Often, symptoms of the trauma of gender dysphoria need to be lessened before substance use can be treated for transgender and queer people.
People with gender dysphoria experience an onslaught of trauma. First, there’s the turbulence and discomfort caused by society’s judgement that the body you have (which society defines typically masculine or feminine) does not align with the gender that you are. Then, there’s the stress of living in a society that is not often welcoming to or understanding of people who are transgender, queer or non-binary. Even allies can unknowingly cause microaggressions when they rely on an LQBTQ+ individual to educate them about gender and identity.
Unsurprisingly, these traumatic experiences often lead LQBTQ+ people to develop maladaptive coping strategies, including substance abuse, says Alicja Majer, the director of operations at Inspire Recovery, a treatment center in West Palm Beach, Florida that serves LQBTQ+ folks.
“A huge aspect of why we see such rates of self-harm, substance use disorder, eating disorders and suicide among LGBTQ+ people is because of all this internalized distress that is caused by incongruence between how they identify and the sex assigned at birth that resulted in their imposed declaration of male or female,” Majer explains.
When a transgender person enters treatment for substance abuse, professionals often focus on treating their addiction and mental health issues before addressing their gender dysphoria. However, Inspire Recovery takes the opposite approach. Founder and CEO Donna Weinberger explains that addressing the traumatic experience of gender dysphoria and helping clients live as the person they are lays a foundation for healing from trauma, including the substance use disorder.
At Inspire Recovery, clinicians don’t pathologize people with gender dysphoria. Rather, they trust that people who are transgender, non-binary or queer are the experts of their own identity, and take the clients’ lead on how they would like to express themselves and what their identity is. Providers respect clients’ human rights over their body.
“What causes the trauma in people is growing up in a society that is trying to push people to live in an inauthentic way,” Weinberger says. Just allowing individuals to self-identify and honoring their identity is a critical first step for healing, they note. Oftentimes, people come to Inspire Recovery having been misdiagnosed with a myriad of mental health diagnoses, only to find that the symptoms can actually be explained by trauma caused by the experience of gender dysphoria and repressing their true identity.
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