Many battles have been fought over the years, on many battlefields. Here we look at the gender divide in the field of drug and alcohol addiction. It’s not as simple as it seems, or is it?
Part 1 in a series of 3
banyantree21.com takes a look at the facts, the myths and relevance of the often cliché soaked topic of gender and addiction.
We hear many opinions like: ‘Men are from bars, Women intravenous’. But is it true, and is it relevant?
The two main questions we ask are “How did we get here?” and “How do we get out?”
The differences in the first question are huge, variable, and the reasons given complex, sometimes irrelevant, and too often contradictory and confusing. We have combed through a number of studies (available online) and drawn some conclusions aimed at the second question. Your experience may be different. We’d love to hear your comments…
This the first of a 3-part series. The ideas shared do not belong to us, nor do they belong to any person or group. They are simply universal ideas and are descriptive as opposed to prescriptive, based on experience and observation.
“How do we get out?”
The first undeniable fact we found that was in all the gender studies, which take into account location, substance type, race, income (the etceteras are many) is that men experience substance addiction in higher volumes than women in every single case EXCEPT ONE. This exception is to do with the type of substance. Can you guess what it is? Put that thought on the back-burner; we’ll reveal it later. Studies show a general trend in the USA (all substances) that men seeking treatment accounted for 70% of all intakes, and women 30%.
Interestingly, the gender gap appears to be closing. Traditional roles are changing, slowly, but they are changing. It used to be the case that in the vast majority of households, men were the main breadwinners and women stayed ay home, often looking after children. This trend changes through cultures and demographics but is true in a general sense.
This has no doubt had an effect on the nature and reason for getting addicted; the pressure to earn money and the fear and perceived failure of losing a job, (traditional male consequences), and the stresses of raising children and lack of social engagement (traditional female consequences), are now bleeding into the gender divide. The consequences for whoever stays at home the most also affects their potential for getting help, with lack of childcare often quoted as a stumbling block to receiving help, particularly from self-help groups.
The route into addiction is far too complex to draw firm conclusions and the landscape is a moving target that renders definition and labelling obsolete the moment it is attempted. This does not mean we cannot adapt or offer help to suit circumstances, yet our focus is better placed on the question “How do we get out?”.
There seems to be three distinct phases.
Addiction expresses itself in many forms other than substance abuse. All human beings have the capacity to get attached to something other than themselves, in an often futile attempt to avoid suffering. Many of us spend far too much time at work or the gym, in a relationship or seeking one in the hope of feeling better about ourselves. The common thread here is suffering; we are either repelled in trying to avoid it or attracted to finding joy in something else.
Drug addicts (remembering that alcohol is a drug) can be seen to be in a curiously privileged position in as much as their suffering is in their face (and usually the faces of their loved ones) and so denial can be harder to break through for someone who is maybe working hard in a job they hate, or just slowly dying inside, in a relationship without love.
Once the addict feels the full force of his or her consequences and the despair that inevitably follows, they are now in a position which would appear to hold true for all of us.
“When pain of staying the same is greater than the fear of change, then we’ll change”.
This idea, expressed in many different ways, seems to be the starting point for many of us wanting to change our existing circumstances and especially our inner world of thought, feelings, and moods. Some say, “There’s got to be more to life than this!”, or “I’ve just had enough”. We get to this stage after trying, usually by will-power alone, to change ourselves.
It feels desperate and lonely and we do not all share the same jumping-off point. We seem to need a shock or a jolt. Many describe it as a moment of clarity. It feels very personal, and in many ways it has to be like that; the guy drinking two bottles of wine a week will have fewer consequences, external and internal, than the girl drinking a bottle of vodka every day. And the woman who is married and financially well-off may have little motivation for change, despite a yearning for love and friendship which can seem absent to her at present. It is bad news, but not all bad news. This is the first phase, an honest appraisal and admission of our current circumstances which will move us into Phase 2.
The second phase is simply the belief that things CAN change. Belief is a changing commodity and it starts from inside us but it can be ratcheted up by asking for help from individuals such as psychotherapists, or attending self-help groups, be they 12 step, Smart Recovery, or local meet-ups run and managed by sufferers themselves. Such groups can be focused for specific issues such as depression, single parents, or those with physical disabilities. The members of these groups are often willing to share their struggles and victories and offer valuable practical advice. We see first-hand that change is possible. We feel a little less lonely and a bit more supported: we have someone on our side.
The first part of our journey was really an internal one: the realization of our suffering and perhaps the effects of our behaviour on our nearest and dearest. It is concerned with our state of our BEING. This second phase will involve some external work, some DOING. It is probably a good idea to seek out a group that can help. That in itself is external work. We follow that up by attending the group or meeting, more work, more DOING. Such steps will show those around us that we have some willingness but more importantly we demonstrate that willingness to OURSELVES. We start to believe that we want to change.
Ok so we’ve found our group or guru and show up when we can. We may be told stories of calamity and disaster from others and we may tell some ourselves. This can ease our loneliness and particularly our specialness. We feel part of something.
Woven into the stories we will hear of some actions that were taken to ease suffering. It is a good idea to pay attention to these actions. There will be a common thread running through them, despite the differences in gender, circumstances, characters, and personalities. Some people will be speaking for the group and in doing so maybe watering down the message. This is OK. We can take small, achievable and practical steps for ourselves simply by finding the common thread. As our listening skills improve will can discern the difference between a parroted monologue and principle based experience. We may even hear some wisdom. This usually comes after some time and practice but is available all the time; we only have to get ourselves out of the way.
Listening with nothing on our minds is difficult. We are all used to having our attention in our own heads whilst someone else is talking; formulating what the speaker ‘really means’, or rehearsing our response. This is very common and habitual, so much so that that we don’t even recognize it. We can all improve our listening skills. It is much under-valued until we experience the benefits of directing our attention on to what is being said.
When we notice ourselves getting caught up in our own running commentary we can softly put it on the back-burner and re-focus. However enticing it may be, we don’t have to lift the lid of the dish to add spice or stir it up. Marinating is just fine.
Listening helps us to connect. This connection often starts as circumstantial. We have a similar this or that, yet it can grow into something much more meaningful and lasting. We see and feel our similarities, beyond the external lines of gender, race, age or indeed anything measurable. Eventually we hear someone or something that chimes inside us. We learn to trust what others are saying. Not always and with everyone but little by little we learn to open up and to become vulnerable. If this someone feels right, we can ask them for help.
A useful rule of thumb when choosing someone like this is “Do I feel judged?”. If you do, then it goes without saying that they want to change you. Noble as this may seem, we already know we want to change and what helps is acceptance, not judgement. Remember that we are dealing with principles, and the stakes are high, they have to be. The Saint and the sinner will both fall if walking off a roof: the principle of gravity is not concerned with previous conduct or study.
We take a risk; we ask for help. We take action ourselves based on the information and experience we have heard. We can evaluate the truth of the action after taking it, whatever our gender. Whatever our excuses. We do the work.
Stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon. It’s called “Who do you think you are?”, where we expose the many types of ‘work’ on offer and reveal the sly trick that is often, quite deliberately, concealed within yet mostly missed. When seen, it could save you years of unfruitful and exhausting ‘work’.
The one and only substance type taken by women in greater numbers than by men?
We used to call them Tranquillisers, now often called Benzodiazepines and with brand names like Valium or Xanax, or Opiod painkillers like Codeine or Fentanyl. These medicines are quite different chemically but have the similar general effect of calming conditions such as anxiety and can aid sleep.
We’d love to hear your experience on the gender divide. Are there reasons for this substance anomaly? Does it matter?
Get the conversation started and leave a comment below…
Continue Part 2 : Who do you think you are?