gov. Tim Walz’s shelter-in-place order went into effect March 27, Sorensen supported the decision, but he knew that an important part of the sober life he’s built for himself in the Twin Cities would be missing.

“Community is vitally important for LGBTQ+ people,” Sorensen said. “And when you’re LGBTQ+ and in recovery, it’s even more important. I can tell you from personal experience that one of the most dangerous things a person working toward sobriety can do is to be isolated. Now we’ve all been told to do just that.”

Social isolation — even when done for the good of the larger community — can be particularly difficult for LGBTQ+ people in recovery. Todd Connaughty, director of clinical services for Pride Institute, an Eden Prairie-based residential and outpatient recovery program serving members of the queer community, explained that for many of his clients, connections to friends and members of sobriety organizations is more important to their psychological health and well-being than connections to their biological families.

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When shelter-in-place forced the closure of in-person queer-friendly social hubs like coffee shops, bars, restaurants and LGBTQ+-focused recovery meetings, Connaughty said that many people in Minnesota’s queer recovery community began to feel the strain.

“The LGBTQ community is very socially connected,” he said. “The closure of all these different social-support networks has led, for some members of our community, to increased feelings of hopelessness, isolation, anxiety and depression, particularly for those in early recovery.”

Because of the increased risk for isolation, Connaughty said that he and other staff at Pride Institute are focusing on helping clients build virtual connections that will help them through the pandemic. Pride’s residential treatment program for individuals aged 18 and up in Eden Prairie remains open, but other options — including the LGBTQ+-focused intensive outpatient program (IOP) offered at Pride’s Minneapolis and Rochester locations and their “Kindred Family” program, where members of clients’ chosen families learn how to support their loved ones in recovery, have shuttered or moved online.

Todd Connaughty
Todd Connaughty
It’s more important than ever for counselors to keep in close contact with clients, Connaughty said, adding that Pride Institute will soon offer a regular schedule of sponsored online recovery meetings: “Research shows that social supports are the No. 1 factor that can make or break a person’s recovery. We now have to help our clients access social media sites and online meetings and find other virtual ways to connect. For many, it’s a real survival strategy.”

Pride institute alumni are also working to keep fellow LGBTQ+ people in recovery connected. When in-person meetings were shut down, local virtual groups began popping up overnight. Sorensen, who moved to the Twin Cities from his native New York seven years ago after completing his second inpatient visit to Pride, said he’s taking advantage of a number of online recovery meetings. And he’s made sure to reach out to his friends in recovery and encourage them to join him online.

“It’s actually not all that different from regular meetings,” Sorensen said of his virtual visits. “There’s a moderator. We all check in. We all get to talk. It’s not the same — there’s no physical contact, of course — but it works for now.”

Rainbow recovery

When it comes to recovery programs, Sorensen firmly believes that one size does not fit all. While he knows that heterosexual people also struggle with addiction — in normal times he even attends what he calls a “straight” AA meeting once a week — he thinks that LGBTQ+ people in recovery are best served by groups that cater to their unique histories and needs.

“You want to be in a space where you can feel free to be yourself,” he said, “where everybody gets it, where you don’t have to explain yourself or your lifestyle choices to anyone.”

Sorensen chose to come all the way to Minnesota for rehab at Pride Institute because he knew he’d be more comfortable in a place that focused on the queer community. He’d heard of Pride: “It’s the leading LGBTQ+ rehab,” he said. “They have an ad in the back of every gay magazine. It’s the most well known nationwide. It’s like Hazelden for the LGBTQ+ community.”

After completing his first rehab program at Pride, Sorensen returned to New York. Back home, he found it hard to stick with the program. “I stayed sober for 7½ months before I relapsed,” he said. He returned to Pride for another stint in treatment, with the knowledge that in order to stay sober, he’d have to surrender to his recovery and do whatever his counselors suggested. “Their answer was sober living after treatment,” he explained, “so I did that, too.”

After his second stay at Pride, Sorensen moved to an LGBTQ+ sober house in Minneapolis. He lived there for six months before deciding to make Minnesota his new home.

“I liked living in the sober house,” Sorensen said. “I was surrounded by like-minded people living together for the purpose of staying sober. It was like gay camp.” And with nine housemates with similar backgrounds and interests, he felt that he could be himself without any apologies or explanations: “It was what I needed to keep clean.”

Sorensen said he believes that being surrounded by other LGBTQ+ people during his recovery helped his sobriety stick. He’s been sober for seven years now. His experience at Pride and in his LGBTQ+ sober house were so central to his success that he’d suggest the same thing for anyone in a similar situation.

“I can’t imagine being a gay man or a trans woman going into a straight recovery house,” Sorensen said. “It’s all about the community.”

Like-minded community is particularly key for people who live on the margins of society, Connaughty said. In the LGBTQ+ community the segments that tend to be most marginalized occupy opposite ends of the age spectrum.

“I worry particularly about our elderly population and our youth population,” Connaughty said. Because they are marginalized, these groups tend to live on the edges of communities, and that puts them at further risk of substance use and illness during times of upheaval.

“Many of our elderly are already isolated,” Connaughty said. “Things like stay-at-home orders can lead to further isolation, which puts isolated elderly people at further risk for mental health and addiction issues.”

And many of the young people typically served by Pride also have more precarious living situations that can put them at higher risk of relapse — or in danger of contracting the very virus that has fractured their community.

“We often see that our 18- to 25-year-old population does not have stable home environments,” Connaughty said. Young LGBTQ+ people with substance use issues may have conflict with their families and have chosen to live elsewhere. “They are at significant risk of being in a community environment where COVID could be present. They are couch-hopping or in high-risk situations where they have been sharing needles or drugs.”

And those youth who are quarantined at home with their biological families may be under psychological stress that could exacerbate their addiction and mental illness.

“Many of our LGBGQ youth are in homes that may not support their sexual identity,” Connaughty said. “In those cases, there is an increased risk of suicidal ideation and even suicide. Depression and shame come from being disconnected to your chosen support system. Often, for LGBTQ youth, that support system is outside of the home.”

Helping as many people as possible navigate this temporary age of disconnection is key to preserving the overall health and well-being of the LGBTQ+ sober community, Connaughty said. In-person meetings and therapy sessions are important, he believes, because they require a sense of accountability. People are expecting you to be present at meetings, and when you show up you are rewarded — with friendship, support and community. Meetings pull substance use into the daylight. And when a person comes together with peers with the goal of achieving sobriety, the sense of shame and secrecy fades away.

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“Part of the reason for in-person meetings is to get people to show up and congregate with other people who are working a program of recovery,” Connaughty said. “When we can’t do that, we are at higher risk of returning to secretive substance use: The in-person accountability isn’t there.”

He’s hoping that as Pride alumni and clients attend more virtual meetings, it will become clear that the unique feeling of community and connectedness that typically flavors most LGBTQ+ recovery groups is still there, even from a distance.

Sorensen, for one, has found that his virtual meetings have a few advantages. “More people can participate,” he said. “At virtual meetings, we’re having people we haven’t seen before. They could be from rural communities where they don’t have an LGBTQ+ recovery group nearby. Technology is allowing them to go to a meeting that they couldn’t go to before.”

Sorensen said he’s trying to remember this new opportunity for interconnectedness, even while he’s struggling with feeling disconnected: “I know we’re living in pretty isolating times, but at least for now, from the convenience of my couch, I can sign in and get community.”

‘A general feeling of anxiety’

While in-person recovery meetings have gone virtual, inpatient recovery programs are still up and running. Because addiction recovery programs are considered essential services in Minnesota, staff is still on duty at Pride Institute in Eden Prairie, continuing their work with clients enrolled in the organization’s residential programs.

While concerns about COVID is creating “a general feeling of anxiety that floats among our residents,” Connaughty said that Pride staff is working hard communicate what is going on in the outside world and to demonstrate what steps they are taking to keep people safe and healthy.

“We are also explaining how we are insuring that people will have a place to live when they graduate,” he added. “Sober homes are not going to close. Neither are step-down programs. They are here to stay.”

Staff are following recommendations from the CDC and the Minnesota Department of Health to keep the facility clean. “We receive daily updates from Minnesota Department of Health and from our corporate office,” Connaughty said. “They are insuring that we have the supplies we need. We are being given up-to-date information. There is always some anxiety because you worry about those that are asymptomatic, but overall I feel safe coming to work. And I am glad that Pride continues to offer services to our community.”

Terri Hayden, Pride Institute’s CEO, explained that while the Eden Prairie building isn’t “designed for people to be spaced 6 feet apart,” group meetings have been moved to a larger multipurpose room, and most bedrooms, which were designed to accommodate three clients, have been adjusted so that there are just two to a room, with a middle bed open whenever possible. A dip in census — likely caused by the organization’s decision not to admit clients who travel to Minnesota by air — has made that possible.

“If we do have a census surge, we will place clients in the room so that the middle person will put their head at the other end of the bed so we can space them out as much as we can,” Hayden said.

Beyond handwashing stations and mandatory temperature checks, Pride Institute staff is also working hard to help everyone keep a safe distance from others. “We’re always reminding clients to give each other some space, even on smoke breaks,” Hayden said.

If a resident should test positive for COVID-19, Hayden said that staff has developed a set of protocols for a response: “We have masks and gowns so our team can bring food and medicine to them. We have a room that we have separated with access to a private bathroom across the hall. And we have very good relationships with our local hospitals.”

Terri Hayden
Terri Hayden
When all of Pride’s IOP meetings went virtual on March 30, Hayden said that attendance dropped, but in the weeks since, clients have begun to return: “We were back up to 90 percent attendance this week.”

She’s been sitting in on virtual group-therapy sessions to get a sense of how they are working for counselors and clients. After a crash-course in Zoom technology, things seem to be going well: “Our counselors did an amazing job of making it feel like a normal talk-therapy group.”

The move to virtual has also required changes in other parts of Pride’s programming, Hayden said. Sober houses have had to make adjustments to accommodate residents’ online recovery meetings. “They’re putting up notes on doors that say, ‘In a group. Please don’t disturb,’” she said. “Other residents and staff are being respectful and giving people the privacy they need.”

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For residential clients, visiting hours were an opportunity to reconnect with family and friends. For the time being, visiting hours at Pride are now virtual. During visiting hours, “Clients can check out their devices from safekeeping and they can FaceTime or Skype loved ones or friends,” Hayden said. “This is treated like a regular visiting time in the same room where we do normal visiting hours.” So far, she said, this change has gone well. “I was able to sit through the first virtual visiting hour. All clients were respectful of each other. They broke away and had headsets and talked to their loved ones.”

Sober house managers have taken steps to respond to possible cases of COVID-19 in their facilities. Sorensen, who owns and operates two LGBTQ+ sober houses in Minneapolis, said that the Minnesota Association of Sober Homes (MASH), has established a set of protocols for isolation and recovery of residents.

“The person who owns St. Paul Sober Living has cleared out one of his houses so people can go there if they get sick,” Sorensen said. “We’ve been a tremendous support for each other in case something happens.”

Connaughty admits to feeling some level of stress around keeping himself and his clients safe from coronavirus. But he also said that his work has also brought him moments of joy. When one of his colleagues was out sick with a cold recently, he filled in as a counselor on the residential treatment floor. Rather than being stressful, he said, the experience felt “playful and fun and engaging. Clients are supportive of each other. In spite of what is going on in the world we are ensuring that this is a safe place for our clients to be.”

He said the experience only strengthened his belief that Pride Institute — and the people who work there — play a key role in the larger LGBTQ+ community.

“I want people to know even if they aren’t seeking residential treatment, if they need resources, they can call Pride Institute,” Connaughty said. “We will help them access resources, if it be an online meeting or a therapist that does telehealth. I want the community to know we are there for them.”

‘I never want people to give up hope’

Though this is an unsettling time for everyone, Connaughty said that he sees a light at the end of this long tunnel, and he wants members of the LGBTQ+ recovery community to see it, too.

“I never want people to give up hope,” he said, “Pride has been around since 1986. We’re not going anywhere. We will get through this together, and we’ll be better for it.”

Sorensen, for one, is desperately holding on to encouraging words like Connaughty’s.

A hair stylist, he explained that the stay-at-home order has meant that he cannot see his clients. This forced isolation has required some serious adjustment. “I’m extroverted and talkative,” Sorensen said. “I live alone, so I’ve been talking to my dog. A lot.”

While he appreciates the opportunity to connect with new people through virtual recovery meetings (“We’re getting people who don’t normally go,” he said. “Someone from Chicago or Denver can sign in.”), the empty space that used to be occupied by his real-life friends is palpable.

“I have a group of 12 friends on a group text,” Sorensen said. “None of us have seen each other since this started. We’ve FaceTimed and our meetings are on Zoom, but it’s not the same. I miss seeing them in real life. Isolation is a big problem for me.”

But Sorensen said that one way he is working to combat his isolation is to think about insights he will one day gain from living thorough this time.

“The biggest thing that’s coming out of this pandemic is noticing the things we’ve taken for granted for years,” Sorensen said. “Things as simple as hugging my friends when I see them. Or going out to dinner after a meeting or to a movie. When this is all over, I’m hoping that as a society we all have a greater appreciation for every little thing we used to take for granted, everything that kept us sober and sane.”