Creating a Safe Place for LGBTQ Individuals

Recovery Unscripted banner image for episode 55

Episode #55 | March 21, 2018

Featured Guest: Anna Hagen and Angi Grassley

Today, I’m excited to have a conversation about the unique challenges facing the LGBTQ community and how they meet those needs at Pride Institute, where my guests Anna Hagen and Angi Grassley serve as therapist and community relations director. They joined me via Skype from Pride’s campus near Minneapolis to introduce the concept of heterosexism and explore some specific ways LGBTQ individuals experience trauma and shame in our society. They also describe how they build an environment where patients can finally feel safe and begin healing at a deeper level.

Podcast Transcript

David Condos: Hello and welcome to another episode of Recovery Unscripted. I’m David Condos, and this podcast is powered by Foundations Recovery Network. Today, I’m excited to have a conversation about the unique challenges facing the LGBTQ community, and how they meet those needs at Pride Institute, where my guests Anna Hagen and Angi Grassley serve as therapist and community relations director. They joined me via Skype from Pride’s campus near Minneapolis to introduce the concept of heterosexism and explore some specific ways LGBTQ individuals experience trauma and shame in our society.

They also describe how they built an environment where patients can finally feel safe and begin healing at a deeper level. Now, here’s Anna and Angi.

I’m here with Angi Grassley and Anna Hagen. Thank you guys so much for being with us today.

Angi Grassley: Thanks for having us.

Anna Hagen: Thank you.

David Condos: Let’s start off by having you tell us a little bit about your own personal stories and how you both got started in a world of recovery.

Angi Grassley: Sure. It’s Angi here. I am in recovery myself. Right now, I’ve got over 10 years in recovery from meth and alcohol addiction.

David Condos: Wow. Congratulations.

Angi Grassley: Yes, thanks. The journey for working at Pride, it just seem like a pretty amazing fit, with it being my LGBTQ community and also my recovery community. Meth essentially what qualified me to do the job in admissions is where I started was, “You’re in recovery and you also are part of the community? Great, we’ll start you on Tuesday.” It’s just one of those things where you get into a mold or you fit into a job that’s almost perfect for you, and you don’t know really what else you would do. That’s where I’ve been for the last seven, eight years, is what else what I do. I’ve got my pride.

David Condos: Cool and Anna?

Anna Hagen: Yes. Hi. The exact opposite of Angi. I am not personally in recovery and consider myself to be a pretty strong ally for the community. I love people and I love people’s stories so, I always was interested in that since I was a young kid listening to my families’ stories. Because of that I went into psychology to just talk and hear people’s stories more.

David Condos: Yes. To get into this next question, could you tell us more about your current roles?

Angi Grassley: I’m actually the director of community relations now. I worked in admissions for about seven years and now I’ve recently taken on this community relations role.

David Condos: What does that mean, in a practical sense?

Angi Grassley: Yes. What that means is, I am responsible for going out in the community. We are responsible for, essentially, making sure that everyone who may work with an LGBTQ person knows about Pride Institute, so that if their client happens to need substance abuse treatment and it would benefit from an LGBTQ exclusive program, then they know about Pride.

David Condos: Cool. Anna?

Anna Hagen: I was doing mental health therapy. I am trained in EMGR and I get to meet with some of the clients who come here to do some of the trauma work when they get here. Then recently I’ve transitioned into doing more of a training, it’s a trauma informed training for our staff, to help educate them as we know in chemical dependency trauma is pretty prevalent. Helping our team be as healthy as they possibly can as they’re helping their clients in these initial stages of sobriety.

David Condos: As you said, Pride offers treatment exclusively for the LGBTQ community. Why is it important for LGBTQ individuals to go through a treatment process that is not necessarily just a friendly track, but at a place where that’s the whole core of the program?

Angi Grassley: Right. I can’t speak for every LGBTQ person, but being on the phone for seven years and listening to clients call in and wanting to get into treatment, what I can attest to is that that they couldn’t talk about the one thing that made them so unique to themselves. For a lot of our gay men who come here for sexual health component with meth addiction and sex addiction and all that, what they found was most frustrating with another treatment programs, is they had great programming, everything was fine.

I couldn’t talk about what it meant to have sex with another man without fear that my roommate would think I’m trying to have sex with them. I couldn’t talk about what it meant to be gay. I couldn’t talk about sex and love and all of those kinds of things for fear that I wouldn’t be accepted by my peers, or that I wasn’t necessarily safe to do so. They go through all these treatment programs being on the surface, and talking about surface stuff, and talking about things that are important, but they’re not really getting to that core reasons as to why somebody continues to use or relapse.

Sometimes, our clients here don’t even relapse on the meth component, they’re relapsing on the sex component, and then that leads to places that have the meth, that combination. Being able to finally talk about that in an environment that’s like, “Yes, that’s just every day for us. That’s not something special.” We don’t have the special meeting about what that means. We have groups here on anal health and things like that. Maybe in a heteronormative program, those are big things that we don’t talk about, or those are things you talk about one-on-one with your therapist, but we don’t talk about that in group.

Here that’s talked about openly and in group where people will finally say, “Gosh, I felt safe enough to be able to open up and have that conversation. Now, I feel free. Now I can work through this stuff.”

David Condos: I know, Anna, you do a lot about trauma. That’s where your main focus is. Why is it so important to inform patients and specifically, LGBTQ patients, about trauma, what they’re experiencing as part of their recovery journey?

Anna Hagen: Well, one of the things that hear time and time again, as I’m telling people just psycho-education about a trauma, and how our body shows up or how we show up in the present moment based on an instant that happened in the past is they say, “I thought I was crazy.” I knew intellectually that I will safe, but physically my body would show up in that. Just educating our people around how trauma shows up, how it informs how we see the entire world.

I might see threat in a very different way than Angi might, because of our past, which creates a new situation or a new lens in every room that we sit in and really helping people understand how much that influences their everyday choices, has really allowed people to see and heal in a different way versus internalizing it as it’s something that they have done wrong.

David Condos: Another term that I saw on your website is heterosexism. Could you take a minute to describe that concept and how it can affect those in the LGBTQ community?

Angi Grassley: We have experiences where simple things like going to the bathroom, where a person who maybe looks like me, who’s more masculine presenting, but identifies as a female. Me going into a bathroom can cause safety issues for me. It’s not necessarily seen as a big deal through the lens of a hetero-normative of person because they fit into the mold of seeing things the way society says they should see them through the lens of a girl, being a girly girl, and that kind of a thing. What a lot of our clients who identify as gender non-conforming or a trans, see that lens a little bit differently.

Anna Hagen: Just wanting to make sure that you walk through the world seeing it from a different perspective. If the roles were reversed or if language was switched, it would be like, to me, “Hey, when did you decide to be a straight female?” Those are questions that we don’t ask people, or “Do you think being a straight people is just a faze? Do you think maybe you just haven’t been with the right female? Is that why you’re, whatever.” Those are the types of tiny little pecks that you would get in any other place that myself, as a straight woman, I don’t get that type of peck, as much as someone else in LGBTQ community might.

Awareness around that here can create a different environment.

David Condos: How does that and other societal factors cause LGBTQ individuals to, maybe experience marginalization, can lead to shame, and then how does that possibly increase their chance for substance use showing up in their lives as well?

Angi Grassley: When you go through the world and experience that, the one thing that I know, for me, is I wanted to shut that off. I could do what everybody thought I should do and go to the clubs. I should go to the bars and that’s where I should meet people because that’s where people who are going to get me are going to be. I’ll go to the bars and I’ll drink with them. Then, oh that led to using methamphetamines again, oh, that led to unprotected everything again, and now we’re in this cycle again. But, that’s where I felt safe. It also can lead to isolation, which can lead to depression, which can lead to, “I just don’t want to feel this anymore. I can just drink this away, and I feel better for a minute when I drink, even though I know I’m going to feel bad again, but I at least don’t have to feel it at the intensity that it is, and I can numb it for a minute. Drugs and alcohol are a great way to numb those feelings.

David Condos: What are some other specific barriers that you see keeping some LGBTQ individuals from either taking that first step of seeking treatment, or from maybe fully connecting with a recovery community?

Anna Hagen: I think the one about fully connecting that I see quite a bit is just that people have a difficult time creating trust and safety in any scenario. Most of the individuals began in inpatient are here at most 30 to 60 days. When you think of taking away someone’s primary coping mechanism, and then asking them to dive deep into their most painful feelings and feel them. Then, go back and revisit some of the painful things that have happened in the past, it takes a lot of time to build that trust up. So, that whole process happening [chuckles], it’s really a miracle, when you think of all the things that need to happen to create trust and to begin healing.

David Condos: Yes. What are some ways that you try to create that with what you to do at Pride?

Anna Hagen: I think we do a really wonderful job of just normalizing that for people, so people can really understand that, right off the bat, of course, you aren’t going to trust me. I think it’s pretty healthy that people does trust us right off the bat. That’s a great skill. I kind of like the analogy of a marble in a marble jar and that trust isn’t black or white, it’s not all or nothing, but it slowly build up trust, one little marble at a time. I think it’s just naming all of the things that are happening can help people, so they can say, “Oh, yes, this is why I don’t trust you right now, because you represent something that happened in the past.”

David Condos: Yes, it kind of gets back into the trauma that you were talking about earlier.

Anna Hagen: Always. I think even with check-ins, my name is Anna, female pronouns. This recreates safety in this as our culture, can be just those little things to help create safety.

David Condos: I know that Pride also offers a family program called Kindred, as well. Could you describe a little bit about the role that that plays within the overall program at Pride?

Angi Grassley: Yes. Our clients, for LGBTQ people, family doesn’t necessarily mean their biological parent, or their sibling, or people who raised them necessarily, but we have this thing called chosen family. That’s because, within our community, some of our clients, and friends and loved ones, their families have disowned them or have ostracized them and said that you’re not part of this family anymore. So, what we’ve done is, we’ve created our own sense of family because we want that, right? We want that connectedness. This is a thing that we can do on, I think, it’s done bi-weekly here. Clients can invite their family of choice to come and do a little bit of psycho-education with family members, education on what addiction is, what their role is in their loved one’s recovery. One of our questions are on our survey, after clients leave is, we ask them, “Do you have the support of your chosen family?” 97% of the people who have responded can say, “Yes, I have the support of my chosen family”.

We don’t even asked about your biological family, but that would be an interesting question to ask, actually. But, at least, that is something that’s built while they’re here, and then just expanded upon. What we’re doing is, we’re triaging, and trying to hit the most important things, while then having that aftercare and that family set up for success when they leave.

David Condos: In addition to substance use and preventive health treatment, Pride also offers a sexual health program, what are some of the challenges that you see patients are facing in that area?

Angi Grassley: For me, what I can attest to just on the phones and answering the calls and such, is that there is a huge connection with the meth and the sex. Our problem lies within how do we have a healthy sexual relationship with someone without the use of meth, or how do we do that without the use of Grinder or other hook up sites. Because, we want to have intimacy, right? We want to have a relationship or we want to have a healthy relationship or what might look like a relationship. We don’t know how to do that without using the substances. They’re so intertwined, right? How do we un-intertwine them to say, “I know that I can go and have a relationship and go on a date and that date doesn’t have to turn into something that I don’t want it to turn into.” How do I do that, how do I break that down and break that apart, so that our clients can start their journey to recovery. We’re really talking about recovering from multiple things there, right? We’re talking about a meth addiction, but we’re also talking about, one, either a love addiction or a sex addiction or problematic sexual behaviors, all those kind of things. How do we undo it?

David Condos: Yes, like you said earlier that they could even relapse on sex and that could put them in a spot where they don’t want to be as far as their substance use.

Angi Grassley: Right.

David Condos: Right.

Anna Hagen: Oh, I was just going to say how many shameful messages we get from society about sex and our sexuality, but having a place for, like Angi was talking about earlier, it’s pretty normal for people to be able to talk about their sexual experiences and have someone else say, “I totally get it.” And how much that connection can really make that shame go away.

David Condos: Yes. It kind of gives them a different starting point.

Angi Grassley: Yes. Exactly. Unfortunately, places that are not talking about some of these things just perpetuate the shame of, “I’m okay. I’m the only one who’s dealing with this.” That’s another difference, I feel like Pride has, is this place of common connection, common humanity of people who get it at a different level.

David Condos: As it often is in this field, it seems like there are a lot of interconnections among these different issues we’ve been talking about. Could you expound on some of the links and the intersections between sexual compulsivity, trauma, substance use, all that?

Anna Hagen: One of the theories I really love is internal family systems. It essentially talks about three different parts of ourselves and how they all work to manage our system and with that, it talks about the firefighters. Those are the impulsive heroic parts that swoop in to help us, so we don’t feel painful parts that we have in the past. Sexual compulsivity, using, all those things are what the theory would call the firefighters that come in to try and manage, so we don’t feel those emotions. There’s another part that are also called managers. Those are things like anxiety or depression or our inner critic. Those work really hard to help us so we don’t feel those emotions.

When the managers get tired, then the firefighters come in, and they’re all working really hard so we don’t feel all the emotions that we don’t want to feel. Essentially, a lot of the work we do here is to help deal with the emotions that we don’t want to feel, trauma, and help us to come from a place of self. Understanding how all of our parts work together, so we can show up in a place of self and understand our system. Works better with a visual drawing, but–


David Condos: We’ll, work with the medium that we have. You did a great job. I’ll wrap up with this final question, everyone who chooses to serve in this field has their own personal reasons for wanting to further the cause of recovery. Could you wrap up by telling us a little bit about why helping people find recovery is so important to you?

Angi Grassley: Yes. For me, it’s personal, right? I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for people who had a passion to do the work when I was needing the help. Just seeing how my life has changed, I love watching people’s lives change through getting connected to the right people, or the right program, or the right therapist, or the right whatever, that works for them. It’s pretty amazing. I got two kiddos, and my 14-year-old, he’s like, “Mom, you change people’s lives. You know that, right? You save people’s lives.” I said, “No, I don’t”. He said, “No, you just need to stop. You do, and you just need to know that”. Just like knowing that not everybody can do what we do. It doesn’t feel like I am special or unique and anything, but just being able to say on the phone like, “Hey, I remember that feeling and I’ve been there, and I’ve done that, and you’re going to get through it because I did, and this is going to be okay.” I don’t know, it just changes who you are.

Once you start changing people’s lives in a positive way, helping them get on a road to recovery for themselves, then what else do you do. You know? I don’t know.

Anna Hagen: I would say, for me, I’ve been in a lot of environments where there’s a lot of things don’t feel real. For me, personally, I felt pretty disconnected, and being in an environment having friendships who are in sobriety and recovery, it feels so much more transparent, more safe, more real, than, I think any other place

I’ve ever been, which in turn makes me feel so inspired by watching people completely change their lives around. The depth of just strength that people have is pretty incredible and I feel like you can see that the most in this environment.

David Condos: All right. Well, Angi, Anna, thank you so much for your time today. It’s been a pleasure.

Angi, Anna: Yes, thank you.

David Condos: Thanks again to Anna and Angi for joining us. Now I get to introduce another installment of our ongoing segment called, Minute of Mindfulness. Together we’ll take the next 60 seconds to slow down, take a deep breath and focus on this present moment. As always, I’ll open things up with an inspirational quote, and then I’ll rejoin you to close out the episode. Today’s quote comes from Carl Rogers, one of the founders of the humanistic approach to psychology who said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

David Condos: This has been the Recovery Unscripted podcast. Today we’ve heard from and Anna Hagen and Angi Grassley of Pride Institute. For more on their services visit Thank you for listening today. Please take a second to give us a rating on your podcast app and subscribe, so you won’t miss out on what we have coming up. See you next time.

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