By Jonmaesha Beltran
Since age three, Heather Genovese knew she wanted to become a doctor.
One day her mother went to the grocery store and left Genovese, her twin sister, and father at home. The three were sitting on a couch, and she asked her father a question — he didn’t answer. She said he experienced a cardiac event. Genovese and her sister sat outside on a stoop in front of their home, crying until their mother returned.
“I remember the doctors taking care of him once we got to the hospital, and I didn’t like not being able to fix things,” Genovese, 52, said.
The now 82-year-old survived the cardiac event, but for Genovese, that was the moment she realized she wanted to make sure everyone was OK.
Forty-nine years later, she still has that same motive — to take care of everyone. She does that for 12 hours a day Monday through Friday and sometimes on the weekend at Southwest Behavioral and Health Services, in a position she never thought she would be in — the vice president of the crisis and opioid services.
“I thought I was going to be a therapist for the rest of my life,” said Genovese, who grew up in what she called an old-school Italian and Hungarian environment, where talking to a therapist wasn’t common.
She started a career at SBH in 1997 while attending the University of Phoenix as a graduate student. In the beginning, she worked Tuesday through Saturday at a group home taking care of older women who had severe mental illnesses. Within six months, she was promoted to program coordinator, and in 2001, another promotion — to the coordinator of the methadone maintenance program. That was the first time she ever worked with individuals experiencing substance abuse.
“Substance addiction, abuse, and misuse grabbed me like nothing else has,” she said.
She added that people don’t wake up one morning and want to develop an addiction — it’s something that happens to them. “And it so easily could have been me on that side of the desk than the other way around,” she said.
People within the LGBTQ community have higher rates of substance misuse and substance use disorders than people who identify as heterosexual, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Last year, 7.6 million adults who identify as LGB had a mental illness and or substance use disorder, according to a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. Another report also showed that members within the community have a higher risk of suicide attempts.
It’s mainly based on the trauma and anxiety we experience, Genovese said.
Bars have become a safe space for those within the community, where they can meet friends and be their true selves. When Genovese came out as a lesbian, she went to Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness, a defunct lesbian bar, to meet friends she’s known for more than 25 years now. But many studies have looked at bars as one key factor that can lead to developing an addiction.
“If you have that personality or the pre-exposed conditions, you’re probably going to come away not managing your alcohol consumption very well,” Genovese said. “Then you add in marijuana, cocaine — back in the day, there was a lot of stuff floating around the bar.”
Genovese wants to show people within the community who are experiencing addiction that they can be happy and their whole selves without being altered.
“We’re already considered altered, and we don’t need to re-enforce that,” she said. “And to live in your clear mind and know that where you’re at and who you’re with is the right reason makes experiencing love and relationships a million times more important and satisfying.”
In addition to helping others, Genovese isn’t afraid to speak up and advocate for what she believes to be right. Once in an executive meeting, she said she called out the people who were a part of the “good ole boy network.” Counseling is a female-dominated field, but for a long time, the executive positions were dominated by men, and sometimes that culture is still present.
“As a woman, I have just as much of a right to be here as the men, sometimes more so,” she said, sitting behind a card that reads, “Some women were made to lead.”
She also isn’t afraid of challenging experts in her field when she knows clients will benefit. In 2008, she and another clinician advocated for the clinician’s 14-year-old son to be taken off his psychiatric medication that caused some of the mental illness he was experiencing. She said the psychologist threatened to strip both of them from their license if something bad happened to the child.
“The best day ever was when he stopped having hallucinations and delusions once he was free of all the meds,” she said, pointing to a picture the child drew of a lion that hangs on a wall in her office.
Genovese and her staff strive each day to connect with their diverse clientele and meet their needs.
“I don’t want [clients] to get forgotten or ignored,” she said. “That’s the only reason I come to work — for the people that we serve.”