Chris Tate, 50, grew up as a straight-A student, raised Catholic in a blue-collar neighborhood near the docks of Long Beach and Los Angeles, with a brother, a sister and a cousin on “almost every block.” He was active in a church youth group.
But he always felt different — something that made him want to leave his tight-knit corner of town. By the time he reached his late teens, he realized he was gay, but he thought he could pray the gay away.
That worked until he turned 21, the legal drinking age, and started visiting gay bars. He had to face who he was.
“You had to learn to deal with your sexuality,” said Tate, a Rancho Mirage resident. “Along with that comes a lot of fears, a lot of stress. The way I learned to deal with the social anxiety of it all, there was a lot of substance abuse.
“One of the things that made me feel part of the group was going out and getting drunk,” he said.
It was fun until it wasn’t. He developed an alcohol dependency that had taken over his life by the time he hit his late 20s and eventually wound up at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage seeking treatment.
The renowned Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation will offer a comprehensive new treatment program starting in June in the Coachella Valley aimed specifically at members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning community, addressing root causes of their addictions in context of their identity.
The program is designed to provide community to LGBT people in recovery from substance abuse, as well as ease underlying related causes such as fear, shame, self-hatred and rejection from society, family members, co-workers that has led some LGBT people to turn to alcohol or drugs, those involved say.
“I think we have an opportunity to offer open healing for so many people who haven’t been able to get the help they need and for so many people who struggle to get any addiction treatment as LGBT people,” said Buster Ross, LGBTQ program director for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.
The center decided to launch the program after conducting research on the patient population at multiple facilities across the country, comparing substance abuse and mental health between 143 heterosexual people and 115 LGBTQ people.
They found that more than twice as many LGBTQ addicts have dealt with physical and emotional abuse than their straight counterparts, and thrice as many suffered sexual abuse. About 14 percent were more likely to have a co-occurring mental illness such as anxiety or depression. The research also pointed to higher rates of chemical dependence among LGBTQ people than straight people, as well as contributing factors such as internalized homophobia and heterosexism.
“These higher rates … suggest issues we’re looking at have to do with addressing cultural commonality,” Ross said. “So many people are recovering from environmental forces that are bigger than individual experiences.”
The program will include LGBTQ-specific therapy groups, individualized therapy, 12-step groups, integration with spiritual and family counseling approaches and volunteer service allowing them to connect with other sober people in their community.
This will include partnership with various LGBTQ organizations in the Coachella Valley that will allow LGBTQ addicts to experience elements of the community culture outside of the party portion of it, project leaders said.
“The same way an LGBT individual moves through stages in the identification process from confusion eventually to a state of pride and this final stage of synthesis going from internalized, secretive to really out, to being in between and integrated. … I think this is going to be part of the larger community healing that’s going to be this shift out of discrimination,” Ross said.
The treatment at the center will allow LGBTQ people to intermingle with straight people. This can allow, for example, people who might have traditionally held homophobic attitudes or had a gay or lesbian child in treatment to open up and familiarize themselves with community members, changing their perspective. It can also foster healing for someone who had parents who might not have accepted them as being gay in their lifetimes but while in treatment connects with a straight resident at the center who might remind them of their parent in their attitudes and values.
“It’s equally powerful for both parties,” Ross said. “LGBTQ people in treatment need heterosexual people as much in treatment as much as heterosexual people in treatment need LGBTQ people.
“There’s a lot changing for LGBTQ people in our greater culture right now as those forces that have had some involvement to do with the negative consequences in community, as some of these forces of negative judgment and discrimination are resolving themselves on institutional levels, it’s also wonderful to see we have the opportunity to heal some of the wreckage of those negative forces and discrimination,” he said.
The integrative treatment program can also include sexual-health interventions for those with sex and drug-linked programs such as methamphetamine use or out-of-control health sexual issues that can cause problems.
The program’s roots
The recovery center merged in September with Hazelden, a much larger Minnesota-based organization with 15 locations nationwide. Together, the substance-abuse treatment giants formed the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, expected to serve more than 15,000 patients in its first year.
Hazelden’s Springbrook location in Oregon launched the pilot LGBTQ program three years ago and is now bringing it to the Coachella Valley. The group typically includes about 15 people at a time. At times, the LGBTQ population has been as large as 25 percent of overall patients.
Many have never been supported in this way, and the traditional model of drug and alcohol treatment has been “slow to adapt” to the needs of LGBTQ people, so this program represents a big step, Ross said.
The foundation has already seen great success in its pilot program in both quality-of-life for patients and their long-term recovery success in staying sober.
Russ Patrick, a spokesman for Hazelden Betty Ford in the Coachella Valley, said that a significant number of gay and lesbian patients have been treated at the center — maybe as high as 10,000 of the more than 100,000 patients who have been treated there since its opening 32 years ago.
The leadership was sensitive to and cognizant of the valley’s large LGBT community, he said.
That included having counselors who were gay or lesbian themselves, as well as offering individualized therapy groups to LGBTQ patients.
But this move is an “even more significant embrace,” Patrick said.
“What’s exciting about the Betty Ford Center now being part of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation is now we can expand our efforts and we can formalize our efforts, and … we’re going to be able to actually do research that is going to yield data that is going to further help us treat members of the LGBT community,” he said.
The new CEO of the foundation, Mark Mishek, tailored Hazelden’s outreach in the past to include ethnic minorities, women and LGBT patients. He told The Desert Sun in February that in his new position, he hoped to reach more people that Betty Ford Center wasn’t able to reach on its own.
Changing his life
Tate noticed bad things starting to happen in his late 20s. He was having alcohol blackouts, getting picked up and forgetting where he was.
Around the same time, he started dating his partner Hugh.
He thought he was in control and could handle the problem. He tried for 20 years.
About two years ago, Tate faced a fork in the road.
“I finally realized that it really was an illness and that I needed to get help,” he said.
His drinking had progressed to the point where he was drinking almost every night he wasn’t working; he was isolating himself more, getting drunk on his couch each night. Hugh gave him an ultimatum — to get help or he would leave.
He realized he had really “stayed stunted” at the level when his drinking became a problem. He continued to maintain the mentality of a 25-year-old frat boy, not the almost-50-year-old man that he was, he said. He hadn’t grown.
Tate checked into an inpatient treatment program at the Betty Ford Center for alcohol abuse for one month and outpatient treatment for two months.
He said it was a time of self-reflection, and he realized that, although his family had told him they loved him even after he came out, he had carried shame, secrets and insecurities since his youth. He had used alcohol to deal with that.
“It’s just when you feel like you’re different, it still affects you,” he said.
Tate was really challenged at Betty Ford and said he benefited from great counselors who helped him recover. He began exercising to help him cope, meditating, participating in therapy groups and spiritual counseling and took baby steps toward experiencing Alcoholics Anonymous groups.
He joined two therapy group tracks — professional and LGBT-specific.
At that time, the group was not labeled as being for LGBTQ patients; it was just known as a “peer group” and not openly discussed. You didn’t know what it was unless you were told to go to that group, Tate said.
“For me it was like, ‘Wow, they want me to be so proud of myself, open about myself, but they’re … whispering at me to go to this group; they’re calling it a special group or special class,’ ” he said.
They kept closing their eyes, he said, partly because there were still a lot of conservatives and they were trying to figure out how to navigate the waters. They knew there should be an outlet for LGBTQ patients but did not know how open to be.
These days, the program has come a long way for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people, he said.
“I’m totally applauding them for reaching them out and it’s so exciting to see that now they’re not labeling it as a special class that they would kind of lead you to quietly,” he said. “They’re kind of saying it’s OK.
“It’s a needed service,” he said.
Tate has come a long way.
His poodle, Mimi, is 11 and greeted him excitedly when he returned from treatment. He made it home. He cried.
Tate, an employee at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, went back to school and will be pursuing a master’s degree in nursing in the fall. He teaches a spin class with “renewed vigor.” He is a secretary in the Betty Ford alumni group. And he continues to go to AA groups about four times each week to stay healthy and strong and not relapse.
He has been with Hugh for 21 years, long enough to look back at old photos and comment on all the changes in their appearance and lives together.
“It’s amazing the gifts I’ve received (since),” Tate said. “It’s just the beginning of my journey.”