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Unique Challenges Facing Women Entering Recovery

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By, Deborah L. Miller, MA, LCDC, NCC, LPC-I

As a recovered alcoholic who became sober on 12/12/90, I’m extremely passionate about caring for women in recovery. When I went into treatment for my second time following an unsuccessful attempt in 1988, the setting was a 28-day treatment center for both men and women. Twenty-five years ago, gender-separate treatment wasn’t considered necessary and dual diagnoses were rarely addressed. Thankfully today, women seeking treatment for alcohol and drug addiction issues have many more options, yet several obstacles still remain to getting the help they need.

Back when I was in treatment, most of the addiction counselors were men, and their approach was pretty gruff. Although these counselors meant well, the type of advice they were spouting amounted to saying things like “put the plug in the jug.” Because some of the other women in treatment with me had a history of rape, sexual abuse, and marital problems, they really didn’t feel safe and empowered to talk about their very private and personal challenges with male counselors.

Around forty patients accompanied me on my personal journey, and nearly one-third of them were women. Out of this entire group, I know of about four who are sober today –three of us are women!

Women are tough. Women persevere…

I’m pleased to report that here in Texas at Hannah’s House by Origins Behavioral HealthCare times have changed. We are fully aware of the drastically different issues and needs of women trying to recover. We want to offer as much encouragement to our clients as possible as we create a safe, nurturing space for them to heal.

Our unique dual diagnosis addiction treatment center is staffed by women and is exclusively intended for women. Most of our female staff have recovered from substance use and trauma themselves and are passionate about helping women get stronger and stay well. At Hannah’s House, we understand the barriers to entering treatment that women specifically face.

Obstacles still exist

Some of these challenges were highlighted in a 2010 article by O.D. Taylor entitled “Barriers to Treatment for Women With Substance Use Disorders” written for the Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment. In it, the author offered research showing that women are much more likely than men to experience:

  • Domestic violence
  • Homelessness
  • Victimization
  • Sexual trauma
  • Sexual assault
  • Molestation
  • Sexual abuse

These barriers often lead to co-occurring mental health disorders such as:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Eating disorders
  • Low self-esteem

Any one of these barriers or mental health disorders can contribute to an individual’s substance abuse issues. When these challenges are combined with a lack of access to childcare, a fear of stigma, and an unfavorable family or financial environment for women who also happen to be mothers, the pressures become even more enormous.

Unique challenges of mothers

At Hannah’s House Texas, we are currently seeing more pregnant women in treatment than ever before. These expectant moms along with other women, who already have small children, will often not seek treatment for fear of losing their children.

Likewise, often a woman will have trouble with the concept of being less than a “good mother” in the eyes of society as well as her own. This self-inflicted shame and guilt is probably the most traumatic experience of all. The tragedy is that she is not just struggling under the influence of drugs and alcohol, but also suffering under the judgment of a society that enforces her belief that it is better to be an impaired mother rather than to admit the problem and seek help.

In another article published in Women’s Health in 2008 entitled “Treatment of Substance Abuse During Pregnancy” the authors Lester and Twomey examined the evidence that pregnant women with substance use disorders have a number of special needs requiring medical, psychological and social care. Careful assessment and screening is critical to being able to tailor individualized interventions and achieve beneficial clinical outcomes particularly for mothers and newborns.

At Hannah’s House Texas, we understand that women need to build trusting, therapeutic relationships in order to get well. We routinely ask them to weigh in on the host of challenges and barriers to treatment they have faced and are currently facing. We encourage them to tell us about the good and bad experiences they have during the course of their treatment stay so that we can support and meet them where they are.

Pressure from loved ones

Some unfortunate experiences may come directly from their loved ones. Women are far more likely than men to have drug-using partners or “drinking buddies” who encourage them to stay sick rather than get well. Not long ago, one client’s husband shared that he wanted his wife to drink responsibly and not get in so much trouble, but he really didn’t want to lose his drinking buddy entirely. We hear requests like this all the time. Some men say, “Teach her to drink responsibly” or “Just help her cut down on the alcohol.”

Later, when their loved one begins to heal, we’ll hear, “Oh no! She is learning boundaries. She is learning to take a stance now.” Suddenly these men begin to panic. They don’t want that to lose the control they’ve always enjoyed over their spouses. They’ll say things like, “She is so much better now that she really doesn’t need the full 90 days” and “Thanks for your help, but she can just come home now.”

Hope comes from holistic care

Examples like these show that there’s much more guilt associated with women alcoholics and addicts than with men. Because of this, there will always be an ongoing need for creative solutions to the multiple barriers keeping women from getting the professional help they deserve. Gender-separate recovery programs offering holistic, integrated care like those at Origins Behavioral HealthCare provide the safe spaces women desperately need to get well again– both for their families and for themselves.