For many years now, effective drug treatment programs for women have been few and far between. The problem isn’t so much a lack of concern as a lack of understanding. Women experience addiction in entirely different ways than men, and the treatment community has long overlooked what makes this process unique. This trend might be changing, however, as more researchers are conducting studies on the root causes of addiction in women, and learning more about how women learn and how they can heal. As a result, new therapies made just for women are coming to the forefront, and more women are getting the help they’ll need in order to leave their addictions behind for good. Perhaps if more women understood how drug treatment works, and how getting help might be beneficial for them in so many ways, more women would agree to get the help they need, and they would agree to get help only from centers that tailor their programs to the unique needs and learning styles of women.
Understanding Root Causes
Women, as a rule, tend to stumble into addiction from uniquely painful places. For example, studies suggest that a large number of women become addicted to drugs after they have endured some form of sexual abuse. For example, a study in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs found that, of 60 women who were living in a long-term addiction treatment program, 68 percent reported unwanted sexual contact from others, including:
- Family friends
Women who endured this abuse, the study suggests, were likely to begin using drugs at an earlier age, and they had been using drugs longer before they accepted treatment, compared to women who had not been abused. These results aren’t surprising. Enduring abuse from men the women had known, and had trusted, can be incredibly damaging and hard to forget. These women might feel isolated, alone and frightened, and drugs might help them to forget their troubles, at least for a while.
While some women endure trauma before they begin using drugs, and the trauma serves as a sort of fuel for the fire of addiction, other women undergo traumas after they begin using drugs, and the damage caused by that trauma might lock them in a cycle of addiction. For example, a study in the Journal of Sex Research found that some women engage in transactions in which they trade sex for drugs. These women experienced trauma in these transactions, and as members of an oppressed group that isn’t respected, they endured even more mental trauma. These women might turn to drugs in order to numb their pain and help them endure the many problems they’re living with as a result of their drug abuse.
The Link to Mental Illness
When a woman’s history involves abusive relationships or childhood trauma, anxiety, depression and other psychosocial issues are likely to develop. While it’s possible that enduring a traumatic event such as a rape could cause a mental illness such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s also possible that people who have mental illnesses are more likely to be victimized by those around them. For example, a study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that of people who had a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, 98 percent had endured some sort of trauma in their lives. The interweaving of mental illnesses and trauma might be harder to untangle than has been previously thought.
Regardless of whether the trauma came first or the mental illness came first, women who have these issues will need help in order to overcome them, if they’d like to truly heal. Leaving one issue untouched could allow the other issue to grow stronger. For example, a study in the journal Schizophrenia Research found that people who had post-traumatic stress disorder were more likely to abuse substances, when compared to people who did not have the disorder. They were over-aroused most of the time, experiencing the incident over and over again, and this led them to use drugs to numb their pain. If these people didn’t receive therapy for their trauma, it’s likely they would simply return to drug use once more, as the original impetus for drug use had not been addressed.
Experts refer to people who have both an addiction and a mental illness as dual diagnosis patients, and there is some evidence that suggests that women who have this issue face more pain and suffering than women who do not have this issue. For example, a study in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors found that women with a dual diagnosis, when compared to women who did not have one, had:
- More incidents of criminal behavior
- A larger number of suicide attempts
- Relatives with addiction issues
- Poorer life conditions
It’s clear that women with a dual diagnosis are heading down a dangerous path, and they desperately need help in order to overcome the issues they face. Unfortunately, many standard programs for addiction do not provide appropriate help for women who are dealing with both a mental health issue and an addiction issue. Despite the fact that these women need help, they may not get it in a standard treatment program.
Overcoming Painful Issues
In order to heal from addiction, women need to be provided with the opportunity to heal from their trauma. There are many different ways in which women’s addiction programs can help their clients to do just that. For example, some programs integrate spiritual counseling and spiritual messages into the programming they provide for their clients. According to a study in the Journal of Behavioral Health Services and Research, women who have endured trauma often lean on their spirituality in order to help them to heal, so including these concepts in addiction treatment programs might allow women to build upon the lessons they are already putting into place in their own lives. The new lessons will simply dovetail with the work they are already doing.
Similarly, many women who have lived through abuse, who have mental illnesses or who have addiction issues feel as though they must hide their thoughts from the world around them. As a result, they are unlikely to express their true feelings in a standard therapy session. Discussing what has happened, and how they feel about what has happened, is simply too difficult to do, even though it’s vital that the women discuss these issues in detail. Women’s addiction programs can help by providing alternate methods women can use to communicate. Some programs, for example, provide women with art therapy sessions. Here, they can use paint, clay or some other artistic medium to express their inner feelings, while a therapist stays nearby to help women open up and talk. Other programs utilize narrative therapy, in which women are allowed to tell stories, write plays, or use some form of poetry to discuss their concerns and their issues. These programs might be transformative for women who don’t feel safe enough to talk openly about their addictions.
The Importance of Community
Addictions can be isolating, placing a large barrier between a woman and those she cares about. Her family may not understand why she chooses to take drugs, and she may not understand why her family won’t choose to support her. Similarly, she may have felt forced to lie to, to steal from or even to physically hurt the people she lives with, during the course of her addiction, and this can place an even greater barrier between the woman and her family. As a result, many women who live with addiction have poor relationships, and poor relationship skills. They don’t know how to form tight bonds, and keep those bonds from deteriorating. Unfortunately, women also seem to rely on tight bonds and close relationships much more than men do, and they may feel the hurt of isolation much more deeply than men.
For all of these reasons, addiction programs for women often encourage the women to form close, sharing relationships with the other women who are also receiving care in the same facility. This sense of community is an important part of the therapeutic process, according to a study in the journal Women and Health, as women seem to benefit most from communities that are democratic, independent and based on tight bonds of friendship. A woman who heals in a community like this might be able to apply those lessons in her own life, when she returns home and attempts to amend the damage that has been done during the course of the addiction. She’ll know how to talk with those around her, and she’ll know how to keep tight bonds alive. She can then lean on these bonds when times are tough and she’s tempted to relapse to drug use.
Care at The Orchid
Here at The Orchid, we apply all of these lessons in the care that we provide. We have studied the research done on women and addiction, and we know just what to do to help our clients heal. Our aim is to reverse the damage of addiction through powerful communal bonds and an affirming approach based on the precepts of relational growth.
What makes our approach special, even among treatment programs that claim to provide help targeted for women, is our singular emphasis on the diverse ways women heal. Although clients in The Orchid spend a significant amount of time in group meetings, and many programs we employ use 12-step approaches, we also offer additional therapies such as yoga, artistic classes and spiritual counseling. As mentioned, these programs might be especially helpful for women, and we feel they’re incredibly important to include in a woman’s addiction treatment program. We combine these treatments with compassionate exercises and holistic techniques, and we feel expert approaches like these are far more likely to bear fruit than standard approaches that are tailored for the needs of men.
At The Orchid, we ask our clients to express their experiences and opinions in group meetings and informal settings. But those who don’t feel comfortable in verbalizing those issues are also allowed to play them out via storytelling, role-playing exercises and more. These are essential steps for healing, done in the company of other fellow clients, and many women find them to be amazingly helpful as they learn how to talk openly and trust other people once more.
Lasting recovery from addiction is possible, if women surround themselves with trust, appropriate therapies and professional care. This is what we offer at The Orchid, and we’d love to tell you more about it. Feel free to contact us anytime with any questions, concerns or ideas you might have. We’re always standing by to offer help to those in need.