Sit for just a moment with your eyes closed, and picture a man who’s just finished a long day of work. He heads out from the office, runs a few errands and goes out to a bar afterwards for a few drinks with his friends. He will close down the bar before finally heading home. What picture of this man comes to your mind?
Now, close your eyes for a moment and visualize a woman ending her work day and meeting with friends for dinner. After this they head to a local bar, and she too will remain until closing before she goes home for the night. Who is the woman that comes to mind? What does she look like? Does she have children? If so, is she a good mother?
Even though there has been a bridging of the gap between men and women in recent years, we still think very differently about the two in terms of addiction. This disease is an equal opportunity destroyer, and in many ways more physically detrimental to women. Even so, they seek treatment less often. The female addict sits in a tremendous amount of guilt and shame, and is afraid to tell even those closest to her the truth about herself. She views herself as a “bad” person needing to become “good,” not as a sick person needing to get better. Many others will view her this way too and it will keep her from seeking treatment.
Women still have many roles and responsibilities as mothers, as wives, and as partners that they feel they must live up to on a daily basis. When they believe they are falling short, they work desperately to correct it or to hide it, making it difficult for family members to identify it early on. When loved ones recognize the signs of addiction, many remain in denial. The stigma is even stronger for pregnant addicts. When you find out that a woman is drinking in her third trimester, the shame, guilt and devastation experienced by the family and by the woman are unbelievably intense, to where they seek no help and no guidance. Not to mention the fact that providers are sometimes just as guilty as everyone else in looking at her as if she were a two-headed dragon.
Women need social and emotional connections with other people to feel happy and fulfilled in their lives. Being alone or, worse, being in a crowd but feeling disconnected from everyone, is a sensation that can lead a woman to use drugs or to relapse in addiction recovery. Women tend to take on multiple projects at work and at home, leaving little or no energy for themselves. They are also likely to feel other people’s emotions or worry about their problems. All of this adds up to a high level of daily stress, which is a big alcohol or drug abuse trigger. All that stress makes women feel tired. Instead of resting, we often do not give ourselves permission to take a break. This is a moment when the urge to use drugs could become strong.
Despite the many hurdles faced by women, recovery does happen. The struggles do continue, however. Continued issues with self-esteem, self-worth, lack of confidence and lack of support and services can make staying sober difficult. It’s especially important that women seek each other out for support in early recovery, and avoid unhealthy relationships and situations that could lead them to relapse. Its also important that women take a different approach to healing. One way this can happen is through treatment that is geared specifically toward women. Co-ed addiction treatment facilities don’t always address the unique needs and challenges that women face. Programs created for women can address issues around guilt and shame, trauma recovery, parenting, self-esteem, and self-worth while addressing the addiction and teaching tools that allow women to develop confidence and self-sufficiency.