When imagining what an ‘alcoholic’ looks like, public perception is often far from reality. Just how many people would conjure up an image of a woman being an alcoholic? The reality is that the rate of women with alcoholism has been rising for decades now. The reality is that women are more prone to physical, psychological and social damage from drinking. And finally, the reality is that women experience more difficulty in treatment, and a greater risk of relapse.
Being an alcoholic is not easy for anyone, man or woman. But women can face extra, or different, difficulties that men do not when seeking treatment or recovery. As the problem of alcoholism becomes more prominent among women, greater attention should be given to the issue. Despite the fact that women in the UK now drink as much as men, some people still don’t recognise that this is a growing problem. Being an alcoholic woman has many dark aspects that people are not aware of. Therefore, it is time to focus on the harsh reality of being a woman with alcoholism.
Why is Alcohol More Dangerous for a Woman?
Both drugs and alcohol tend to have stronger effects on women than men for a number of reasons. In the case of alcohol, the difference between its effects on men and women is perhaps most significant.
It’s Simply Science
Aside from generally being smaller in size and having more body fat, women also have a weaker metabolism. The enzyme responsible for metabolising alcohol is not produced in women at the same levels as in a man. This means that more alcohol is absorbed into the blood, causing greater damage to the body.
Even the slimmest woman naturally has a higher percentage of body fat than a man. Unfortunately, body fat tends to retain alcohol well, increasing its damaging effects.
Fat contributes to estrogen production, a hormone that females already have at higher levels. Interestingly enough, so does alcohol. Estrogen increases the reward effect of drinking, which partly explains why addiction progresses faster in women.
Long-Term Consequences Come Quicker
Because alcohol does significantly more damage to women in a shorter period of time, it increases the chances of long-term health risks developing. These include brain damage, liver disease, heart disease, and breast cancer. The elevated risk of breast cancer is partially tied to alcohol’s effects on estrogen.
In fact, a recent study showed that drinking increases the risk of an alcohol-related cancer in women by 50% more than it does for men.
Women who drink are also more likely to develop psychological problems, such as depression. There is a strong correlation between female alcoholics and comorbid issues such as a mental illness, eating disorders and secondary addiction.
These problems can stem from the brain damage that alcohol causes. Chronic drinkers are known to experience personality changes over time, leading them to be more emotionally unstable. This can cause a rift in relationships and other aspects of life.
What’s worse is that depression and mental distress are often reasons why women drink in the first place. So, we see another spiral that women alcoholics are likely to be stuck in.
Alcoholic Women Are More Likely to be Victimised
Alcoholic women are more likely to end up in bad situations, and be victims of domestic abuse, assault, or rape.
This is not only because alcohol leads one to make poor decisions, but also because women are likely to end up in an abusive and codependent relationship. They are also more likely to choose a partner who drinks to avoid added criticism about their behaviour.
Sadly, we see yet another downward spiral. Anyone who is a victim of abuse is likely to develop other mental disorders, including PTSD, fuelling the drinking cycle further.
Special Problems for Alcoholic Women in Treatment
The problem of alcoholism in women is even more far-reaching when we consider the issues associated with treatment. These range from women being less likely to seek help, to the fact that they are more likely to relapse.
“I don’t have a problem!”
Because being a drinker is so normalised these days, women don’t always notice when they cross the line from recreational to dysfunctional. They have a different picture of an alcoholic, and it does not include that fun, social girl at the bar.
In addition, just as woman are often ignorant to the signs of alcoholism, they are also more reluctant to get treatment. Among other reasons, the main one is social stigma. Despite the fact that women are drinking now more than ever, people still look down on women with alcoholism more than men.
Because of a woman’s public image, social stigma brings other possible consequences. For example, women are afraid they will lose their children, or be seen as the black sheep of the family. Some are afraid to lose their career or social standing.
“That woman? An alcoholic? No way!”
A sad truth is that not only are people less knowledgeable about how alcohol affects women, the problem is sometimes simply ignored.
Various women claim that when they tried to address their concerns with a doctor or therapist, they were dismissed. “My therapist thought I was being a hypochondriac and only worried about my drinking because of weight gain,” says Lisa.
It becomes even harder as women get older. The symptoms of heavy drinking, such as memory loss or a fall, are passed off as a normal sign of ageing.
Treatment Itself Can Be Tough
Women have particular issues that are not always given sufficient attention in certain rehabs, as they have less impact on their male patients. Of course men face these issues too, but often to a less-intense degree. The problems that are more prominent in female alcoholics and need extra attention include:
- Codependent relationships
- Poor boundaries
- Domestic abuse
- Social anxiety
- Low self-esteem
- Comorbid psychological conditions
- Heightened emotional sensitivity
In addition, the shame sometimes felt by women in sharing these issues among men, can cause them to be reluctant about receiving treatment. It also contributes to their higher risk of relapse.
Risk of Relapse
In addition to the difficulties posed in treatment, the risk of relapse is greater for women.
If comorbid issues, such as dual diagnosis, are not treated, the patient is less likely to stay sober. The fact that women experience a greater reward in the brain from drinking makes it harder to quit. It can also make it easier to succumb to cravings.
In addition, women returning from rehab can find it hard to give full priority to their recovery at home. This is especially when family and young children are involved. Since women tend to be primary caregivers, they can find it difficult to make time for themselves.
What Does This Mean For Treatment?
The special needs of women seeking treatment must be recognised from the start and properly addressed. At Castle Craig Hospital, we provide specialist care for women after a thorough assessment of needs.
Special accommodation for wpmen, women’s therapy groups, and the provision of female therapists and medical staff, as required, are fundamental to any woman’s successful stay in treatment.
Because alcohol’s negative consequences hit women faster than men, they should seek and be able to access treatment before the problem escalates too far. Because of the correlation between mental problems and alcoholism, the best option for women is a rehab that also treats dual diagnosis. And because of the elevated risk of physical damage due to alcohol, a residential facility with medical staff is a better option than outpatient treatment.
Not all facilities provide the same standard of service, so it is wise to take the time to do proper research and make sure you are getting the best care. Choosing the wrong programme will hurt the chances of a sustainable recovery.
Alcoholic Women Are Not (Yet) Equal to Men
Although similar problems are seen with addiction in women, they are more evident when it comes to alcoholism. Alcohol abuse in women is, regrettably, still not given enough attention. And with the rising rate of alcoholic women, this needs to change.
This means that women themselves need to be aware of the signs of alcoholism and not be afraid to seek treatment advice if they are worried for their well-being. The stigma of addiction needs to be reduced, though this will take time. And healthcare professionals must continue to improve their response to the special needs of women alcoholics.
The good news is that awareness about this issue is increasing, and changes are being made. In many rehabs today, a woman entering treatment can expect to be listened to and have her needs addressed.
Page last reviewed and medically fact-checked | July 27, 2021