19th March 2021

Women in Addiction and Recovery

This month is Women’s History month, and although we feel that women should be celebrated every month, we want to use this occasion to raise awareness of the issues many women face around addiction and recovery.  We’ll talk about the varying issues women face in addiction, their barriers to recovery and what we can do to provide the best support we can for our clients. 

Violence against women. 

The second week of March was No More Week, where we spoke about the tragic link between sexual violence, domestic abuse and addiction. While it’s important to recognise that many men struggle with these issues, sadly women are more vulnerable and the World Health Organisation estimates that 1 in 3 women have been subjected to physical or sexual violence in their lifetime (1). This abuse leaves many women feeling isolated and alone, with research suggesting women are also more likely to turn to substance or behavioural addictions to deal with these traumatic experiences. According to the addiction centre, women who have been abused are 15 times more likely to abuse alcohol and 9 times more likely to abuse drugs than those without a history of abuse(2). It is a vicious cycle which has a heavy influence on how these women respond to treatment and the type of support they require.  

Female sexuality and addiction. 

Many women find that they ‘switch off’ sexually in their addictions, or maybe sex was used more as a currency for ‘power’ in some way. Many women who overcome their addiction, experience their sexuality in challenging ways. Some may feel extremely uncomfortable and unattractive in their bodies, some may turn to ‘Sexual Anorexia’ if they have had experience of sexual boundaries being crossed. Some women may feel the physiological returning of sexual desire, and feel empowered, or ashamed. Some women may have felt sex was equivalent to Love, or that it was expected of them to fulfil others sexual desires. This topic can be difficult for women to talk about due to stigma or embarrassment, but it is important that we recognise it as an issue which thousands if not millions of women in recovery are facing.  

Stigma, stereotypes and childcare. 

The societal pressure on women to be pure, to be good mothers and partners, leads to many women suffering in silence. Women are also more likely to abuse substances at home, alone and out of sight, and often to cope with trauma and the stress of having to fill the role of the perfect mother or wife. These feelings of denial, guilt and shame can stop women coming to terms with their addiction and reaching out for support. This stigma can even be seen in the medical profession, with just 8% of addiction research being focussed on women (3) and doctors historically often failing to ask women being diagnosed with other mental health issues about their drug or alcohol usage (4). There has been an improvement on this, but society as a whole needs to do more to move away from these harmful stereotypes and encourage women to get the help they need. 

Childcare is another significant barrier for many women facing problems with addiction. Women are more likely to be the sole-carer of children, which leaves the responsibility of childcare to them. If a woman is already feeling shame about seeking help, the idea of having to pay for professional childcare, or ask a friend or family member for support might put them off completely. 

Women supporting women. 

The inspiring women in our clinical team all have lived experience of addiction, and are living proof that recovery is possible. Building these strong relationships with other women can help many of our clients feel less alone and fight these feelings of guilt and shame. One of our counsellors has agreed to share the impact a positive female relationship had on her recovery: 

When I came into recovery it was very hard to open up to another woman. My relationship with my mother was broken and damaged and I was terrified of rejection I knew though, to recover, it was vital to be completely honest, so I had an opportunity through sponsorship to build a trusting relationship with a woman.   I chose someone who was kind, gentle, understanding and listened to me.  She was reliable and consistent.  She treated me like an equal.   We built a solid relationship through working the steps, mutual sharing, laughing, crying, discussion and cups of tea. I told her things that I had not told anyone, that I felt ashamed about and she listened without judgement.  She gave me honest feedback in a gentle way.  We came back in contact six years ago and now we have a friendship that I treasure. I will always be grateful to her for the kindness, understanding and encouragement she showed me.’- MB (Stevenage and Watford Counsellor) 

What do we do now? 

At The Living Room we are determined to help women overcome these barriers and get the help they need and deserve. We create a safe space for women to open up in all of our groups, ensuring they are made to feel comfortable and listened to, never judged. We provide free childcare in our Stevenage creche, allowing clients to attend group knowing their children are safe and being looked after by our amazing creche team. We encourage all of our clients to build positive relationships within the group, by listening and learning from the other women in the room we hope to gradually breakdown those feelings of isolation and hopelessness.  

We know there is always more work to be done. We recognise having a women's only group could be an excellent way of giving women the courage to speak up about issues around love and sex and we are working with our partners on providing single-sex groups. We know that victims of childhood trauma, domestic abuse and sexual violence can have very different treatment needs, by partnering with other organisations we would like to work towards providing this specialised support. We are always listening and wanting to improve our services to support our clients in the best way possible.   

If you or anyone you know has been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, give us a call or see the resources below: 

Call: 0300 365 0304 

More information: Domestic Violence Referrals 

  1. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/violence-against-women 
  2. https://www.addictioncenter.com/addiction/domestic-violence/ 
  3. https://www.silkworthlodge.co.uk/resource/women-addiction-and-recovery 
  4. https://www.truvida.com/top-10-womens-issues-in-addiction-recovery/