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What Does Being Female Have to Do with It?

The developmental and psychological pathways that lead women to drug use are different than those followed by men. Female addicts and alcoholics exhibit more depression and more suicidal tendencies than males, and report a far greater incidence of physical or sexual abuse as well a greater incidence of family substance abuse.

Women also tend to get to treatment at much later stages of the disease than men, due in part to our society’s reluctance to acknowledge female alcoholics and addicts.

It starts early. One study revealed that the average age of a child when she or he learns of Dad’s alcoholism is approximately 12.6 years. The average age of the child who recognizes Mom is an alcoholic is 18.3years. The fact that women hold many more menial positions in the workplace or do their work in the confines of their home helps them to more easily “hide”.

We need to acknowledge that culturally many women have lower self esteem than men. The shame of being a woman goes way back, as is evidenced by the quote of Thomas Aquinas: “A woman is a man gone wrong”; or the Orthodox Jewish prayer: “Dear God, thank you for not making me a woman”.

Women who are addicted carry not only the cultural shame of being a woman, but also being a woman who is alcoholic or addicted. If a man drinks he may be considered to be funny, just acting foolish or simply having a good time. When a woman drinks she is called a lush, a “floozy”, sometimes a whore.

Because of their sensitivity to relationships, women will often take care of others before they care for themselves. Recent studies on women’s development reveal that this is not necessarily pathological. Men are trained to develop an ethic of “justice” while women are trained to develop an ethic of “care”. Nevertheless, women are as often called codependent and, again, shamed because of their caring.

Many women have medicated themselves with drugs or alcohol to avoid dealing with the pain of childhood sexual abuse. In fact, the majority of addicted women have a history of incest, sexual abuse and physical abuse. In these cases, women have used alcohol or drugs to self induce a dissociative state. These painful memories may recur. Counselors who deal with women need to be aware of women’s inherent shame and low self esteem. Because of these feelings, it is possible that once a woman is sober, rather than feeling better, many recovering women find that they need help for depression, obsessive compulsive disorders or eating disorders which are all powerful triggers for relapse.

While delving into these issues may not be totally appropriate in early sobriety, women need to learn how to soothe themselves when flashbacks and anxiety occur. If a woman brings these issues forward in treatment, then it will be crucial for her to know she can get help.

Communication is the key to success. I suggest to women in recovery that if they find that during or after treatment they suffer from depression, anxiety, eating disorders or other problems, they should communicate this to their loved ones. It will not only help them to understand why the woman may be having a difficult time, but it will also provide the woman with the support she needs and deserves.

It is of utmost importance for women inpatients to talk about their relationships with their spouse and their children before returning home. One aspect of the homecoming that recovering women fear most is their ability to be intimate and sexual with their partners.

Many women feel that they can only be romantic or sexual when they are using. We need to remind women to be gentle and patient with themselves while they discover their sober, recovering lives.

If a recovering woman is reluctant to return home, we cannot assume that her reluctance is simply a normal response to returning to family life; it may be violence or battering she fears. If we ask a woman if she is being beaten at home, she will probably say no. However, if we ask specifically, “Have you been shoved, slapped, bruised or threatened?”, we may get a very different response. If a woman is returning to a home where she is battered, then her sobriety and quite possibly, her life are at risk. We must provide her the resources for help.

With most of the addictions research based on men, it is no surprise why many women have difficulty in the treatment and recovery process of addiction. Carol Gilligan, author of In A Different Voice, puts it eloquently: “It all goes back to Adam and Eve, a story which shows, of course, that if you make a woman out of a man, you’re bound to get into trouble”.

Recovery means finding a way of living that works for us: spiritually, emotionally and physically. We need to attend to the special needs of women to help them find ways of making their lives more joyful, peaceful and loving.

Rokelle Lerner, MA, is a nationally sought after author, speaker and trainer on relationships, women’s issues and addicted family systems. Reprinted with permission.