It’s a fact that more men than women succumb to issues of addiction. According to the 2008 U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 11.5 percent of men had a substance abuse or dependence issue, compared to 6.4 percent of women. Just because more men have addictions when compared to women doesn’t mean that women are somehow immune to the siren song of addictive substances.
In fact, it’s possible that women face unique circumstances that place them at a higher risk for developing an addiction.
These same circumstances could keep women away from getting treatment for their substance use and abuse. Learning more about these issues could help family members to develop a comprehensive intervention that could motivate the women they love to get help and eventually get better.
Addictive Substances and Women
The average woman is smaller than the average man, and the average woman also has a lower body water content. This means that the same portion of drugs and alcohol will impact a woman much more strongly than a man. Some addictive substances cause cellular damage that can lead to compulsive behavior, allowing a person to continue to take in substances even when those substances are considered damaging or harmful. Since women are obtaining a higher level of drugs with each episode, they might also be sustaining higher levels of damage and their addiction issues may be quicker to form as a result. Families would do well to keep this in mind when determining whether or not to hold an intervention. Families who believe that a woman is “going through a phase” or that an addictive pattern isn’t dangerous because it is new might, in reality, be dealing with an opportunity to quash an addiction as it is just emerging. The sooner the intervention is held, the better.
Women also tend to turn to addictive substances as a result of trauma. For example, a study in the journal Addictive Behaviors examined the physical and mental health of women who were returning from military service in Iraq. Researchers found that 31 percent of these women had post-traumatic stress disorder, 47 percent were problem drinkers and 6 percent had a drug abuse issue. These women faced horrors due to their military service, and they developed both mental illnesses and substance abuse issues in return.
People with mental illnesses may turn to substances of abuse as they try to medicate their pain and discomfort, but the addictive substances can cause those mental illnesses to grow stronger, not weaker. When confronted about an addiction, people with mental illnesses can react unpredictably. They’re under an immense amount of stress, and a confrontation could just make that mental illness harder to deal with. For this reason, it’s best for people with mental illnesses to be approached only with the help of an interventionist. Since the link between mental illness and addiction is so strong in women, it might be best to use an interventionist in all confrontations with women.
Women might choose to opt out of formal addiction treatment programs due to concerns regarding:
Transportation to and from the facility
These might seem like mild or unimportant concerns when placed against the very real possibility of death if the addiction is allowed to move forward, but women with addictions might find these details incredibly important and a valid excuse that can keep them away from doing the hard work of recovery. Before holding an intervention for a woman, families should brainstorm solutions to all of these issues. Dependent children or elders receiving care in the home might need to transition to other family members for a time, and families might need to pitch in to cover the cost of care. Families can also work directly with treatment facilities in advance of the intervention, making sure that all payment concerns are addressed well in advance and that the paperwork is all in order. When the intervention is in progress, families can reassure the woman that she doesn’t need to fret over these issues, as the family will work hard to make sure all the bases are covered.
Finding the right treatment program can be incredibly important for the long-term success of the intervention. While some women might thrive in almost any program they’re allowed into, some women might benefit from programs that cater just to women. A study in the journal Addiction suggests that groups that allow both men and women can be somewhat restrictive for women, requiring them to conform to the communication styles preferred by other people in the group. This same attribute isn’t as common in programs that allow only women.
Women who feel confined or unable to speak their minds in mixed company might do better in programs just for women. Similarly, women with a history of physical or sexual abuse at the hands of men might also feel more at ease in a program that accepts only women. Families that attend to this detail in the planning stages might hold a more informative intervention, as they’ll be able to reassure the woman they love that she’ll receive effective and safe care when the intervention is over.
Holding the Talk
Planning for an intervention is incredibly important, but all of the planning in the world won’t be helpful unless the family can hold a talk that will touch the woman’s heart and convince her to accept help. By paying attention to a few communication details, participants may be able to use communication techniques that are designed to resonate with women.
During an intervention, a family is asked to provide the woman with a series of persuasive arguments that will encourage her to accept help for her addiction. A study in the book Women in Power: A framework for family therapy suggests that the words used in an intervention for women should be inspirational. This study suggests that women enter addiction because they feel hopeless and helpless, and recovery means allowing women to tap into their inner sources of strength and feel stronger than their addictions. Families can help to empower by using phrases such as:
You can do this.
I believe in you.
You are a strong and powerful woman, and I want you to get better.
I am on your side.
It’s subtle, but phrases like this can remind women of the strength they once had and the power they can have once again, if they’ll only work on their addiction issues.
Word choices are important, but a study in the journal Sex Roles suggests that nonverbal communication is also important when talking to women. Researchers found that women were more adept at both using nonverbal language and at interpreting the same cues, when compared to men. Families should work to keep their body language open by keeping hands flat on the table and feet flat on the floor. Expressions should also be open and caring, and the shoulders should be at a slight angle to the woman. All of these nonverbal cues send the message that the family is caring, hopeful, open and honest, and that the woman is in a safe place with people she can trust. This can help to set the tone for a positive and rewarding conversation.
Time to Act
Holding a conversation about addiction is never easy, and when the addicted person is a wife, a mother, a daughter or a beloved aunt, the talk can be even more difficult. These are powerful women who often hold a special position within the family, and bringing up a delicate conversation can seem almost too difficult to bear. But, as research makes clear, addiction is simply too dangerous to pass by without some sort of conversation. Families that choose to take the plunge and talk about this issue are likely to be incredibly glad that they did so.
If you need help planning or holding an intervention, please call our toll-free line. We have a long list of family mediators who would be happy to assist your family, and we can help you get the selection process started.