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Interview: Buster Ross from Hazelden on New Treatment Model for LGBTQ Addicts

Thursday, September 18, 2014


Buster Ross

Buster Ross, M.A., is bringing substance abuse amongst gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people out of the closet and into the light. Ross has helped to establish and directs the LGBTQ-Integrative Treatment Program housed at Hazelden’s Springbrook residential facility, 25 miles southwest of Portland, Ore. 

The program is the first of its kind in the nation.

Ross, a sexuality counselor and drug-and-alcohol counselor, has become a prominent national voice at the intersection of sexual health and substance abuse recovery.

Sober for years, Ross says his background in this work is rooted in extensive training in the fields of addiction and human sexuality--not just personal experience.

The Back Story

“The story of how I got into this work is long,” says Ross.

After being a musician since the age of 15, Ross eventually entered graduate school.

“I was interested in studying sex addiction. I went to an all-LGBTQ facility for further training, as it was a place where I knew I actually could talk about sex/drug links with clients, and I got something I didn’t expect," says Ross. "I found myself on a path to become a sexuality therapist instead of a sex addiction therapist, recognizing that addiction is an oversimplification of issues that come up related to sexuality.”

Although the Hazelden treatment program is the first of its kind in the country, Ross says, it will not remain so for long. 

“Our model is expanding to our outpatient treatment clinic in Beaverton next week. We are preparing to bring the model to the Betty Ford Center in Palm Springs next, including programming at new outpatient clinics opening in Southern California.”

Ultimately, Ross believes that what they are doing will inform some fundamental approaches at every one of their sites, ensuring that LGBTQ people have the greatest chance for successful lifelong recovery regardless of where they receive treatment.

So why hasn’t there been treatment for gays, lesbian, bi and trans people until now?

“LGBTQ healthcare equity is a critical issue needing to be addressed," says Ross. "But the reality is that even just parity of mental health and addiction services is only beginning to take effect."

"There has been good treatment for LGBTQ people, but it has been in pockets, or in all-LGBTQ environments.”

Beyond Fabulous

Beyond being “just more fabulous,” Buster says, the program makes space to process the issues that LGBTQ people have come up with in treatment and in recovery.

“They get individualized curriculum and treatment planning,” says Buster. “We connect patients with the much-needed LGBTQ recovery community. They get sexuality counseling, something not generally found in treatment. They get a sex-positive, sexual health approach, as opposed to shaming sex-addiction diagnoses reflecting a lack of cultural sensitivity to LGBTQ sexuality."

"We don’t suggest that problems related to sexuality are indicative of our clients having a ‘disease of sex addiction’; that would be like using different language to call homosexuality a mental illness.”

Additionally, the way they educate LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ people together on sexual health is not common practice. They offer educational/treatment components aimed at creating a more LGBTQ-affirming environment amongst lots of straight people.

“What gets straight people sober isn’t different, it’s community and honest connection – it’s good mental health support,” says Ross. “We reduce those barriers."

Can We Talk

"And seriously, some gay men may need to talk about their patterns of seeking sex with straight men, some need to unpack their fetishization of HIV, some need to stand with others and be supported in owning their truth that being gay isn’t trauma re-enactment for gay men with same-sex trauma. 

"Those conversations are easier amongst other LGBTQ people!”

Furthermore, Ross is not afraid to process homophobia and heterosexism when it comes up.

“We help people who are just coming out learn how to change patterns associated with keeping secrets around sexuality. LGBTQ people can form a double life to survive as children, and this strength can keep addiction hidden and underground--seeing the parallel can really serve people getting sober and moving into recovery and rigorous honesty.”

“Oscar Wilde said ‘Everything is about sex except for sex. Sex is about power.’ Well, trauma and addiction, they are really tied up with power,” says Ross. “Every case is different."

"What does play into it is identity. And sexuality is critical to identity. It depends if drug or alcohol use plays a role in sexual behavior.

"If you use or drink to be comfortable having sex, to avoid intimacy with a partner, to be comfortable with a specific kind of interest, then it might be more significant. Ultimately, my concern is the role that sexuality can play in relapse when it goes unaddressed in treatment."

“I want to be really clear about this because I think it is the most critical element of what we do,” says Ross. “We educate ALL our clients in sexual health. It creates an environment that is less homophobic or heterosexist, and helps bridge to more clients who are stuck--and people with drug and alcohol problems can often feel stuck about what is them and what is their behavior under the influence of chemicals.

"There, of course, is more, the healing that happens between straight and gay men, and beyond, is pretty much the most inspiring thing I get to witness in my work. Especially when men with strongly homophobic attitudes can have a different experience; often it’s about trauma and fear, so straight men who have a normalizing and educational experience with gay men actually may heal more deeply themselves.”

Ross’s program has eight to 15 LGBTQ clients engaging at any time. He would like to see it grow to 15-20.

“It’s a community model, and I think we continue to see benefits with higher numbers of clients participating.”

And is the work affecting him?

“I didn’t set out to do this," he says. "This work chose me.

"What is important to me is exercising critical thinking skills, and employing evidence-based practices. And in this instance, I believe it is important that we are establishing evidence-based practices where there has been a gap. This isn’t my program. It’s really a huge team of us across disciplines doing this work.

"Even our research is a co-authored effort."

Making Room For Everyone

"But being a shepherd is a blessing because I love talking about this work. Addiction, sex, trauma, LGBTQ, religion versus spirituality, it’s just so complex and rich," says Ross. "I think the existential and complex trauma of my parents’ divorce largely fueled by LGBTQ and trauma issues had a lot to do with my own addiction later in life.

"So to look now and recognize that I am working with healing the very circumstances I was born into on a larger systemic level is quite meaningful. 

"But it isn’t about me, it’s about treating all clients with dignity and respect, and improving treatment for everyone by remaining open to innovation. Quality of treatment for LGBTQ people shouldn’t come at the cost of quality of treatment for non-LGBTQ, and I don’t believe that it does. Our programming makes room for everyone.”

Ultimately, Ross says: “Recovery isn’t about learning to tolerate being miserable. It’s about getting help to find the joy and pleasure that you’ve lost, and stay with the joy. It’s about getting our needs met, so we don’t need drugs or alcohol to facilitate or simulate those needs being met.

"It’s about living a life we can really love, about being in alignment with our own values, and breaking out of isolation. Taking our seat in a community that is healing.”

Homepage Photo Credit: iStock 


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