Van Ness: Our First Home

In 1973, the Van Ness House opened its doors. Finally, we had a place to call home, where being gay or lesbian was totally accepted. In 1973, this was no small miracle; same sex behavior was not legalized in California until 1976. Our home on Van Ness Avenue was the center of Hollywood, in a residential neighborhood, surrounded by families. Gay and lesbian alcoholics and addicts could now have access to help. substance abuse treatment, and nightly AA meetings geared directly to them. As an added benefit, other gay and lesbian community members could come , participate, and lend their support. There was no longer a need to hide. LGBT men and women could address their substance abuse issues in a warm, welcoming home that was accessible, comforting, and above all, safe. For over 13 years, the Van Ness House program flourished, helping addicts and alcoholics change their lives.

In 1985, the Board of Directors was approached by a local television station interested in buying the Van Ness property. The offer was a welcome opportunity for change and possible expansion. The VNRH had developed a waiting list for far too long for its capacity. Wanting to stay in Hollywood to be close to the community being served, the Board of Directors spent hours driving around the neighborhood. Finally, they found a gem in a perfect location: a house for sale at the bottom of Beachwood Drive. The house was purchased with the down payment from the proceeds from the house on Van Ness. The process was not easy, though, as there were new codes and regulations that were a concern, including a “zone variance” that had to be approved due to the additional space and the house’s location across from a school. In early 1986, though, the Van Ness House moved to its current location. There was space fir twenty treatment beds instead of twelve to serve more in need. While a challenging time in the history of the VNRH, the house clearly had, and continues to have, a Higher Power (HP) guiding the work along. 1919 North Beachwood Drive has been home to the Van Ness House since 1986, and it continues to be a beacon of light for those addicts and alcoholics who seek its help.

1919 North Beachwood: Our Home Expands

The first year on Beachwood was exciting and fun. More space meant bigger meetings, and the beautiful pool meant we could host barbeques and pool parties. Along with the fun, there was also fundraising. The space needed renovations for the additional beds, so the program had to come with a consistent fundraising platform. BINGO it was! Thanks to the very hard work of our board members, the VNRH started off-site BINGO games twice a week, one weeknight and every Saturday. Through this intensive group effort and the gracious donation of the volunteers’ time, VNRH Bingo took off like wildfire. The needed funds were raised and the work could begin! By the end of 1988, the renovations had been completed and the house could officially accomodate 20 clients. This was no small feat, and another example of our Higher Power at the helm.

It was at this same time, around 1988, that the VNRH had to acknowledge a profound shift in the community. The Board, the staff, the residents, and the larger LGBT community were now struggling to cope with a newfound disease, AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), which was decimating the population. AIDS was real, and many in our community were being diagnosed with this deadly, unpredictable disease. Gay male addicts and alcoholics who were IV drug users were hit hard by the virus. Many were sick, many were dying and many were being rejected by their families. The words, “We are your home” took on an entirely new meaning. In this dire time, the VNRH made the commitment to support any board member, stagg, resident or community member who became ill from the virus and to help them with any treatment or hospice-type care necessary. The virus did not discriminate based on age, race, gender, sexuality, education, or even sobriety. It was a heart-wrenching time, yet it was incredibly gratifying to be spiritually present to support new residents who truly wanted to get sober so they could be present for their own passing. The tremendous courage and humanity that led to that commitment to accessibility has been part of the fabric of VNRH ever since.

In just six years, between 1988 and 1994, the VNRH lost fifty percent of its Board members, staff, residents and alumni: seventeen staff members, twenty-six board members, and countless supporters. Coping with loss and disease not yet understood, the VNRH counted on the collective strength of its staff, residents, and sober graduates to help dying people who wanted to attain sobriety during their last days. At a time when the world shunned people with AIDS, the Van Ness House made certain that no LGBT individual who wanted to be sober had to die alone. Courage and faith gave strength to each new resident and newcomer. The Van Ness House had as many sick people lying on sofas for meetings as it had people sitting in chairs. When the time came, the VRH hosted numerous memorials at the house itself for its residents whose families had turned them away, as so many LGBT sons and daughters had been. The memory of each one of those souls who were lost to HIV still cradles us here at the Van Ness Recovery House. They are remembered as we work to continue helping people accept sobriety and accept themselves.

Advances in Medicine

In 1994, the Van Ness House started to see another big change. Residents who already knew they were HIV+, or those that tested positive after entering the house, now had a chance to be connected to medical care and start new combination medications to strengthen their immune system and battle the virus. AZT had been the only treatment option, but now there were others that were more effective. VNRH became a place of renewed hope. People were no longer getting sober with the certainty that they would die, but instead had new hope for building a foundation for a new sober life! People could treat their HIV and sobriety at the same time.

VNRH has always supported caring for the “whole person” in sobriety, so it was natural that the program began to support discussions in which both HIV positive and HIV negative residents could talk about and share their experiences without judgement. HIV negative gay men who lid not seroconvert, even though they were participating in the same sexual behaviors as their HIV positive brothers, felt survivors guilt. We knew that everyone must be given their voice to express whatever feelings existed related to these issues. For both HIV positive and negative individuals, these conversations created and continue to create a freedom and openness to talk about sexual health and what that means. Thankfully, the VNRH continues to support these open discussions and dialogues in treatment. They continued to be available for alumni as they travel along their sober journey and come back to assist others who struggle with the same feelings they have had.

The Advent of Meth

In 2002, the VNRH started to notice a new and scary trend. Cocaine and heroin had been the drugs of choice, but now crystal methamphetamine or “crystal meth” began to eclipse them. Those entering treatment now presented with completely different symptoms. Typically, Alcoholics would enter treatment and shake as they took some time to sober up. Individuals coming off cocaine were tired and required sleep time and rest. Those coming off crystal meth, however, needed food, hydration and sleep continuously for at least five to seven days just to come to life. They hallucinated, hearing voices and experienced psychosis that had not been previously seen by drug treatment providers. While meth use increased in the community, the availability and prevalence of cell phones did, too. Methamphetamines coupled with cell-phones proved a toxic combination. A combination that enabled addicts to act impulsively on the “I want what I want when I want it” part of their addiction, while also fueling their intense paranoia about being surveilled in their active psychosis. It became clear that the VNRH needed to stick with pay phones only. No newcomer who had a cell phone and applications geared toward sex hook ups and the easy drug access that came with them could expect to develop sobriety. We still use a pay phone to this day.

The VNRH had many, many electric sockets pulled out by paranoid clients, fire sprinklers removed from ceiling pipes by psychotic clients who believed they were being watched through them, and residents in morning group who thought a picture on the wall was talking directly to them. This was truly a new drug with its own challenges. Psychosis was real and took a long time to dissipate; how we provided treatment had to change! The House developed a four to six-month program, as many newly sober men and women required at least one month to return to a perception that was in line with reality before they could embark on a program and a path to long term sobriety.

A Deeper Understanding

VNRH was fortunate to take part in some of the first studies on crystal meth users and the impact meth has on the brain over time. These studies and findings offered insights and hope that helped us map out a course of treatment that led to fewer and shorter relapses: instead of relapses lasting weeks or months, most relapses were twenty-four to forty-eight hours long. Treatment providers were able to use results of these studies to educate crystal meth users on the “why of psychosis,” and explain the role of dopamine and serotonin depletion. We now understood why when a resident who had 45 days or 6 months of sobriety continued to feel sick and depressed despite the love and support that surrounded them. We now understood the role of neurotransmitters. With the depletion of neurochemicals that translate ‘feel-good feelings” to the receptors in their brains, clients needed extra support. The brain was rebuilding, recovering, and rewiring itself.

Treatment also had to address why dark, secret, and anonymous sex was such a trigger for so many of the residents. Overtime it became clear that the root of nearly every relapse was sex. We knew now that sober, healthy sex had to be incorporated into treatment. It had to become something that could be talked about in the light of day, with support and understanding. Since sex was a large part of meth use, dangerous and damaging patterns of behavior that surrounded using had to be undone. New patterns of sex had to be discovered and practiced in a sober, healthy fashion. A major feature of meth addiction is the user feeling they can get a “quick fix” to problems. Now in sobriety, we had to help the newcomer understand the “I want what I want when I want it” thinking and acting style of the addict. We had to teach that sobriety was patience, tolerance, and love. In addition, because of the strong emotional, behavioral and psychological inhibition that occurs with meth use, many seeking sobriety experienced tremendous shame and guilt around the events that occurred during their drug-fueled binges. The VNRH program now helps individuals directly oppose the quick-fix thinking behind meth use and helps addicts in sobriety learn to transform their selfish, self-seeking and self-centered behavior into service, rigorous honesty, and meaningful amends.

A Changing Pace & Program

It has been 45 years since the first resident entered VNRH. The world has changed dramatically. What seems to have changed the most is the pace of life- everything is “now” focused and delayed gratification is not in fashion. Contrarily, sobriety is about learning to be still in our own bodies, to live in the present moment, and to understand that the promises only come with time. Meetings have changed from the hour-and-a-half that so many of us were raised with in AA/CA/NA. Now, an hour-and-a-half is too long! The breaks of those longer meetings encouraged fellowship – 15-20 minutes to meet others at the meeting, to have someone notice you and reach out their hand. These were moments where aloneness disappeared, and hope entered. The new pace of life seems too often to be “show UP, sit down, get UP go!” In truth, newly sober men and women still need the same free time others did back in 1973, when all those unscripted conversations and person-to-person visits took place on the front porch of the original Van Ness House. Thankfully, the Van Ness House supports the community of newcomers and sober individuals alike by having a place to meet-and-greet in the foyer of the Beachwood home. I believe what is certain is that newcomers still need to hear from others about “how it works” and deserve to be shown that fellowship really is a critical component of sobriety and recovery. Individuals seeking sobriety cannot do it alone. Having a support group that is willing to slowly and frequently share their encouragement and support in the moment, in the hour, and in the day, is still necessary to engender continuous sobriety. As the book says, “Yesterday and tomorrow are none of my business -my goal is these twenty-four hours at hand” and “We must pass it on to keep it–it being the miracle of sobriety”