Unique Challenges of Women
While addiction to alcohol and other drugs is an equal-opportunity disease, women are affected differently than men. Generally speaking, women progress faster in addiction than men, face different barriers to getting help, and recover differently. Recognizing these differences can be critical in identifying addiction and determining the most effective treatment options.
Women and Addiction Historically
Historically, men have a higher reported incidence of substance abuse and dependence, but women are rapidly closing that gap. Young women and middle-aged women, have an almost equal percentage of drug and alcohol abuse and dependence concerns as do men. Until recently, it was not uncommon for a woman to be diagnosed with a medical condition or mental health concern without being asked about her drinking or drug use. Or, if asked, she may have denied the problem. Today, addiction is more readily identified and directly addressed.
Women Progress Faster in Addiction than Men
The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous said years ago that women progress faster than men. Now science is telling us why, and it’s not because women are the weaker sex. Physiological differences accelerate the progression of addiction in women compared with men. The female body processes alcohol, and to varying extents other addictive substances, differently than does the male body. Women have less of a stomach enzyme that breaks down alcohol. This leads to greater blood alcohol concentration.
Women also have more fatty tissue than men, so alcohol is absorbed better into the bloodstream. One drink for a woman can have twice the physical impact as one drink for a man. Therefore the brain and other organs are exposed to higher concentrations of blood alcohol for longer periods of time and more likely to be damaged.
Women Face Different Barriers to Getting Help than Men
The stigma attached to addiction can be stronger for women—mothers, in particular—than men. Denial, fear, and shame prevent women from looking honestly at their drinking and drug use, and from asking friends or family for help or consulting a professional. Other common barriers to help for women include child care responsibilities, lower wages/less income, substance abuse by a partner or other family members, fear of losing custody of children, lack of access to resources, or feeling unworthy of help.
Women Recover from Addiction Differently than Men
Recovery often happens fast for women. Recovery is a natural for women. That’s because women are wired for relationships, and recovery from addiction starts with connection. The female brain is very different from the male brain, and it starts in utero with the communication centers being different. Women are wired for connection and many women take their worth from the quality of their relationship. Addiction is an extremely isolating condition. Women lose themselves and their most important relationships to addiction. Much of the healing process of recovery revolves around connecting with others who share the struggle.
If you are addicted, and you have the willingness to find help, the Twelve Step program is a tried and true system that has helped hundreds of thousands of people succeed in overcoming their addictions. To learn more about the Hazelden Betty Ford
Foundation and addiction treatment options, call 800-257-7800 or visit us at HazeldenBettyFord.org/Naples.
Brenda J. Iliff, MA is the executive director of Hazelden in Naples, Florida, a part of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. She has more than 20 years of experience in the addiction field, as both a clinician and health care executive, and is the author of A Woman’s Guide to Recovery.
950 6th Avenue North, Naples, FL 34102