By Michael Rass
Transgender people are at an elevated risk of developing substance use disorders, according to the Center for American Progress. An estimated 30 percent of transgender people misuse substances, compared to around 9 percent of the general population in the United States, according to a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration study.
The stress arising from relentless discrimination and stigma is seen as the principal driver behind these higher rates of substance use. Transgender people frequently turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with these challenges.
To make things worse, medical professionals are frequently uneducated about the specific needs of transgender people. If they seek treatment for substance use disorders, they are often directed to inadequate or ineffective services.
Korryn was one of those patients. For most of her life, she identified as a gay man before becoming a female in her twenties. Born and raised in upstate New York, Korryn turned to drugs and alcohol at an early age. At fifteen, it was cannabis and alcohol; at sixteen, she misused prescription opioids and cocaine. By age eighteen, Korryn’s drug use had escalated to heroin and crack cocaine.
She dropped out of school and then took three years to get a high school diploma via out-of-school study while continuing to use heroin intravenously. She first moved out of her parents’ house at fifteen and eventually moved to New York City.
Korryn was arrested several times and spent a month in jail. She tried to go into recovery but couldn’t find the right rehab center. “At the end of 2014, I started eleven months of treatment but relapsed within days of being discharged. I went on a six-month binge and then went through another detox. That didn’t work, either, and I went on another three-month binge,” remembers Korryn.
“I remember standing in front of a mirror punching myself in the face because I just couldn’t get sober no matter how hard I tried.”
The situation got so bad that her family told Korryn not to come home because they didn’t want to watch her die. She came anyway. “I borrowed money from a friend, took a bus home, and waited four hours at the bus stop while my parents tried to figure out what to do.” They insisted she go into treatment.
“I called my insurance provider and said ‘If you don’t get me into an out-of-state rehab, I’m going to kill myself.’ They gave me a list of twenty-five rehabs and I called five or six of them,” Korryn remembers.
One of the rehab centers Korryn contacted was Lakeview Health in Jacksonville. She was finally connecting with the right program. “Lakeview was the most attentive to my specific needs. They called me back right away and within 24 hours I was on a flight to Florida.”
At this point, she was still referred to as ‘he’ and ‘Chris’ and entered the men’s rehab program at Lakeview. “I felt uncomfortable and out of place at The Star. I asked my counselor whether I could transfer to the women’s rehab program at The Rose,” says Korryn. “Everybody was very understanding and prepared to address my needs. They gave me a tour of The Rose to make sure I felt safe and comfortable there.” Korryn stayed in the women’s program for the remainder of her residential rehab and felt very comfortable among the other women in recovery.
Dealing with her gender dysphoria quickly became central to her recovery from addiction. “They told me, ‘Whenever you’re ready to be referred to as she, we can start the process.’ I changed my name and the way I was addressed during treatment at The Rose, and everyone respected that. My Lakeview counselor helped me through that process. We talked about how to deal with the emotions I and my family might go through.”
The stay at Lakeview became a life-changing experience for Korryn. For the first time, all her underlying issues were addressed successfully. “I came to Lakeview and went through this process of building myself up with a lot of support from the treatment team. Most importantly, I started being honest with myself. I had to get sober and be true to myself.”
The aim of residential treatment at Lakeview is a full body–mind–spirit recalibration of a person’s life—not only the cessation of substance use. In Korryn’s case, that included coming to terms with her gender identity. “My former identity is ‘Drug Chris’ to me now, the unhappy male person who had to use drugs to numb his pain,” she says. “At Lakeview, I became ‘Korryn,’ who is no longer connected to that male person. I stayed in Florida where everybody knows me as Korryn, a woman who does not use drugs or alcohol. I do 12-Step work and go to meetings all the time and I decided not to be attached to that guy Chris anymore because that name brings back so many unhealthy memories.”
Korryn has now been sober for more than fourteen months, she works two jobs, and her family has come to terms with her transformation. “A few months ago, I went back to visit my parents, who hadn’t seen me in a year. My mom cried in the kitchen and gave me a hug. She accepted that this is me. My dad said it was hard to watch my transition on Facebook, but when he finally saw me in person, he realized I’m still his child with the same personality, body movements, and gestures. Except now, everything fits into place. We have an excellent relationship now; they call me Korryn and refer to me as ‘she.’ I’m going home for Christmas this year. In the meantime, I can rely on the support of the Lakeview alumni program and my recovery family in Florida.”
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