Because I sometimes find that the issues therapists deal with differ by region, I like to chat with men and women at the forefront of our profession in various areas of the country. Among these clinical leaders is Jeff Zacharias, Owner, President, and Clinical Director of New Hope Recovery Center in the Lincoln Park area of Chicago. New Hope primarily serves Chicago’s LGBT community. Jeff also has a private practice in Lincoln Square. He specializes in the treatment of all forms of addiction, with a focus on sex and love addiction.
Recently I spoke with Jeff about the issues he commonly sees in the Chicago area, and how he and his colleagues approach treatment to those particular challenges.
Can you tell me a bit about your background, including what led you into the treatment of addictions, and what caused you to focus on LGBT issues?
I’m LGBT myself, and I’m in recovery. I have been for 11 years. Back when I first got sober and was trying to figure out what my life’s work was, I decided that I wanted to help others with similar issues. To that end, I went back to school and I got my licensed clinical social worker degree, plus a number of degrees since then. As for the specific path I’ve taken, back when I went into treatment there weren’t a lot of LGBT treatment options, even in a city the size of Chicago. I think that’s when the seed was planted to create something different. So here we are 11 years later and my husband and I have a company that we own, and we have really honed in on serving the gay community.
Do you treat non-LGBT clients, or is your clientele exclusively LGBT?
We have a number of straight-identified clients at New Hope, but a large part of the work that we do there, and that I do in my private practice, does focus on the LGBT community. In fact, at New Hope we’ve built a whole curriculum for the LGBT community. We have the general curriculum for everyone who’s dealing with addiction, and then we have a program that’s tailored more for the LGBT clientele. There is a lot in common, be we recognize that LGBT clients arrive with different traumas, different body image issues, different eating disorder issues, all sorts of different issues. So we do programming for everyone, although my personal love is programming designed for the LGBT community.
Could you elaborate a bit on the differences in programming?
I can. With LGBT clients there is usually a lifetime of issues that go along with being gay in addition to that individual having been drawn into an addiction. There’s bi-phobia, trans-phobia, homophobia, all of that. Usually there is also some really deep attachment trauma. If as a child your caregivers, your parents, resented you for being gay, or even a suspicion of being gay, then you probably experienced a significant attachment disruption. Plus, a lot of our clients are gay men who are HIV positive, and there’s some real trauma regarding that. Even within the gay community there can be trauma about that, as not everyone is completely accepting of somebody who’s HIV positive. Sure, there’s a real difference between a city like Chicago and a city like Bozeman, Montana, but we still have a lot of prejudices even in a major urban setting. In short, there are some really core issues that I think are just a little bit different for the LGBT community, and they need to be addressed differently than they would in a straight-identified setting.
Yes, it really is a different set of trauma.
Definitely. Bullying is a key trauma that a lot of LGBT clients must deal with. Even bullying within the community is a big issue. The LGBT community is not all sweetness and love and peaches and cream. There are factions within the gay community, as well as what happens out in the general public. It can all be incredibly traumatic. Plus, within the community there’s a lot of ageism, body-ism, classism. That’s why we do things a little differently with the LGBT program. What works there might not work as well with a straight-identified group, and vice versa.
Among your clients, what are the most commonly abused substances/behaviors?
I think with gay men what we are seeing primarily, and it’s been this way for a while, is a lot of meth usage that’s fused with sex. So we’re not able to say, “All right, we’re going to just treat the meth usage and not worry about anything else,” because there’s significant sexual acting out fused with it. And most of that sexual behavior is enabled by technology – Grindr, Scruff, and some other apps. So with gay men we tend to have a lot of stimulant abuse coupled with sex addiction, and we have a lot of alcoholism as well. With lesbians, we tend to have a lot of alcoholism, and a fair number of prescription medication issues. With our transgender clients, what we tend to see is a lot of street drugs – mostly crack cocaine and heroin – because a lot of them are living on the street. That’s what we tend to see a lot of. Although as soon as I say that we’ll have a gay man walk in who’s abusing something completely unexpected. So it wouldn’t be fair to say it’s only one thing or another with any particular population because every person is different. But those do tend to be the overarching issues.
Do you find that within the gay community there’s a lot of “don’t mess with our party” resistance to recovery?
There is a lot of that. An interesting conundrum is that a lot of social service agencies, whether they’re community centers or AIDS advocacy organizations or whatnot, they can be fueled by alcohol-related donations. So Absolut Vodka could sponsor an AIDS fundraiser, and a lot of the men and women attending that fundraiser are impacted by alcohol or some other form of addiction. In that sense, it can be tricky to talk openly about addiction and recovery. Plus, there is absolutely a fair amount of exactly what you said – people thinking, We have been squashed down for so long, and we weren’t able to be who we wanted to be, and now we’re free to do as we please, so don’t you dare rain on our parade. We want to have a good time. Again, it can be a delicate balancing act to talk to those folks about addiction and the problems it causes.
You mentioned digital technology. How has that impacted sex addiction in the gay community?
The thing with technology now is that everything is so rapidly available. In years past, maybe 10 or 15 years ago, you had to be really active in searching for porn. You had to go to a bookstore to find it, or maybe you found a magazine at a gas station or something. Now you can get it anywhere, anytime. You can be looking at porn on your smartphone while sitting at your desk at work, and no one is the wiser. You can go out on your lunch break and get your sexual needs met via Grindr, and then come right back to work. Sex is just so darned easy to get now. So if you have a sexual addiction, you can get those needs met 24 hours a day with no break.
With sexual addiction, sobriety is defined differently for every client. That said, what are the typical goals that sex addicted clients have when they come to see you?
As you said, that really depends on each person. With every client I see I ask questions to find out what healthy sexuality might look like for them. A lot of the time, when we’re trying to figure out what healthy sexuality looks like, the client needs to step away from sex completely for a period of time until he figures out what that is, and then he can start to incorporate that vision that down the line. The work that I do is very task-oriented. I’m having them go to meetings, and I’m having them go to therapy, and I’m having them go to groups, and I’m having them doing assignments, and throughout all of this we’re constantly looking at what healthy sexuality looks like. And it really does vary from person to person. What works well for one client might be incredibly problematic for another, and vice versa.
Do you have gay marriage in Illinois?
We’ve had civil unions in Illinois for about two years, but as of June 1 we have gay marriage on the books. So anybody can get married as of June 1. That’s exciting here.
Is that impacting your clientele? Do you have gay sex addicts showing up because their partners suddenly want them to be monogamous?
The clients that I work with in my private practice, and the sex addicted clients at New Hope, tend to be partner-less. There are some who are partnered, but most are single. That may be by design because they’re trying to protect their addiction and if they have a partner that person might put the squash on it. Or it might be a situation where the partner said, “I can’t do this anymore,” and left. Either way, very few of my sex addicted clients are actively in a serious long-term relationship. So I don’t know that marriage will have an impact on what we do. I guess we’ll see in time what happens.