Last Updated on February 12, 2018 by Dr. Alberto Solà

The 1960s and 1970s were a great time for both the development and spread of drug and alcohol treatment programs and the growth of women’s rights and equality in the United States.  Unfortunately, however, the fact that each of these things emerged strongly at the same time may have also been a detriment for their partnership.  For many decades, drug and alcohol treatment centers treated men and women who came to them for help equally and identically, and that may have not been the right approach.  The fact is, men and women – while certainly equal – are very different from one another in so many ways, and because of that, there are many ways their approaches to treatment should be different for ultimate success.  Today, most treatment centers are aware of this and are recognizing the differences between men and women, and have adjusted their programs to meet the special needs of each of these groups, and are in turn finding much greater and longer term success when treating their clients.

Myths About Women & Addiction

There are many myths about women and addiction in our society, and unfortunately, despite being myths, many of them are widely believed even today.  First of all, many people believe that men get addicted to drugs and alcohol more often and more intensely than women, and that’s simply not true.  Although historically more men have reported substance abuse, women are generally more likely to hide their addictions – even when asked anonymously – which may be the reason behind these uneven statistics in the past, and today, even the gap of reported use and addiction is closing rapidly.  An estimated 4.5 million women have a substance abuse disorder, 3.5 million misuse prescription drugs, and 3.1 million regularly use illegal drugs – and clearly, this is a growing problem.

Secondly, people tend to believe that men and women get addicted to drugs and alcohol for the same basic reasons, and that’s not necessarily true either.  Although men and women certainly often do have much in common in this area, there are other factors that actually may encourage drug use in some women, which can lead to addiction after a short time. In some cases, drug and alcohol addiction can be caused by mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem, which can be caused by experiences like sexual trauma, sexual assault, molestation, and sexual abuse – all things that women are unfortunately more susceptible to than men.

Furthermore, many people think that the stigma of addiction effects men and women equally; however, women – who today are often the primary caregiver and leader for their families – often tend to be looked down upon when addicted, and fear this being the case.  When a woman cannot take care of herself, her household, or especially her children due to addiction, the judgment from others can be great indeed.  In this way, substance abuse can impact women in ways that it does not effect men, and even after seeking treatment and entering recovery, this stigma can be difficult if not impossible to shake.

Lastly, many people believe women are more likely to seek help and be successful in treatment programs, but really the opposite is true.  Again, due to the stigma of addiction and feelings of shame, women may end up being addicted to drugs and alcohol for much longer than men before seeking help.  And, even after seeking treatment, women have higher relapse rates in many cases, too.

Men & Women: Differences in Addiction

In addition to the above myths, there are many specific differences in the experience of addiction between men and women.  Some of these have to do with sex, that is, the biological differences between the sexes, and some have to do with gender – the differences between the culturally defined roles of men and women.  The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous states that women progress faster in their addictions, and studies and anecdotal research show that women often start using for different reasons, get addicted differently, recover differently, and relapse for different reason than men.  Women visit doctors more than men, so they have more access to people who prescribe addictive drugs, and women in general are often the central, organizing factors in their networks, and as a result, their addictions can in turn negatively effect their whole extended network – such as their children, their parents, and their partners – even more than the addictions of men might.

Sex as a Factor in Addiction in Women

Obviously, women are physiologically different than men.  Not only do women have different parts than men, but also they are often physically smaller, and have different concentrations of hormones.  As a result, women metabolize drugs and alcohol differently from men, and often even a small amount of drugs or alcohol has a much larger impact on a woman than the same amount would on a man.  Research has shown that drugs and alcohol have different effects on women’s brains than on men’s, that stimulants can have more detrimental effects on the blood vessels and heart of a woman, and that women who use drugs are more likely to go to the emergency room as a result of their drug use, or die from an overdose.  Some studies have show that in many cases, women use smaller amounts of drugs for shorter periods of time before becoming addicted, and when trying to stop, women have more cravings for their drug of choice and are more likely to relapse down the line.

Gender as a Factor in Addiction in Women

In addition to physical factors, gender, or the culturally defined roles for men and women in our society, also plays a part when considering women, addiction, and recovery.   Women with stressful careers may be more inclined to use drugs and alcohol to keep up the image that they have it all together – that they are a Super Mom, with a demanding career, who also keeps a perfect home.  Some women may become addicted to stimulants in an attempt to lose weight and stay trim, or to combat exhaustion.  Women who are trying to project the image of a perfect family may not have time for pain, and may self medicate with dangerous painkillers, or attempt to treat mental health problems with drugs on their own rather than under the supervision of a medical professional.  And, as a result of all that, women are often more likely to drink and take pills alone, secretly, and hide it from others due to the shame and stigma that is often attached to addiction.  Furthermore, women are more likely than men to be victims of domestic violence, homeless, or victims of sexual trauma, and each of these things could also lead a woman easily down the path to drug and alcohol abuse and soon, addiction as well.

Why Women Don’t Seek Treatment

Unfortunately, despite all these factors that put women at such risk of addiction, many women do not seek treatment when they have a problem.  The reasons for this are in many cases quite obvious.  First and foremost, women – especially those from lower income backgrounds – fear losing or being separated from their families.  They do not have access to childcare or other assistance that will allow them to attend residential treatment or even regular support groups.

Also, obviously many people of both sexes with drug and alcohol issues often have difficulties admitting they have a problem in the first place, but this step is often especially hard for women.  Many view their substance abuse as a social activity or habit rather than an addiction that is disrupting their lives, or, believe that their use is the outcome of anxiety or depression, and although they may treat the mental health issue, they ignore the addiction.  Luckily, more mental health professionals today have been trained to do very thorough interviews at the inception of treatment to determine if there are additional factors that need attention as well.

The differences between women and men are many, especially when it comes to addiction.  Thankfully, most treatment centers today recognize this and take these factors into consideration when helping women on their path to recovery.  Although addiction is addiction, regardless of the user, approaching women’s addictions with knowledge of the specific factors that got them there and into treatment is vital when aiding them in starting a new and healthy lifestyle.   At Clear Sky Recovery, we of course consider all of these aspects when meeting our clients.  If you would like to know more about the ways in which ibogaine treatment can help you on your journey, please give us a call.  We would love to discuss with you further how ibogaine can help in your specific situation.  Our intake counselors are standing by.