There are unique differences between women and men who seek out treatment for substance abuse. More than the obvious biological differences, there are social and environmental factors to consider as well. In treatment, we as women require a safe space where we can reconnect with ourselves and heal our connection to the divine feminine energy and power within us.
For many women, this becomes a very difficult task when men are present. Many treatment centers are based on models of substance abuse that have been created for men. In fact, most of the literature and research that has been conducted in the past has been based on males. It has not been until recently that women’s needs have been taken into account with regard to substance abuse treatment.
Many women seeking treatment have been hiding their pain and stuffing their emotions while continuing to be the primary caregiver in their families. In keeping up their family, job, and community roles and commitments while ignoring their own needs, they can fall deeper and deeper into substance use to cope. This can go on for decades as women deny their divine feminine and try to “man up” and keep up appearances, even when they are breaking inside.
These women’s needs would be best served in a program committed to honoring and recognizing the divine feminine power within each woman. They need to heal in an environment that helps each individual woman reconnect to the power of her most sacred self. The journey of true recovery most often looks different for women than for men and thus, women need to be in a program that recognizes and provides for these differences.
Unique Challenges Women Face in Treatment and Recovery
From the start, women face different challenges than men that impact both why and how their substance abuse develops. In addition, women internalize different expectations from society and their community and are more likely to experience instances of sexual victimization and trauma than their male counterparts. This impacts what each gender needs to feel safe, heard, and eventually heal from the cycles of addiction.
Relationships are a key factor explaining why women seek help for substance abuse. Many women may have initially fallen into substance abuse as a means to cope with an abusive relationship or due to drugs and alcohol being a key part of past relationships. However, many of these women choose to seek healing only once the goodwill in those relationships has run dry, and they find themselves out of options.
Others may desire to seek help in order to take steps in the opposite direction: so they can form healthier relationships in their lives and heal the attachment injuries that are stopping them from doing so. This process may also require addressing underlying love addictions or patterns of choosing toxic and abusive partners for themselves.
Women are unique in their ability to give life. Although not all women have had this opportunity, it is still a key difference between men and women. Issues around pregnancy can be a motivating factor for some to seek treatment. For some women who have lost children due to substance abuse or other challenges in life, this can be a key element that is addressed in treatment. Connecting back to the womb, to the mother of all things can be part of any woman’s healing journey.
Along the same lines, children can be a motivating factor for women to seek treatment but they can also be the reason they do not out of fear of losing them. Women often internalize more stigma and stereotypes than men when it comes to struggling with substance abuse and are often more fearful about being seen as “unfit” mothers. Mothers often carry with them a lot of shame and guilt for bringing their children with them along the road of addiction —something which can only be healed with self-forgiveness and love.
More women than men who seek substance abuse treatment suffer from multiple disorders. This means that in addition to their substance abuse, they may also be fighting the demons of:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Bipolar disorder
- Major depression
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
- Eating disorders
It is important that all disorders be addressed and treated at the same time. This can be incredibly difficult, and we need to help women recognize that they have the power, strength, and resilience it takes to battle all these forces at once. More often than not, these disorders are linked in origin, in that many women have used substances to self-medicate, to help them cope with the underlying mental health challenges.
Thus, healing involves learning how to cope without the aid of familiar substances. It is important that women feel safe talking about their internal battles and this is best done with people they feel most safe with. Although men can also struggle with co-occurring disorders, it is not as common and most may not be able to relate in the same depth.
Many women who seek substance abuse treatment have experienced physical and/or sexual abuse. The trauma that women experience is often different than men and needs to be addressed sensitively and safely so it can be healed. For many women, it can be the shame and pain from these traumatic experiences that fuel their desire to numb with substances. To get to the root of these traumatic experiences one has to be vulnerable and open, which can be difficult to do in the presence of the opposite sex. Many women may have experienced abuse at the hands of their previous male partners or family members.
If males are present in the treatment setting, women may feel too triggered or just not safe enough to open up and be vulnerable in a way that would allow them to process the trauma and receive the support and guidance they need. In order to face their trauma and heal it, there needs to be a supportive community of other women that can create a safe container free of judgment or potential for re-traumatization. Women supporting each other through the journey of healing creates an opportunity to see that we are not alone and our situation is not unique.
Many of us have experienced the same kinds of suffering and together we can learn new coping skills and experience a transformation from being victims of trauma to becoming empowered survivors of trauma. Seeking treatment for substance abuse can be a daunting experience and women should focus on their specific needs and prioritize the importance of a “safe container” in a therapeutic environment in order to ensure progress toward the goal of recovery. Women only treatment centers recognize the unique challenges women face in our society when it comes to substance abuse and other co-occurring issues.
Women-specific programming is essential in creating a therapeutic treatment approach that is tailored to address the unique needs of women and will provide them with the best care possible. In order to succeed, women need to connect back to their true authentic selves and be seen and validated in an environment that is empathetic to the specific challenges that women alone face. This breaks down to one essential truth; women do have specific needs in substance abuse treatment and these needs are better met in a gender-specific environment.