Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Women's obstacles to sobriety: Isolation, fear, stigma


My latest Addiction and Recovery column

By Bob Gaydos
“I’ve picked up women for meetings and their husbands were on the porch, screaming, ‘Don’t you leave the house tonight! You need to need to be here! Don’t you go with them!’ ”
“Them” would be the women in the car, members of Alcoholics Anonymous picking up a new member to take her to a meeting. This  scenario, described by an Orange County woman who has been sober more than 25 years, illustrates two of the major elements of recovery from addiction for women: 1) the stigma of alcoholism or drug addiction, while lessening, is still greater for women than for men; 2) it is crucial for women new to recovery to have a strong support network of women in recovery.
Women AA members from Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties confirm what is reported nationally --  as challenging as it is for men trying to recover from the abuse of alcohol or other drugs, in some ways women have it tougher.
Fear. Intimidation. Stigma. Shame. Physical and/or sexual abuse. The debilitating physical effects of alcohol abuse. Some or all of those may be part of the story of that woman in the first paragraph who had the courage to get in the car anyway. To “go with them” to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Even then, the challenges persist. Women who have been sober in AA for a while say that one of the biggest issues they faced at the beginning was being able to share at meetings. In AA, sharing one’s story and one’s feelings honestly with other alcoholics is considered important to recovery. “But we’re used to being caregivers,” several women said. “Everybody else’s needs must be more important than mine. Let everybody else (the men) go first and if there’s time at a meeting, I’ll share.”
While more women are seeking recovery today, many AA meetings still have considerably more men than women. “The first meeting I went to was all men and I was intimidated about sharing,” said an Ulster County woman sober for four years.  “So I found meetings where there were women. I went to women’s meetings. We process things differently. We need to have women to talk to. It’s important for women coming in to have other women they can talk to about what’s going on. Sometimes there are things we feel uncomfortable sharing with a lot of men.”
Things like abuse. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, in 2008, 70 percent of women who were in drug abuse treatment reported histories of physical and sexual abuse “with victimization beginning before 11 years of age and occurring repeatedly.”
Despite this overwhelming connection between sexual abuse (including incest), domestic violence and substance abuse, the issues are still often treated separately. Advocates for women in recovery urge dealing with them together.
But even when abuse is not an issue, recovery can be more challenging for women. Two Sullivan County women were asked if there is anything more difficult about maintaining recovery for women than for men. “Not really … except that we always have to prove ourselves. You hear in the rooms talk about ‘women of grace and dignity.’ You never hear them say anything like that about men.”
The stigma. In addition to being a challenge to maintaining sobriety, fear and shame often keep women from seeking recovery in the first place. (Will I lose custody of my children? How can my family get along without me? Will I lose my job?)
According to the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, about 2.7 million women abuse alcohol or other drugs in the United States, the fastest-growing segment of substance abusers in the country. On the positive side, more women are seeking recovery today. Vital to their success, in addition to following whatever program of recovery one chooses and replacing substance abuse with positive behavior, is having other women in recovery with whom to share honestly. To eliminate the feelings of isolation. To remove the shame. To not fear stepping off that porch.


Women and alcohol
According to NCADD:
  • Women who develop alcoholism have death rates nearly 75 percent higher, than those of male alcoholics. Death from suicide, alcohol-related accidents, heart disease, stroke, cirrhosis of liver, etc. occur more frequently in women vs. men.
  • When you compare women and men of the same height, weight and build, men tend to have more muscle and less fat than women.  Because muscle has more water than fat, alcohol is more diluted in a man than in a woman. Therefore, the blood alcohol concentration resulting will be higher in a woman than in a man, and the woman will feel the effects of the alcohol sooner than the man.

A woman’s pattern of drinking is most likely due to one or a combination of factors:
  • Having parents, siblings, and/or blood relatives with alcohol problems.
  • Having a partner, lover and/or spouse who drinks heavily.
  • Having the ability to “hold liquor” (tolerance for) more than others.
  • Having a history of anxiety and/or depression.
  • Having a history of childhood physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse.
Marty Mann, NCADD’s founder, was the first woman to recover from alcoholism in Alcoholics Anonymous. NCADD is dedicated to increasing public awareness and support for women struggling with addiction to alcohol and drugs. www.ncadd.org