Despite how far we have come in destigmatizing addiction and beginning to understand it as a disease instead of a choice, our society still largely turns a blind eye to women struggling with chemical dependency. Mainstream discussion about women and drug use—use among mothers, among wives, among daughters—is still few and far between. If we were to go solely by media coverage, alcoholism is a problem for men, and perhaps a few young, misguided female celebrities.
In the United States, women compose the quickest growing demographic for addictive disorders. Between 2.5-2.7 million women meet the criteria for alcohol dependence. Even so, the majority don’t receive treatment. Some may be afraid to admit to themselves that they struggle with addiction, and likewise friends and family may often dismiss evidence of chemical dependency as something less serious. Some women refuse to seek treatment because they fear being separated from their families or loved ones.
Almost four decades ago Pamela Wilder, a brave young woman in recovery, recognized the need for a safe, affordable place for women to heal from this disease. She helped found New Directions for Women (NDFW), Orange County’s oldest gender-specific recovery program. Our center currently treats women, women with children, and pregnant women in any trimester.
As a recovering woman myself, now 37 years sober, I have been on both sides of the treatment relationship, both as patient and provider. I served at Seabrook House for 26 years, part of that time as Vice President of Treatment Services, and for the last nine years have been CEO of New Directions for Women. I am able to attest firsthand to the benefits of providing women a gender specific treatment option.
Chemical dependency programs were originally developed for men, by men. Providing care for women, by women, is still relatively new. Research proves that patients find it easier to openly discuss the reasons why they may have started using alcohol or other drugs when surrounded by members of their own sex. This often helps them make faster progress than in a mixed gender environment. Allowing mothers to live on campus with their children has also allowed us to extend our reach as treatment providers. The option to remain with family serves as a vital stepping stone to recovery for many women who otherwise may have avoided treatment for fear of being separated from their families.
I am delighted to begin blogging for Addiction Professional about the complex issues surrounding addiction in women. Upcoming subjects will include pregnant women and addiction, cultural influences as they relate to chemical dependency and much more. I truly hope you will join and collaborate with me in what will be an ongoing dialogue about how we can better understand and serve female patients and their families.