Addiction to alcohol and drugs among women overall is roughly half that of men, but addiction in women has been growing at a faster rate than men over the past several years. Consequently, the gender gap has narrowed. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, women addicted to heroin doubled between 2002 and 2013, twice the rate of increase among men.
Many of these women slipped unknowingly into addiction, often with devastating consequences to their health, family and lifestyle. While anyone can become addicted, women have more risk factors:
- Biology predisposes women to become addicted faster: A woman’s body contains less water than men (which means drugs and alcohol in the system are less diluted), more fatty tissue (higher retention) and lower levels of specific enzymes (which leads to slower break down of substances). As a result, women can progress faster to addiction than men as their bodies are exposed to the substance longer and at higher concentration levels.
- Childhood sexual abuse is a significant contributing factor: According to research by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), women who experienced any type of sexual abuse during their childhood were about three times more likely than those that weren’t sexually abused to report drug and alcohol dependence as adults. While sexual abuse can happen to men or women, I often notice with my female patients that childhood sexual abuse was indeed a factor in their addiction.
- More access to addictive medication acts as a gateway: I have noticed that women are likely to seek medication or self-medicate for emotional and psychological issues. Anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder, and eating disorders more commonly affect women and provide them access to prescription medication such as benzodiazepines that carry the risk of addiction. If medication is a prescribed course of treatment, and taken responsibly, these can be very helpful tools, but if somebody is prone to addiction they may abuse medication (as we have seen recently with Lena Dunham) and it can escalate.
- Stress related to family responsibilities and body image management lead to addictive meds: Women are often a focal point of family logistics and many times juggle a demanding career as well. Therefore, they are more prone to start using addictive medication to help them keep up the appearance of being able to juggle their careers and the family effortlessly. Women are also prone to using stimulants (cocaine, amphetamines) to suppress hunger or manage weight.
- Drug use, sometimes, helps bonding with partner: A boyfriend, spouse or other significant partner can introduce a woman to drugs and drug-use rituals like sharing needles. Drug use then becomes a way to cement these bonds.
It is much more difficult for women to make that first call for help, as they sometimes feel they might be abandoning their role in the family. Shame and fear (of authorities separating their children from them) also are barriers to women seeking treatment. If you do need help, here are some things to consider:
- Look for a plan that fits your needs, not necessarily the other way around. I find that women often are the caregiver for their children, the manager of the household, and hold down full time jobs. Stepping away from all aspects of their lives for 30-days of inpatient treatment isn’t always an option. Fortunately, there is an increase of outpatient treatment centers, like the Center for Network Therapy, that offer comprehensive therapy and detox during the day, but enable you to go home to your family in the evenings. If a woman feels like she’s not “letting down her family,” she is often more likely to seek help.
- Consider that you may need help with other issues, in addition to the addiction. Look for a facility that has trained staff to be sensitive to gender-specific issues such as hormonal concerns and evaluating female patients for trauma and PTSD. Often once you start peeling back the layers you can get to the root of the problem, and see that substance abuse was just a Band-Aid for a larger issue.
- Don’t be afraid to get your family involved. Sometimes issues arise at home that impact a patient’s sobriety. Bringing in the family to address these, as well as the impact that addiction has had on the entire family unit, can often help to mitigate risk and resolve old issues.
- Rely on the community. Women are often better able to connect to peers, which makes support groups and other self-help models like sponsors and sober companions a great tool when looking to accelerate recovery.
But most importantly, it’s critical to remember that if you need help there are options available – for those in need, SAMHSA has a huge variety of resources here: https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline.