addiction treatment for women

Addiction Recovery for Women

Addiction is a disease that affects both men and women, but that doesn’t mean that addiction treatment for women shouldn’t be optimized for dealing with issues unqiue to women. That’s not to say that each gender would benefit in different ways to the treatment, but any reasonable person would admit that the issues facing women today are different than those facing men.

Since the sexes have some inherent differences, it stands to reason that their experiences with substance abuse will differ. As such, many places have begun offering specialized addiction treatment for women.

Gender-specific recovery programs have become more and more popular because they hold some definite advantages for patients in recovery, since they address the unqiue experiences and situations of their male and female patients individually. Addiction treatment for women can also provide a comfortable environment for healing without distractions or sexual tensions – or temptations.

Men and Women Experience Addiction Differently

The following facts and statistics were provided by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Addiction.

  • Approximately 4.5 million women in the US have a substance abuse issue. 3.1 million use illicit drugs on a regular basis and 3.5 million misuse prescription medications.
  • Women’s body weight tends to be lower than men’s, and they carry more body fat and less water. The body will retain alcohol in its fatty cells longer than if it had a higher water content. A woman’s internal organs have a longer period of time where they are exposed to the effects of the alcohol she has ingested.
  • Women also have lower levels of enzymes capable of breaking down alcohol in their stomach and liver. Alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream at a faster rate for women, which means their blood alcohol content (BAC) will increase more rapidly than a man who has had the same number of drinks during the same period. As a general rule, one alcoholic drink for a woman will have twice the impact the same drink has for a man.
  • When women become addicted to drugs or alcohol, they tend to progress more quickly than men. Their recovery looks different, and they will also relapse for different reasons than men.
  • Women who use marijuana, cocaine or heroin also move from first use to dependence on these drugs more quickly than men. They report having problems of “greater severity” and also have more consequences related to their health than men.

Often, women develop an addiction because of their relationships with the men in their lives. More alarmingly, studies have shwon that many of the surveyed female drug users (over 70 percent) have experienced some form sexual abuse before they reached the age of 16. Many of the women in addiction recovery have a family history where at least one parent had a history of drug or alcohol abuse.

As if all of this isn’t enough, studies show that women are also more likely to be living with mood disorders. Some of these illnesses, if left untreated, cab be quite debilitating.  They include:

  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Cyclothymia (a milder form of bipolar disorder)
  • Major Depression
  • Persistent Depressive Disorder (a long-lasting, low-grade depression)
  • SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)

Addiction Treatment for Women

Women use drugs and alcohol for different reasons than me do, and for this reason, their expectations and goals in treatment will be separate from those of male clients.

  • More Comfortable Women entering treatment are more likely to contribute to group discussions if they feel they can relax and simply be themselves. A female-only treatment environment encourages clients to develop a sense of trust and bonding with fellow clients. Once this sense of trust is established, the participants will find it easier to discuss issues such as:
    • Feelings (Embarrassment, shame, anger, aggression, guilt, anxiety, love)
    • Relationships with spouse and family members
    • Sex
    • Self-esteem
    • Control (Need to be in control, and what happens when they don’t feel they have control)
    • Fear (How does the prospect of living without their drug of choice affect them? Are they concerned about having to “make it” on their own?)
  • No Expectation to Be Tough or Strong — Society puts expectations on women that they should be strong and keep their emotions to themselves, in spite of what they’re feeling. The idea of being someone who needs help flies in the face of the idea that some women (and a number of men) have set for themselves. In a treatment program reserved for women only, this expectation is removed and the participants can focus on doing what they need to do to achieve a new life of sobriety.
  • Less Judgment — Being around men can make female clients feel as though they are less likely to be judged than if there were women included in the treatment group. Some of their experiences with addictive substances may include episodes where the men have acted out aggressively (verbally, physically or both), and discussing these incidents may be very challenging for female clients to hear without reacting as if the incident took place in the present day.
  • Less Time Spent Discussing Gender Issues — Men and women will both have gender issues when in treatment. A group for women only will not become “stuck” specifically on men’s issues in group, but will instead be able to spend time on the reasons why women become addicted, and the pressures they face as wives, mothers and daugthers.
  • Discuss Their Common Experiences — Clients participating in a male-only treatment program will be able to interact with each other in a manner based on having shared similar types of experiences, even if their backgrounds are dissimilar.


Cultural Issues and Women

Traditionally, women have had the role of caring for the home and children. They are the foundation of the family and the caregivers for everyone in the household. And, as women have taken on a greater role in the workforce, many of them have found it difficult to give up the feeling that they should still be the primary caregiver for the family and their children.

It’s often difficult for them to go to treatment because they don’t want to face the criticism (either direct or implied) that they are letting their families down by taking time to look after themselves and getting help for their substance abuse issues. Women in a gender-specific treatment program can discuss this aspect of getting help with other clients who will have a true understanding of their point of view and get support for staying in the program.

Women and Body Image Issues

Women in drug and alcohol treatment programs are more likely to have body image issues than men. These may need to be addressed in therapy as part of their treatment. Since these issues tend to involve a woman’s sense of self-esteem, self-worth, and value, female clients may not feel comfortable being open about them in a group that includes men.

A treatment program for women only would be an atmosphere that would encourage open and honest sharing.

Parenting and Addiction

The women coming into treatment for their addiction may have concerns about whether admitting they have a substance abuse issue and getting help will have a negative effect on their status as a caregiver. To be branded an “addict” is not considered a positive label. The mothers may need to talk about their feelings around what it means for them to have lived with their addiction while trying to care for their children.

If their children no longer live with them, or they have limited access to their children because of drug or alcohol use, the women have thoughts and feelings to explore those ideas, as well. These are difficult ideas to address, and women would feel more comfortable discussing them with other women present.

Abuse or Sexual Assault Survivors in Treatment

Placing women who have been the object of abuse (verbal and/or physical) or sexual assault in a treatment program which also includes men who have anger issues, or have been offenders, is not an appropriate mix to help women deal with their experiences and move into sobriety. The survivors need to feel they are in a safe place where they can express their feelings about their experiences and come to terms with them.

Having males in the same space coming at the experience from its “opposite” side will not help at this stage.


If you or a loved one needs, help, contact us now to discuss your options.


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