In honor of the opening of K.C.’s House, Avenues’ new all-gender transitional living house, this month’s article is about inclusivity in recovery spaces. The make-up of individuals in recovery from alcohol and drugs is growing increasingly diverse. Many are from marginalized communities who face additional barriers when it comes to getting and staying sober. As such, the landscape of diversity and inclusion work in recovery should shapeshift to address, reflect, and actively include these individuals. 

Inclusion does not entail dismissing or minimizing another’s experience. It is the practice or policy of providing equal access to resources and opportunities for individuals from marginalized groups, such as people with physical or mental disabilities or those who identity as being part of the LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual), TGNCNB (Transgender, Gender non-conforming, Non-binary) and/or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities, to name a few. As a queer person of color, I can attest to the need for greater inclusivity in recovery meetings and institutions. Let’s take a look at why inclusivity is essential to a more holistic landscape for long-term recovery and how it can benefit everyone involved. 

How Mainstream Recovery Falls Short

Traditional recovery spaces, namely Alcoholics Anonymous, function on the heteronormative and cisgendered insistence that “men stick with the men and women with the women” when it comes to choosing a sponsor. There is also a “singleness of purpose,” which is “to carry the message of hope to the suffering alcoholic” and to avoid discussing “outside issues,” or items unrelated to alcoholism. While I appreciate the focus that this can bring to a meeting, what constitutes “outside issues” can be intrinsic to one’s addiction-recovery story for those from underrepresented communities. The traumas I’ve experienced related to my identity are interconnected to my predilection for misusing substances. I used to disavow my hyper awareness around “otherness” and to feel a part of. Transgender, genderqueer, or non-binary recovering individuals may use to navigate gender dysphoria or express parts of themselves and their gender expression that might have been uncomfortable to do so otherwise. 

 

The Necessity of Inclusivity

Individuals from the LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC community are more likely to experience addiction to alcohol, drugs, and other compulsive behaviors. This can be attributed to many variables including but obviously not limited to race and gender identity-based discrimination and systemic oppression, social stigma, microaggressions, racism, violence, and other kinds of identity-related trauma happening at home. I would argue most individuals recovering from alcohol and drugs are also recovering from a deep sense of abandonment — from self-abandonment in active addiction and being abandoned by friends or family to potentially feeling abandoned and not being seen or heard in recovery spaces that might wave the compulsory, illusory “safe space” flag but really fall short in practice. 

Identity-Specific Meetings

When I started attending recovery meetings in 2014, it wasn’t easy finding people who looked like me and shared lived experiences to mine. The physical make-up of the meeting attendees at my initial homegroups was homogenous. Thankfully my desperation to stay away from the bottle and pipe was such that it didn’t matter at first that I felt like I stuck out; I just needed transient relief and to know that I didn’t have to get sober alone and to see that others, too, had counted days sober just like me. I’m grateful for those older women whose generosity of spirit and nurturing nature kept me coming back, from the way they wrote down their numbers on the back of my NYC meeting list booklet to the way they nudged me to grab coffee and piece of cake or offered a kindred cigarette after the meeting was over. I branched out and started attending meetings designated for women and young people, but the idea that meetings could be created for individuals from marginalized communities seemed so far from reality.

However, I am hopeful that 6 years later, these spaces have started emerging . At the time of writing this article, the Intergroup of Alcoholics Anonymous lists 15 meetings labeled as “Non-binary,” 25 as “Transgender,” and 2 as “People of Color.” Although the meeting locations are temporarily closed due to COVID-19, I trust many have moved online and that the number of these meetings will grow over time to reflect the beautiful diversity of those in attendance. To sit in a recovery space with other similar lived experiences around race or gender identity is invaluable. 

 

Actionable Items Towards Inclusivity

There’s a plethora of actions you can take towards increasing inclusivity efforts in recovery spaces, whether you identify as being part of a marginalized group or are an ally. Try to state your personal pronouns when introducing yourself at a meeting or even type it out next to your name when you log into a Zoom meeting. Normalize asking someone for their personal–not “preferred”–pronouns as well. Using someone’s pronouns and normalizing stating your own is one step in creating a safer environment of mutual respect. When locations for recovery meetings open back up, see if the spot is wheelchair-accessible and if so, see to it that that is listed on the website and print booklet as well.

Inclusivity initiatives shouldn’t just be enacted towards residents, attendees, and clients but towards hiring practices for staff, counselors, therapists, mentors, and other employees as well. Yet it’s also essential to avoid onboarding the token “diversity hire” as many institutions are wont to do. Regardless, all staff members should be trained with cultural competency surrounding the needs of their marginalized clients in order to be closer to creating a safer space. Whether navigating which recovery meetings to go to or sober living to reside in, recovering individuals should also consider who else will be in these spaces and the extent to which the institutions or facilities they may be considering are actively learning and applying equitable initiatives for all residents, including funding for those from marginalized groups.

If you’re interested in reading up on recovery inclusivity, some great Instagram accounts to follow are Recovery for the Revolution and Sober Black Girls Club. Carolyn, creator of the former account says “patriarchal, Christian values often encourage folks to use shame as a tool to get and stay sober…especially if they aren’t ‘working a program’ the way that person determines they should…there exists a continuing ethos that recovery is accessible to everyone, you just have to want it or do it hard enough.” Like Carolyn, I agree that recovery should be accessible to everyone in theory, but oftentimes it is not. To continue to believe such is to be in denial and have blinders on. For those who do not identify as being part of the aforementioned marginalized communities, please have conversations with your friends who, too, are in the majority. This is crucial in terms of growing allyship and strengthening solidarity.

Striving to provide safer recovery spaces for underrepresented groups won’t be a perfect process–there will be disagreement, uncomfortable conversations, and one person’s comfort could easily translate into another person’s trigger in the same space that strives to be safe. This is normal. I’ve found avoiding triggers isn’t helpful to my recovery sometimes, anyway. Sometimes I need to be triggered to unravel some deeper truth about what exactly is making me uncomfortable. The simultaneous beauty and pain of recovery is that it does not discriminate, yet for those from marginalized communities, there is an added layer of needing additional support. I look forward to the growth of meaningful inclusivity initiatives in recovery spaces and the voices these efforts will finally allow to be heard and heal.