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Local Program Uses Instruction on Sexual Health to Help People Recover From Drug Addiction

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Programs that help people recover from drug and alcohol addictions don't usually spend a lot of time teaching healthy sexual behavior. Yet that's a vital part of a recovery program in San Diego called

Local Program Uses Instruction on Sexual Health to Help People Recover From Drug Addiction

(Photo: 30-year-old Gabriel is on the way to recovery from his addiction to methamphetamine. Kenny Goldberg/KPBS )

Programs that help people recover from drug and alcohol addictions don't usually spend a lot of time teaching healthy sexual behavior. Yet that's a vital part of a recovery program in San Diego called Stepping Stone. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has a look, in this second part in our series on sex education.

Gabriel is 30 years old. He's spent a fifth of his life using methamphetamine.

Gabriel: It's robbed me of all my hopes, all my dreams, of my personality, of my sense of self. It took everything from me, it left nothing.

Gabriel says he had to do things he'd rather not talk about to keep enough meth on hand.

A lot of them were sexual.

Gabriel says the more meth he used, the less able he was to connect with people on a normal level.

Gabriel: I did not know what a healthy relationship was, I had a history of being involved in very abusive relationships. And when methamphetamine was introduced into my life, what is basically did, it just allowed me to go numb, and to just experience what I was experiencing without having to be present. And it was really easy for methamphetamine and sex to get intermingled.

About six months ago, Gabriel entered a residential treatment program in San Diego called Stepping Stone. It specializes in helping gays and lesbians recover from drug and alcohol addictions. And it teaches residents about healthy sexuality, and how to have relationships without intoxicants.

Beverly Fisher is Stepping Stone's chief of residential services.

Beverly Fisher: If individuals are not able to have healthy relationships in recovery, they don't have the ability to interact and function well. And so the propensity to use alcohol and drugs and relapse back into that lifestyle would be very likely.

Traditional recovery programs are exclusively focused on getting sober. HIV prevention is mentioned, but sexual health really isn't explored.

Stepping Stone recognizes sex and drug use are so linked for their clients, that an emphasis on sexual behavior is a key part of the recovery process.

Fisher says there's another reason that sex isn't often discussed in most programs.  

Fisher: It's uncomfortable for most individuals. In other words, we started out addressing our own biases, within our staffing team. We had to look at our opinions and our practices and where our level of comfort was.

Fisher says her staff spent months talking and sorting it out amongst themselves, before trying to tackle the sensitive issues with residents.

Psychologist Bill Brock is Stepping Stone's clinical supervisor.

Bill Brock: What we do is we have group meetings every week, for an hour, and go through a whole curriculum of sexual health including you know, human anatomy and physiology, the kinds of problems that people have run into. And then we go into different strategies and different coping mechanisms for dealing with the kinds of problems that come up.

There are one-on-one sessions, too.

Brock says residents have a lot of different issues they're concerned about.

Brock: For example, many people have never had a sexual relationship when they weren't under the influence. Other people have developed a real link between their sexual behavior and their substance use so that, every time they have sex they also are using, or every time they use it leads to some kind of unsafe sexual practice.

  080908-steppingstone-kg.jpg Photo: Stepping Stone specializes in helping members of San Diego’s gay and lesbian community recover from drug and alcohol addiction. Kenny Goldberg/KPBS

Residents learn how to undo the link between sex and drug use. They learn how to set boundaries. And they gain some self-management skills to help them as they move through the recovery process.

Gabriel just completed his stay at Stepping Stone. He says the sexual health component was invaluable.

Gabriel: It was learning to be in touch with Gabriel, learning to be in touch with me, my body. How to communicate what my needs were, how to communicate what I wanted. I'd basically learned a whole way of living; where all of my safer sex practices had gone out the window and my self esteem had gone out the window, and I had to rebuild that from scratch.

Stepping Stone has been using its healthy sexual behavior curriculum for more than four years. And it's had a positive impact.

In the three years prior to introducing the special training, 74 people completed the drug treatment program. In the first three years with the additional training, 101 people graduated.

Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.

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