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Brenda Iliff
Brenda Iliff

Addiction and Gender: Recovery for Women

Women and addiction: Why Whitney wasn't alone

Whitney Houston's public battle with addiction and untimely passing has shed light on the growing epidemic of addiction among women in the United States. On the surface, Whitney's story may not feel relatable; she was a high-profile celebrity, a gorgeous woman, with an incredible voice and a very public life.

But she was also a woman - a loving mother, an member of a strong family unit and a good friend - she worked hard and battled personal demons including addiction and her story isn't as uncommon as you may think.

Women are the fastest-growing segment for substance abuse in the United States. In fact, according to the Federal Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, about 2.7 million women in the United States abuse drugs or alcohol. Even more frightening is that the majority who need treatment do not receive it because:

  • They are afraid of losing, or being separated from, their families
  • They view their substance use as a social activity or habit, rather than an addiction that is disrupting their lives
  • They believe that their substance abuse is the outcome of anxiety or depression, treating the mental health issue while ignoring the addiction
  • They are afraid or embarrassed to admit they are struggling with addiction, and hide their drug or alcohol use from family and friends

There are special issues that women face in addiction treatment and recovery. The traditional wisdom of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says that women progress faster in addiction. Now the research is telling us the "why" and more importantly "what" can be done to assist women in recovery.

Women start using for different reasons, get addicted differently, progress faster, recovery differently and relapse for different issues. Due to shame and stigma, women may be more likely to drink/take pills when alone and hide it from others. Some women have their home as their bar and may have three martini play dates with their friends and their children.

Those with stressful careers may use to keep up the image that they can raise three kids, have a high power job and still keep up! With the stimulant drugs some women start using to lose weight. While many women are high functioning and may be able to keep up the appearance of being fine they are unraveling on the inside.

Physiologically women metabolize alcohol and drugs differently then men. Physically one drink for a woman has twice the impact physiologically on a woman that it does on a man. That's not just about getting drunk, that's impact to the organs, to the brain. It's serious stuff!

Mixing types of drugs makes it even more damaging. When mixing chemicals one and one is not necessarily two. Women also tend to have more access to prescribers of medications which can make it even more dangerous.

Yes, there is physical damage but it may pale in comparison to the emotional and spiritual damage done by addiction. When a woman is addicted it can impact the entire family system - since women are generally the central organizing factors in their network (caregiver to aging parent, parent to children, caregiver of older partner, etc).

Women are complicated! In addition a female's distinctive physiology, mental health issues, hormonal differences, spiritual concerns and as well as life circumstances may affect their experience in addiction and recovery. Treatment and recovery are most successful when these individualized needs are taken into account.

The good news is that recovery is natural for women. Addiction is the unnatural state. The female brain is actually wired for connection! Many women find that the support of 12 Step programs and other support groups are exactly what they need to live a life free of chemicals. Recovery is the most critical part of an addicts journey and many find that in recovery they have a life beyond their wildest dreams.

Brenda Iliff is the Clinical Director at Caron Texas. For more information on Caron's treatment programs for women, visit our website. We also invite you to join our free webinar on the Top 5 Issues That Women Face in Addiction and Recovery on April 11, 2012.

About the Author
Brenda Iliff

Brenda Illif is the author of A Woman's Guide to Recovery.