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In Eden Prairie, the Pride Institute's 'subdued presence' disguises its national reputation for LGBTQ addiction recovery

The Pride Institute, in its small brick building on Martin Drive and Mitchell Road, is easy to miss from the road. But despite its “subdued presence” in Eden Prairie, as its Director of Utilization Review Ann Lieble describes it, the substance use disorder treatment and recovery center is the only LGBTQ-specific addiction recovery center in Minnesota, and one of just a handful in the country.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people in the LGBTQ community are more likely to use and abuse substances − up to twice as likely, the site says. However, only 7.4% of treatment centers offer specialized services for LGBTQ people, the site says.

That’s part of what draws people to the Pride Institute, from Florida to just down the road in Farmington, Minnesota. According Luke Miller, the Pride Institute’s director of business development, a quarter of the center’s clients come from outside Minnesota to check into one of the institute’s 42 beds.

The ‘Minnesota model’

Minnesota is well-known as a place to recover from substance use disorder and addiction, said Stacy Twite, the interim assistant commissioner for behavior health at Minnesota’s Department of Human Services.

“I think part of it stems from our history,” Twite said.

Since the 1950s, recovery programs in Minnesota have focused on addiction as a disease rather than a personal failing, Twite said, even before it was recognized as such on a national scale.

For decades, treatment centers approached addicts with the idea that after attending rehab once, “boom, you’re sober and you don’t need help anymore,” Twite said, which is not how addiction works.

“Really we know now that this is a chronic illness,” she explained.

It was the state’s reputation as the “land of 10,000 treatments” that drew the Pride Institute to move from its original home in Los Angeles to Eden Prairie in 1986, Lieble said.

Leslie Pender, 59, is a chemical dependency technician at Pride and was a client there as well, in 1987 and in 2015. There’s still a strong stigma against people who are addicts, they said − particularly the mindset that “we made our choices and too bad for us” − but either way, achieving sobriety usually means asking for help.

“Whether you believe it’s a disease or not, it’s a thing, and not easily beatable on your own,” Pender said.

Even non-professionals see the North Star state as the place to recover. Steven Flaa, 59, moved to Minneapolis from Florida to attend Pride’s intensive outpatient program, which is housed in the Lowry Hill neighborhood.

“God knows if you’re going to get sober, Minnesota is the place to do it,” Flaa said.

Seeking acceptance

Jessica Green, 22, knows what it’s like to ask for help and be treated like an outsider. After attempting suicide in her teens, she went to a residential mental health facility, where staff told her that because she’s pansexual, “We don’t know who to room you with,” Green related. At the time, sex and relationships were the last things on her mind, she said.

“I went to seek help and was made to feel like I didn’t belong,” Green said. “Had I had that experience again when I was at rock bottom, I don’t know if I would’ve grasped recovery.”

It’s not just the people in charge who can fumble a client’s experience; the makeup of support groups can make it hard to share the personal stories that help with a person’s recovery. Gavin Kivinen has attended several treatment programs and support groups where other members’ lack of understanding or intolerance of the LGBTQ community made him reluctant to be vulnerable. Family and personal relationships play a large part in many people’s addictions and recoveries, Kivinen said, and without the safety to discuss them, it’s hard find support in the group.

“I felt like a big part of me that was missing,” he added.

Pender experienced a similar reluctance to share about themselves in support groups, though they pinpointed the source of that discomfort from within.

“I have to say that it mostly came from within myself,” Pender noted. In contrast, when they enrolled at Pride, “I sort of felt like I was coming home,” they said.

Flaa agreed. He came out at age 12 and while he’s proud of who he is, “society told us it was not right,” he recalled. “I still remember when (being gay) was a mental illness.”

“I feel so much of my dependence is tied up in my sexuality,” Flaa reflected. “Intellectually, I was saying, ‘I know I’m fine’... (but) there’s a little shame there.”

In order to be vulnerable and do the emotional work to recover, one’s gender and sexuality “has to be a nonissue. Period,” Lieble said, but at non-culturally specific treatment centers, that’s often not the case. Many clients come to Pride after attending programs that didn’t work, and “to trust that this is a new experience, a different experience” is challenging, she said. Despite that, nearly 300 people make their way to Pride every year.

“An inclusive facility is what works for our folks,” Lieble said.

Defeating isolation

The experience of addiction is isolating, all four Pride alumni told Eden Prairie News.

“Loneliness is a big trigger for me,” Kivinen said. Along with substance use disorder, Kivinen experiences anxiety and depression that contributed to his addictions.

“Depression and anxiety are horrible feelings,” he said. “I used to drink to cure the anxiety.”

“Being an addict is one of the loneliest internal places to be,” Pender agreed. “Even when you’re with other people, you’re so alone in your addiction.”

In Flaa’s experience, drinking and drug use was a part of being in the gay community.

“That is so much of our experience of being gay, is going out to gay bars,” he recalled. “That was what you did and it was pretty much your only choice.”

In contrast, the sober LGBTQ community in the Twin Cities is the largest that the four alumni have experienced, they said.

“People want to not center their social lives around a place that serves alcohol,” Flaa said. “It was so good for me to spend time with other sober people.”

Green currently lives in a sober house with 11 other people in Minneapolis. There are several other sober houses nearby, too, she said, and her support network has “quadrupled” as she’s made connections at support groups and with her housemates and neighbors.

“There’s a lot of us. We’re everywhere,” she said.

While Green staying in Minneapolis after Pride is a small move from her Farmington childhood, Kivinen’s choice to stay in Minnesota after growing up in Georgia and living in Florida and California is a bigger change. It’s Pride that got him to put down roots, he said.

“That’s really what brought me here, was Pride, and what kept me here was the community,” he explained.

Asking for help and building a support network went against Flaa’s upbringing, he said: “Lord knows I’m a good Norwegian Lutheran boy,” he joked. But asking for help in a time of need turned out to be more rewarding than he thought.

“It’s really empowering to know people can help you,” he said. “Everybody needs support.”

For Pender, recovery meant rediscovering their own identity as well as bonding with others.

“When I’m in my addiction, I don’t adhere to my value system and I engage in behaviors I would never do as a clean person,” they explained. “I’ve been able to come back to myself.”

Recovery and beyond

The reality of recovery looks daunting. Many of Kivinen’s friends have relapsed, and he has too, returning to Pride several times as well as attending other treatment centers in Minnesota.

“The odds of you staying sober are very slim,” he said. “I’m really taking any advice I can get this time around.”

At the Department of Human Services, Twite sees recovery from a bird’s eye view and says it’s worth investing in holistic programs.

“Treatment is really cost-effective,” she explained. By spending on programs that help addicted people work through relapses, and find work and housing, the state’s costs relating to crime and unemployment go down.

On a personal level, working through relapses is worth it, too, the Pride alumni said.

“I’m living my dreams right now, which is amazing considering how close I’ve come to losing everything in the past few years,” Kivinen said. He’s a stylist and owns his own business, and he’s built a supportive community of friends and loved ones for himself.

“It’s so crazy to me how quickly things can change,” he reflected.

For Flaa, it’s important to keep recovery in perspective and accept difficult feelings as they come. He often reminds himself of some advice that his counselor and friends have told him: “Everything does not have to be OK.”

Still, he’ll mark 18 months sober soon, and he’s built a strong portfolio of acting and directing credits, from performing at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres to directing 18 productions around his home in central Florida.

The road to stability has been a long one for Pender, they said. After graduating from Pride in 2015, it took them four years until they found their place as a chemical dependency technician at Pride.

“It is a little weird to be on the other side of the desk,” they admitted, but “I’ve never had a job I loved more than what I’m doing right now ... It’s nice to work at a place where it’s community. I can be totally out as a queer person and as a non-binary person.”

Green credits Pride with her plans for the future − she’ll graduate with a bachelor’s degree in nursing in December and has switched her focus from cardiac care to mental health and substance use treatment − but she does her best to live in the present.

“I can plan the next five years of my life and I have no control,” Green explained. “The present moment is the only time we can experience joy.”

Right now, “I’m able to leave the house sober and feel OK,” she added. “I’m healthy, sober and grateful.”