Heroin is a drug that seems custom built to cause incredibly high rates of addiction. As soon as the drug enters the body, it latches onto specific receptors scattered throughout the nervous system, looking for portals to latch onto, and when the drug latches, it causes a series of chemical reactions that can bring the user extreme pleasure that’s hard to forget. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), women are more likely to abuse and become addicted to heroin, when compared to men. In fact, approximately 20 percent of women who enter treatment programs for addiction do so because of an addiction to heroin, compared to 16 percent of men. Even these numbers might not clearly represent the true scope of heroin addiction in women, however, as SAMHSA also reports that male admissions to addiction treatment programs outnumber female admissions by a ratio of 2.3 to 1. It’s likely that there are many women in the United States today who are addicted to heroin, and who are simply not getting the help they’ll need in order to recover.
Addressing the Causes of Addiction
As mentioned, heroin is incredibly addictive and powerful, and both men and women can become addicted to the substance from the very first time they take it. Women, however, might come to heroin addiction via different paths than those men take, and those paths might have a huge impact on the therapies women need in order to leave their addiction-related habits behind.
In an interesting study published in the journal Substance Use and Misuse, researchers attempted to determine how men and women were first introduced to heroin. Researchers found that women were often first introduced to the drug by members of their own gender, and that women were more likely to live with current or former heroin users when they entered rehab programs, when compared to men. This study is interesting on several levels, as it suggests that women might face serious social issues, due to their heroin use. After all, their addictions likely came about due to the influence of friends and family members, and those addictions were supported by the people they lived with. In order to recover from an addiction to heroin, women need a strong support group of others to lean on. This study suggests that many women would have difficulty in finding such a support group.
Other research suggests that women develop addictions to substances like heroin as a result of abuse they have suffered during their childhood or early adulthood. For example, in a study published in the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, of the 181 women who entered a treatment program for IV drug use:
- 60.2 percent had been sexually abused
- 55.2 percent had been physically abused
- 45.9 percent had been emotionally abused
- 83.4 percent had been emotionally neglected
- 59.7 percent had been physically neglected
Women who grow up in traumatic environments like this may have deep emotional scars that serve to lock their addictions in place. They may also have difficulty with expressing their emotions and trusting other people with delicate details about their lives. This can hamper their recovery, as these traits may keep them isolated, and isolation may lead them right back to drug use.
Assessing the Damage
Women who are addicted to heroin may face devastating consequences that go far beyond the consequences typically experienced by male heroin addicts. For example, a study in the journal Substance Use and Misuse found that female heroin addicts, when compared to male addicts, tended to be older when they first started using drugs, and they tended to be more isolated. The researchers suggest that reaching these women and helping them to heal might involve helping them to develop a strong social network, and perhaps develop skills that could help them to get good jobs. It sounds reasonable, but these might be tasks that are far outside the scope of what many addiction treatment programs would consider “normal.”
Heroin can also cause deep scars in women due to the way the drug is processed in the body. When the drug is attached to its receptors, and chemical reactions begin, specific chemicals normally produced by the brain are no longer produced, and some parts of the brain atrophy and stop working well at all. It’s known that these changes happen in both men and women, but research published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology suggests that women who have heroin-related damage to a specific portion of the brain have greater levels of depression, and higher rates of a stress-related hormone, compared to men who have heroin-related brain damage. These women might feel a deep and crushing sense of depression, due to the damage they have faced, and the damage may not ease without help.
Women can also face a variety of health problems due to their heroin use and abuse. For example, a study in the journal Addiction suggests that women who are addicted to heroin often have unprotected sex, and they tend to have partners who also inject heroin. As a result of these two factors, these women might be at an incredibly high risk of developing sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS. Women might also face severe weight loss, ongoing infections and tissue damage due to injecting heroin. They will also need medical treatments, in addition to their addiction treatments, in order to feel well enough to stay sober for the rest of their lives.
Treatment for Addiction
Traditional treatment programs for heroin addiction have focused on the use of medications. People who are addicted to heroin, whether they are male or female, often report terrible physical side effects as they attempt to stop taking the drug, and when the physical pain has eased, they are left with cravings to use the drug. These cravings can grow stronger when people are shown photographs of others using heroin, or when they walk past locations or people they associate with heroin use, but the cravings can also be simply omnipresent and difficult to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
Medications like methadone and buprenorphine can block the physical symptoms caused by heroin withdrawal, and they can blunt the cravings for drugs that women tend to feel. Since women feel better, both physically and emotionally, they may be more likely to stay involved in their addiction treatment programs. Instead of dropping out early in order to return to drug use, they may be able to maintain their focus and stay enrolled in care. However, many experts believe that women should not expect to take these medications for the rest of their lives. Instead, they should take them only as long as they are needed in order to prevent a relapse. Sobriety should be the goal, so women should taper off of medications as quickly as possible, and focus on therapy instead.
Addiction Therapy for Women
Traditional addiction treatment programs, designed based on multiple studies of men, ask the therapist to function as a teacher, lecturing the addicted person on the basics of addiction and how it can be handled in an effective way. While men might benefit from this form of intervention, some women might not find this approach helpful, especially if they have a long history of hiding their feelings and resisting authority, due to the abuse they have endured. These women might benefit from a different form of treatment known as cognitive behavioral therapy. Here, the relationship with the therapist is collaborative, with the therapist acting as a coach and a guide, rather than a teacher. The two talk extensively about the roots of the woman’s addiction, and they develop a game plan they can use to help the woman address those issues and resist the temptation to use once more. Often, this means women learn how to deal with the negative voices that crop up on a daily basis. When faced with a challenge, a woman might think, “I’m so stupid.” This thought is so destructive and damaging that the woman might feel intense pain, and a deep craving for drugs. In therapy, the woman might learn to replace that damaging thought with something positive, such as, “It’s hard, but I can do it.” Changing thought patterns in this way can be remarkably helpful for women with low self-esteem and addiction issues.
This therapy has been proven effective in the field of addiction, and it’s in widespread use in the therapeutic community today. It’s also been proven effective in helping women who have both addictions and mental health issues. For example, a study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that women who had both post-traumatic stress disorder and addictions benefitted from cognitive-behavioral therapy. In fact, women who received this therapy were much more likely to lose their PTSD symptoms at the end of therapy, compared to women who were not given this form of treatment.
Addiction treatment programs for women might also provide women in recovery from heroin with help that follows the 12-step program pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous. Often, this means that women are required to attend addiction support group meetings. Here, they are asked to:
- Admit that they have an addiction
- Admit that they need the help of a higher power in order to heal
- Ask for forgiveness from those they have harmed
- Work hard to prevent harming others in the future
The 12-step approach also emphasizes the need for addicted people to trust others and ask for their support and help. People in these groups form tight mentor/mentee relationships, and they listen to one another carefully. They learn from one another, in a real and profound way, and this can be transformative for women who have consistently felt isolated, alone and misunderstood.
Addiction treatment programs for female heroin addicts might also provide nutritional support and medical care, so women can overcome the damage that heroin has done to physical health and overall well-being. Programs that incorporate physical exercise such as yoga or tai chi might be particularly helpful, as they might allow women to gain back some of the strength they have lost during years of addiction. These treatments might also help women to combat stress and nervousness that can play into a cycle of addiction.
Addiction programs might also provide women with parenting classes and family therapy, so they can build strong relationships with their children and move forward with their sober lives in a healthy and positive way. Many women simply didn’t have the opportunity to learn these lessons before they became addicted to drugs, so accessing those lessons as part of rehab can help these women to pick up skills they’ve simply never had in the past.
Help at The Orchid
As this article has made clear, women experience drug abuse in ways that are different from men, and that means women require different types of heroin addiction treatment. Today, a number of groundbreaking thinkers, especially Dr. Karen Dodge, have studied addiction and women, and the result is an entirely new set of spiritual and scientific approaches to recovery. If you’ve come online in search of a true community of healing where women can enjoy therapy and learn from one another, you have come to the right place.
What can you expect from The Orchid treatment center that you wouldn’t necessarily find elsewhere? The simple answer is community. Although a number of 12-step programs emphasize the value of group meetings, at The Orchid we go one step further and encourage all our clients to learn better methods for sharing, trusting, and relying on the strength of their fellow women.
So-called “relational growth” therapies like these have proven uncommonly effective at helping women battle the terrible disease of addiction.
Heroin can be a persistent and dangerous drug, which is why at The Orchid we’ve developed courses designed specifically for this particular addiction. When coupled with our daily regimens of spiritual counsel, art therapy and yoga, focused and dedicated programs like these can work wonders. We even maintain a staff of professionals who can offer dual diagnosis treatment in case you may be suffering from collateral issues such as anxiety or depression, which are all too common in women.
If you want to get started right away with a healing and compassionate course of recovery, please don’t hesitate to contact the experts at The Orchid today by calling us toll free at 1-888-672-4435.