Women and the Stigma of Addiction

Are women stigmatized by addiction?

stigmatized female addictWhen we think about the person who works a full time job, travels, enjoys a beer with sports, or finishes a long day in the office by going out to dinner and cocktails with a friend, which may turn into a late night of drinking, what type of person comes to mind? Is it a man or a woman? Are they single or married?  If we place a female in that scenario vs. a man, does it change the expectation of that person?  You see, although we’ve come a long way as a society when dealing with gender expectations and inequality, there are still deeply engrained prejudices that exist when we’re thinking about addiction.

The behavior in the above scenario tends to be more widely accepted for men because “this is what hard working men do,” some might say. For some, it may be that this is acceptable because he provides for his family and in turn deserves to ‘blow off steam.’  However, with the female scenario, we find more women are scrutinized for this behavior and a woman’s character, capability and ability to mother children come in to question.

Addiction does not single out gender, race or religion.  We are all affected; not one more than the other.  The female substance user sits with 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 person who  is making costly choices and needs to make better ones.  It is because of this stigma that women often seek treatment less often then men do.

It can be even harder if the woman is a mother. Whether you’re a stay at home mother, full time working mother or both, there are societal expectations of what a mother, wife or successful female ‘should be.’  As a result, we find that we are constantly trying to exceed those role expectations and when we fall short we tend to feel ashamed, covering up our need for help or disguising our struggles.

Even more stigmatized perhaps, is the pregnant female. The shame and judgment associated with a female who drinks or uses drugs is almost so unbearable that one may never share their addiction problem with anyone out of fear of the judgment and anger that may come.  If they aren’t sharing their struggle with friends and family then they likely are not seeking treatment either. The truth is, addiction still affects women who are pregnant and they need and deserve the help just as much as anyone else.  To shame someone by thinking or saying, “How can she do that to her baby?” or “What a terrible mother, she doesn’t deserve to have a child” only perpetuates the stigma of addiction that females currently face.

Addiction does not seek out an ideal individual. It doesn’t see male/female, rich/poor, ethnicity or religion.  A simple checklist of a character we have in mind of who addiction affects is a complete misrepresentation pursued by our culture. It is essential that we begin to break this stigma and accept that addiction affects all types of people. If we continue to live in denial about addiction and the people affected, we will continue to drive this stigma through generations to come, making it more and more difficult for females and males to reach out for help.