Sit for just a moment with your eyes closed, and picture a man who’s just finished a long day of work. He heads out from the office to play a softball game, and goes out to a bar afterward to have a few drinks with his friends. He will close down the bar before finally heading home. What picture of this man comes to your mind?
Now, close your eyes for a moment and visualize a woman ending her work day and meeting with friends for dinner. After this they head to a local bar, and she too will remain until closing before she goes home for the night. Who is the woman that comes to mind? What does she look like? Is she a responsible person? Does she have children? If so, is she a good mother?
This is a visualization exercise I often conduct when speaking in front of an audience. Even though there has been a bridging of the gap between men and women in recent years, we still think very differently about the two in terms of addiction.
This disease is an equal opportunity destroyer, and in many ways more physically detrimental to women, who get cirrhosis of the liver at twice the rate of men. Even so, they seek treatment less often. The female addict sits in a tremendous amount of guilt and shame, and is afraid to tell even those closest to her the truth about herself. She views herself as a “bad” person needing to become “good,” not as a sick person needing to become well. Many others will view her this way too and it will keep her from seeking treatment.
Women still have many roles and responsibilities as mothers, as wives, and as partners that they feel they must live up to on a daily basis. When they believe they are falling short, they work desperately to correct it or to hide it, making it difficult for family members to identify it early on.
When loved ones recognize the signs of addiction, many remain in denial—fearing this means they can no longer hold mom/sister/grandmother in high regard, but must instead view them in the harsh light society casts on the female addict. Others want to believe that the efforts and promises Mom is making to fix the issue herself are enough to solve the problem.
The stigma is at its strongest for pregnant addicts. When you find out that a woman is drinking in her third trimester, the shame, guilt and devastation experienced by the family and by the woman are unbelievably intense—so much so that they may refuse to tell anyone. They seek no help and no guidance, instead living in shame and guilt.
Research indicates a negative bias toward female addicts even from treatment professionals. Physicians prescribe mood-altering drugs to female alcoholics more often than men because they misdiagnose the problem as a purely emotional/mental issue such as depression or anxiety.
Certainly when it comes to a pregnant woman struggling with chemical dependency, providers are sometimes just as guilty as everyone else in looking at her as if she were a two-headed dragon. We of all people understand the true nature of addiction, its fierce pull on the survival mode in the brain, and yet we expect a woman who’s suffering from this chronic disease and who may have never received treatment to somehow behave differently than other addicts simply because she is pregnant.