Back when I was drinking and using, the idea of hanging out with a bunch of women made my skin crawl. I didn’t spend time with other women, and if I was included in a girls-only group—like a baby shower or bridal party, for example—I did my utmost to get out of the commitment. It wasn’t that I didn’t like girls. I just wasn’t comfortable.
When I got sober, my perspective did a total 180. I learned what an incredible lifeline other women can be in recovery. Instead of resenting my gender, I’ve learned to embrace it. Today, I have many female friends. My life is full of sober women—women who I respect. Recovery not only gave me a connection to myself. I was introduced to a community of recovered women who help me learn to stay sober, one day at a time. I know that I couldn’t have done it without them.
Addiction Affects Men and Women Differently
My experience isn’t unique. Research has shown that women face greater barriers when it comes to getting treatment for alcohol and drugs. Transgender, gay, and other non-binary people have an even higher wall to climb. Not only do alcohol and drugs affect a woman’s body and brain differently than a man’s, but the stigma of addiction affects women differently as well. Men who are alcoholics are less likely to lose their jobs, families, and homes than women who are alcoholics. Men who are alcoholics do not face the same negative messages as women who are alcoholics. Men who drink retain their dignity. Women who drink are lushes: gross, out of control, and shameful.
Many women do not seek treatment not only because of the intense shame they feel for being addicts or alcoholics, but because they are in a caregiver role for a parent, child, partner, or other family member. How many times have you heard a woman say, “I can’t check into treatment, I need to take care of my kids”? How many times have you heard a man say the same thing? There is a gender divide in the way alcohol and drugs affect men and women, so it makes sense that there should be a similar divide in the way men and women get treatment.
Gender Specific Treatment Programs
There are many treatment programs that are gender specific. Women who want to get sober in a safe, supportive, female-only environment have plenty of options. Treatment for women focuses on the issues and struggles that are specific to women in recovery: family changes, shame, and self-esteem, eating disorders, pregnancy, and reproductive health changes, coping with rape and incest, and learning to care for ourselves first.
The physical aspect of addiction alone means that women must be detoxed and treated differently than men. Women drink less and get drunk faster—although this is changing, as women’s alcohol use is nearly on par with men’s. However, in the bigger picture, women tend to have more needs post-treatment to stay sober and keep on track with their recovery. For example, according to a 2000 study about social services and addiction, it was found that providing comprehensive services, such as housing, transportation, education, and income support, reduces post-treatment substance use among both men and women, but greater numbers of women need such services. Women are more likely to be dependents, which means that they’re less likely to have access to the services they need to stay sober. Learning life skills and practicing being self-supporting are both key points in gender-specific treatment programs.
But What About Men?
Men face their own, distinct set of issues in recovery. However, when it comes to resources, they get the lion’s share. Many rehab programs are men-only; the 12 Step programs started as a men-only group. Men are better advocates for themselves and are therefore more likely to get the help they need. Furthermore, although they’re more likely to be the primary breadwinner in their families, they’re also more likely to seek treatment when they need it and complete their programs.
Men and women abuse alcohol and drugs for different reasons, and gender-specific treatment programs acknowledge those differences. Also, for men and women who are heterosexual and cisgendered, same-sex treatment centers can remove social distractions. Instead of feeling tempted to get lost in a short term rehab relationship, sticking with your gender group can reinforce the reason a man or woman checked into rehab in the first place: to get help.
Gender specific programs for women aren’t exactly an Oprah-worthy, yoga fantasy retreat. Rehab is rehab, no matter how you slice it. Treatment for women acknowledges the psychology, co-existing conditions, and cultural roles of women—while connecting women to one another in a way that is positive and supportive. Dealing with the issues that trigger a woman’s addiction not only helps her obtain recovery but maintain it once she leaves treatment. Gender specific treatment provides the best combination of all: enduring recovery, and the gift of self-respect.