In the early 1980’s I was working as a nurse, fresh out of college, and found myself caring for a couple of patients whose illnesses totally baffled the doctors. One day while I was caring for one of these very sick gentlemen, and doctor informed me that they thought they might “have that AIDS that everyone is talking about all over the news.” We were all terrified. I look at the years that followed the appearance of AIDS, then HIV/AIDS—first the fear and condemnation, then the research and education, and 30 years later, as a society, we view HIV/AIDS with compassion, and through totally different eyes.
And yet, in the same 30 years, while we know much more about drug and alcohol addiction, there is still an incredible stigma attached, especially for women who suffer from addictions. We still cast stones and make harsh judgments rather than working to increase public knowledge, as well as increasing funding for treatment. Instead, funding is drying up, and beds in rehabs and treatment centers are disappearing for women in need of help for drug and alcohol addiction, but who cannot afford to pay for it themselves. When it comes to drug and alcohol addiction and how we view women addicts, we are still living in the Dark Ages. After all, women are supposed to be good wives and mothers, not addicts and alcoholics.
When we take a closer look at drug and alcohol abuse, we can see that women differ from men in many areas. To begin, it is estimated that 20 million girls and women in the United States abuse drugs and alcohol. Women get drunk or high faster than men, and it takes less of whatever substance is being used for a woman to get drunk or high. Also, because a woman’s body contains less water and more fat than a man’s, combined with the hormonal and psychological differences that exist between men and women, women are twice as likely than men to become addicted to drugs and alcohol and in a much shorter period of time.
Women also get sicker faster, developing things such as cirrhosis much sooner. This is a triple whammy for women who drink or use drugs. It is also estimated that 90% of women who need treatment for drugs and alcohol do not get it. In many cases, this is probably because they are afraid of how they will look if they admit they have a drug or alcohol problem. Women still want to be viewed as ladies, and a drunk or an addict is not a lady.
Women drink and use drugs for different reasons than men, too. Women drink to self medicate from depression, or psychological pain. In America, one in every four women has been a victim of sexual abuse of some sort, and most of the abuse occurs before the woman reaches the age of 30. Women who have survived sexual abuse are six time more likely to suffer from PTSD, thirteen times more likely to abuse alcohol, and 26 times more likely to abuse drugs. I was sexually abused at the age of 5, and again in my early teen years, and raped at age 18.
Women use substances to relieve stress, feel better about themselves, and even as a means to lose weight. Women do not drink or drug for the fun of it, and speaking very personally, once a woman is addicted to alcohol or drugs, there is absolutely no fun in the use of the drug of choice. Mine was alcohol, and it was hell, and it became a vicious cycle of guilt and shame. We drink or drug because we feel bad about ourselves, and as our addiction begins to ruins our families and our lives, we use more because of the shame of being a bad mother, or a drunken wife, or just not being a lady, in control and functioning.
Alcohol and drug addiction are fatal, progressive diseases, like diabetes, or heart disease, except there are no magic medications to take to control the progression of the disease. Annually, 80,000 people die from alcohol addiction, and another 60,000 die from drugs. It is not lack of will, or caring more about a high or a drink than family, friends, and work, that keeps women using. It is lack of treatment and support.
And while, getting clean and sober is great when it happens, staying clean and sober is not easy, and just being off of drugs and alcohol is not enough. Unless the woman addict gets to the core issue of why she drinks or drugs—gets to the bottom of that essential pain, and works to vanquish it, long-term sobriety becomes even harder. And all of this has to happen while we are raising children and having careers, and in the face of a society that views women alcoholics and addicts with little more than disdain and disgust.
I am one of the lucky ones. I have been sober for 5 years, but not without three rehab experiences, a 6 month stay in a half way house, several incarceration experiences, more relapses than can be counted, a great deal of therapy to get to essence of my pain, and the continued hard work to complete the healing process. By all rights, I should be dead many times over. I have a family that loves me deeply and friends who have stood by me and cheered me on. I almost lost all it all. I am so blessed that I did not.
At the same time, I very deeply know what the stigma of the female alcoholic or addict looks like because I have seen it first hand, and it is ugly and mean. I also know what it is like to live with the seemingly impossible-to-bear guilt and shame that goes along with being a woman alcoholic and a wife and a mother. It is the type of pain that at times feels bottomless and beyond healing. Just when you’ve peeled away a layer, and healed it, another layer of shame is just beneath, bursting forth with more pain, either to be faced and healed, or to run from.
I choose the pain and healing. But, my sobriety tomorrow is no more guaranteed for me than it is more any other alcoholic or addict. I have a disease that I will have to treat the rest of my life, and it is a disease that does not care if you are rich or poor, well-educated or not, a talented and beautiful celebrity, or an average wife and soccer mom. I treat my disease every day with what works for me, which faith and devotion to God, prayer, attentiveness to my needs and temperament, and a lot of self-care.
It’s time to come out of the Dark Ages and work towards a real understanding of drug and alcohol addiction, especially in women, and it’s time we got rid of the shame and stigma, and replaced with help and compassion. We managed to do just that with HIV/AIDS. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why we cannot do the same for women suffering and dying from drug and alcohol addiction. Perhaps it is time that we who are women alcoholic and addicts came out of the shadows and spoke our truths out loud for all to hear.
Maybe it is time to stop being anonymous, and to be visible instead—to fight for acceptance, understanding, and increased public knowledge. Maybe then the stigma will vanish. Maybe then we can do something to stop beautiful women addicts and alcoholics from hiding in shame rather than getting help. Maybe then we can stop women suffering from addiction from dying tragic deaths each and every day.