Women in Recovery

Q&A, Fact Finding and Myth Busting
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Women often progress faster in addiction than men, face different barriers to receiving treatment and confront entirely different "struggles" in recovery.

Addiction doesn't care about class, color, creed or continent. It just happens. But still it comes with stigma.

People all across the planet talk about this disease of addiction in little moments and big pictures, in tabloids and gossip columns, in a million tiny messages that add up to something certifiably and scientifically incorrect: "People make bad choices: that's why they're addicted."

Now add a million more messages just like it, and there's the devastating power of stigma—and it's working double time to make a dig at women. Our job? To deconstruct and dismantle those troublesome little mistruths. This Q&A will help you get started.

Do addiction and active recovery look different for women?

They certainly can. Women often progress faster in addiction than men, face different barriers to receiving treatment and confront entirely different "struggles" in recovery—based on gendered stereotypes, social networks and communication styles, different cultural narratives and more.

Are women diagnosed with substance use disorders as often as men?

Historically, men have a higher reported rate of substance misuse, abuse and dependence, but women are rapidly closing the gap. Today young and middle-aged women are addicted to alcohol and other drugs at nearly the same rates as men.

Are women often misdiagnosed?

In the past, women often received medical or mental health evaluations without being asked about their drinking or drug use. This is a major problem considering substance use can mirror or mask the symptoms of a mental health disorder.

Fortunately the medical and treatment industries are much better at identifying and diagnosing substance use disorders in women today. But no one will fault you for being skeptical…or for being quick to self-advocate.

Why do women get addicted quicker? Does it matter?

Female bodies process alcohol and other addictive substances differently than men's:

  • Women have less of the stomach enzyme that breaks down alcohol, which leads to greater blood alcohol concentration.
  • Women tend to have more fatty tissue than men, so alcohol is better absorbed into the bloodstream.

Because of these biological differences, women's brains and organs are exposed to higher concentrations of blood alcohol for longer periods of time. And no: it doesn't matter how fast addiction happened or whose body was "better equipped" to digest drugs; everyone deserves love, hope and support.

What barriers do women face when seeking help for addiction?

Everyone in recovery confronts stigma at some point, but stigma for women (mothers in particular) is often louder and more damaging.

Society says women are supposed to be small—both in stature and personality— selfless and caring; they're supposed to be good friends and mothers whose energy is spent doting on others.

There are a million messages and more, each describing what a woman is supposed to be—each more irrational than the last—and each making it that much harder to admit to needing help.

In addition to stigma, other common barriers for women include:

  • Child care responsibilities
  • Trauma and anxiety
  • Lower wages/less income
  • Fear of losing custody of children
  • Lack of access to resources
  • Feeling unworthy of receiving help

Should women consider specialized services like gender-specific treatment?

Gender-specific programs can be incredibly beneficial for some women, while others might prefer simpler programming that's only "sensitive" to gender issues.

It goes without saying: any co-occurring mental health issues, like depression or anxiety, deserve their own attention and could benefit from specialized treatment.

Striking the right balance between substance use, mental health and gender-specific concerns should prove valuable and provide a more personal launch point for recovery.

Gender-sensitive or -specific programming can also help with:

  • Women's relationships
  • Food addiction and eating disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Hormonal concerns and more

Should women address anything specific in early recovery?

After the isolation of addiction, most women are relieved to simply connect with others, finding great joy in their growing recovery community. Obviously, any pressing issues that might lead to relapse are first priority, but addressing any shame-based narratives should be next on the list.

In early recovery, many women find it incredibly worthwhile to reframe their relationship to:

  • Food and body image
  • Self-esteem and worth
  • Stress and boredom
  • Romantic relationships
  • Marriage and support systems
  • Self-medication

What kind of therapy or treatment setting is most productive for women with substance use disorders?

Guilt and shame are powerful deterrents for women seeking help for addiction. So it's important to find and work with addiction or mental health professionals who know how to keep people accountable without blame, fault-finding or judgment.

The old "break-them-down-to-build-them-up" approach doesn't work because many women already feel broken when they check into treatment. Healthy connection and relationships are better motivators—we want to connect with others and feel like we belong, not reaggravate our guilt and shame.

Are there any high-risk or relapse situations specific to women?

Most high-risk situations are universal and can cause a relapse in anyone who isn't careful. But women can (and probably want to) pay special attention to:

  • Cravings
  • The beginning or end of relationships
  • Physical pain
  • Isolation
  • Hormonal changes or imbalances
  • Periods of high stress
  • Boredom and complacency

A Final Word of Advice

Addiction is completely beatable. Women can and do recover, often together, all the time, and many of these issues will respond to a strong Twelve Step program of recovery.

For the issues that don't there are specialized services and caring professionals who can help you unweave shame and stigma, address mental health concerns, process trauma and family of origin experiences, or attend to gender-specific issues, guiding you toward self-loving health.

Help is here. Just reach out and ask.

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