How Women Struggle With Alcohol and Drug Addiction

Women are more sensitive to the side effects from alcohol and drug abuse than men, both physiologically and psychologically.

  • Women’s bodies are less able to cope with alcohol and drug abuse, they are biologically more vulnerable to physiological damage;
  • They find it harder to quit drinking or drug taking;
  • They are more susceptible to relapse than men;
  • They are more likely to develop social and emotional consequences (depression, abuse, trauma, shame, secrecy, stigma).

10 Ways in Which Women Struggle with the Effects of Alcohol and Drug Abuse More Than Men

1. Greater Physical Damage

“Women are more vulnerable to the damage that can be done by substance misuse,” says Dr. Maria Kelly, Associate Medical Director at Castle Craig, “particularly with alcohol. Because they have more body fat than men, and less body fluid, it can do more damage directly to their organs more quickly. They can have more physical problems earlier on.”

Because fat retains alcohol while water dilutes it, a woman’s organs are more prone to the harmful effects of alcohol. As a result, alcohol-related problems such as brain damage or liver damage progress faster in women than in men.

Moreover, women have lower levels of two enzymes that are responsible for breaking alcohol down in the stomach and liver. As a result, women absorb more alcohol into the bloodstream.

2. Quicker Progression from Abuse to Addiction

Women develop alcohol and drug addiction more quickly than men do and they also develop medical side effects and social repercussions faster than men.

3. Abuse and Trauma Prevent Women from Seeking Help

Many women who suffer from addiction have also experienced long-term abuse, in relationships or within their family of origin. As women tend to have demanding roles as mothers or carers, they often ignore their own needs and stay in abusive relationships without seeking help.

Jessica Tomlinson Hill, a Senior Specialist Therapist at Castle Craig, says that some women may “unconsciously choose a partner that reinforces their addiction. This partner might be physically or emotionally abusive, but the woman will stay because at least he’s not challenging her drinking or using. Dysfunctional, unhealthy relationships for women who suffer from addiction tend to go on for much, much longer than for women who don’t suffer from addiction.” This can leave them with deep emotional wounds and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

4. Shame and Stigma

“You’re supposed to be a good wife and a good mother. What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you do that?” – Senior Therapist, Jessica.

Women who are addicted tend to attract more shame and stigma compared to men. They can be more reluctant to talk about their problems because they are afraid of being labelled as a failure or a bad parent.

5. Fear of Losing Children is a Barrier to Seeking Treatment

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) annual World Drug Report many women fear losing custody of their children as a condition of treatment, and this prevents them from seeking care.

A 1995 study published in the Journal of the National Medical Association, which interviewed addicted women about their reasons for not seeking treatment, found that 55% of respondents considered their responsibilities as a wife or a mother prevented them from looking for treatment. They were afraid their children would be taken away as a consequence of their admitting to a substance abuse problem.

6. Secrecy

Very often women will drink or use drugs in secret. They may have a secret life going on while trying to keep it all together on the outside.

Women’s Group therapy is very helpful in unmasking all these repressed feelings and helping women to no longer live in fear. Senior Therapist at Castle Craig, Jessica, says that female substance users “go through life with a mask on and think ‘If people knew me and really knew what was going on, then they wouldn’t want anything to do with me.’”

It is very important to address this thinking in therapy so that women are slowly “able to tell the truth about what’s happened…. And have other women say ‘I can relate to you. This also happened to me!’”

7. Codependent Behaviour

Women with alcohol problems may already be living with an alcoholic partner, so they are subject to codependent behaviour, whereby they unconsciously feed into their partner’s addiction. They lose their own sense of identity by constantly looking for approval from their alcoholic or drug addicted partner. They start sacrificing their own needs in order to accomplish their partner’s and expect their partners to validate their self-worth.

As wives, sisters, mothers or partners they are drawn into a vicious circle of behaviour and breaking the pattern is almost impossible without therapy.

8. Eating Disorders

Research shows that 50% of people with an eating disorder are also abusing drugs and/or alcohol, a rate 5 times greater than the general population.

Eating disorders and addiction are often interlinked. Low self-esteem, shame, lack of control and cravings are common features. For example, bulimics often suppress these feelings with alcohol, but eventually the drinking only makes the shame worse.

Sometimes an eating disorder appears “out of nowhere”: the addiction problems fade into the background while dysfunctional thinking around eating, self-image and weight take centre stage. You can read more about treating eating disorders at Castle Craig here.

9. Adult Children of Alcoholics

Dr. Kelly has experienced many cases where addicted women revealed that “they had come from a situation where their parent was an alcoholic, either the father or both parents. They had seen horrendous violence and we often found women who were self-harming and women who had attempted suicide. Children of alcoholics is a huge problem.”

10. Reasons for Relapse

Women are more likely than men to relapse after treatment for alcohol or drug addiction. Addiction expert David Sack lists the main reasons which cause women to relapse:

  • Starting romantic relationships too soon after leaving treatment may lead women to replace recovery as their priority with the pursuit of a partner.
  • Unaddressed underlying emotional challenges may cause women to ‘transfer’ their addiction to the obsessive pursuit of love, romance, sex or relationships.
  • Untreated co-occurring mental health problems such as depression, personality disorders and eating disorders are particularly common for women before a relapse.
  • Women in recovery are more likely to be married to heavy-drinking men which puts them at greater risk for relapse as a result of marriage and marital conflict.
  • Women tend to demonstrate a weaker belief in their ability to handle unpleasant emotions and interpersonal problems, which leads to depression and eventually poorer coping skills in recovery.