Reaching the LGBTQ Community Through Music-Based Addiction Treatment

by Matthew Wexler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday October 1, 2018

Recovery Unplugged is blazing new trails in the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction.
Recovery Unplugged is blazing new trails in the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction.  (Source:Recovery Unplugged)

The LGBTQ community is having a moment. We're not talking about RuPaul's Emmy Award win or the forthcoming 50th anniversary of Stonewall and World Pride in New York City next June. It's the darker side of the rainbow flag: addiction.

Studies have shown that substance abuse in the queer community may lie somewhere between a staggering 20 to 30 percent — substantially higher than the general population (9 percent).

Acknowledging, understanding and treating addiction may, at first, appear complex. Few can deny that stressors within the LGBTQ community such as employment and housing discrimination, health care, and strained personal relationships may all contribute to the compulsive use of drugs and alcohol. Recovery Unplugged's Chief Strategy Officer Paul Pellinger has another perspective.

"The underlying issues are all the same. We recognize that drugs and alcohol are a symptom of the problem," says Pellinger, who draws from over 25 years of experience in the recovery community. "And if that's true, universal core issues like poor self-image, low self-esteem, distorted perceptions and negative behaviors need to be addressed. Treatments generally focus on abstinence but may not deal with other issues like anxiety or depression. And who wants to be clean but miserable?"

We're Not Terminally Unique
(Source: Recovery Unplugged)

We're Not Terminally Unique

It's possible to be fabulous and not be the only one who's fabulous. LGBTQ people often struggle to come to terms with their identities (whether that be sexual orientation, gender, or a personal identification that might not sync with typical cisgender roles), but the feelings associated with these struggles represent an emotional need and universal truths.

"The secret to any good treatment center is the milieu of the clients, it increases the therapeutic community," says Pellinger of Recovery Unplugged's philosophy of inclusion and respect. "That's why we've seen such success rates within the LGBTQ community. There is no stigma here. Everyone is treated with dignity and respect. And the music reinforces unconditional love."

What Goes Up Must Come Down
(Source: Recovery Unplugged)

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Of all the drugs permeating through the LGBTQ community in recent years, crystal meth is hitting gay men hard. A recent report by indicated that gay men are combining meth with sedatives for "speedballing," and its use has propelled the occurrence of unprotected sex and higher risk for HIV transmission, especially when "slamming" (taking the drug intravenously).

"Users chase the euphoria and exhilaration but the issue is the rebound effect," warns Pellinger. "The depression and anxiety of that crash that goes lower than the baseline from where somewhere started are really tough. Plus, meth is cut with a lot of chemicals that assault the nervous system."

Recovery Unplugged understands the danger of meth addiction and offers a recovery process that includes individual therapy, group therapy, counseling, and aftercare to avoid a relapse. Within this course of treatment, music actually becomes a recovery trigger.

Feel the Beat
(l to r) Director of Creative Recovery Richie Supa and Steven Tyler.  (Source: Recovery Unplugged)

Feel the Beat

Recovery Unplugged offers all of the resources of a traditional treatment center, but its integration of music as medicine creates an even more effective recovery experience. Music makes an impact in three important ways:

Physiological — Music appeals to the same pleasure centers in the brain that drugs do, thus increasing endorphins, dopamine and serotonin levels. All of this makes recovery more of a pay-off then getting high, which increases chances at long-term recovery.

Everyone has a favorite song, no matter how much one is struggling. Music with heavy bass is felt more than it's heard. This vibration, produced through bass guitars or sound bowls, literally penetrates the body and can provide temporary relief from symptoms associated with withdrawal.

Psychological — Music is a form of meditation. At Recovery Unplugged, the music experience begins during the pre-assessment and ends with the discharge plan. Everyone has a favorite song and upon pick up or arrival the client's favorite song is playing, which immediately establishes rapport, trust and validation.

Upon discharge clients are given earbuds and an MP3 player with songs specifically identified in their treatment plan, which Recovery Unplugged refers to as musical prescriptions. This combination gives clients an anchor to the various perceptions, skill sets and behaviors needed for long-term recovery.

Spirituality — Music is the only form of communication that connects to the soul, where long-lasting changes occur that are needed for long-term recovery. As a result, clients feel a sense of hope, optimism, motivation and faith. Everyone loves music so it's something that the clients already want to do even though 85 percent of clients are not musicians.

"Music in our group and individual sessions helps the client unlock some of the dormant feelings and underlying issues that they're experiencing," explains clinical director Ian Jackson. "Some clients have trouble expressing themselves when they first come into treatment. Sometimes lyrics from a song allow them to express themselves freely. We can even take that song and send it to a family member. When they hear it, they might recognize that they never really knew what a loved one was going through at that time in their life."

Part of this experience takes place in the Recovery Unplugged studio, where clients have the opportunity to write and record their own songs. Both healing and empowering, the music becomes an integral part of sober living.

Sponsored content.

Matthew Wexler is EDGE's Senior Editor, Features & Branded Content. More of his writing can be found at Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @wexlerwrites.

How Music Medicine Heals

This story is part of our special report titled How Music Medicine Heals. Want to read more? Here's the full list.