Alcohol for Women: Stigma of Addiction

We are all worthy and deserving of care.

Everyone who is affected by addiction should be able to get the help they need.

One of the factors that gets in the way of treatment is stigma. For a more in-depth look at stigma, see our previous post. Simply put, stigma is an attitude, belief or behavior that discriminates against people.

Women’s experience with stigma

Women experience stigma differently than men when it comes to dealing with substance use disorders, affecting their access to care and journey on the road to recovery. 

Ann Dowsett Johnston’s book, Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, was first published in 2013, a time when many were taking notice of a sharp rise in alcohol use and problem drinking among women. The book put a spotlight on the factors that have contributed to the negative impacts of alcohol on women, weaved in with Johnston’s personal struggles, including with the stigma of addiction.

Her Ted Talk in the following year, now has more than a million views. In it, she said that even after becoming a best-selling author, and a long career as a well-known reporter and editor, revealing her struggles and truth resulted in people seeing her in a negative light.  

 “I think when you write a book called Drink, they’re not so sure they want you. The stigma is large, and I’m pretty aware of what I’ve done in outing myself,” she said.

How women’s drinking is different 

The late author Caroline Knapp was another writer who examined a life of drinking and dependence in Drinking: A Love Story.

“For a long time, when it’s working, the drink feels like a path to a kind of self-enlightenment, something that turns us into the person we wish to be, or the person we think we are. In some ways the dynamic is this simple: alcohol makes everything better until it makes everything worse.”

Knapp’s story pulls common threads from many women’s experience of using substances to deal with trauma, abuse and mental health disorders.

According to SAMHSA, men typically consume alcohol to enhance positive feelings and keep the good times rolling. While, women more frequently drink in response to negative emotions, anxiety or stress. This has not slipped the eye of marketers who have directed efforts to capture the “Wine Moms” niche, as a release from the pressures of parenting and modern life. This, and the “pinking” of the alcohol market – ironically something that has lifted some of the stigma of women’s drinking – may be contributing factors in the latest information available that shows that women have caught up to men in alcohol consumption, including catching up in alcohol-related disease and deaths.

While some of the reasons women start using alcohol include for self-medication, to make themselves feel better, or “normal.” Meanwhile, all of these would result in them being stigmatized if found out.

What gets in the way of getting help

One of the signs of alcohol addiction and problem drinking is finding reasons or making excuses for drinking, including to relax, deal with stress or feel “normal.”

Women may also not be ready to address the underlying issues that made them turn to drinking. Their past experiences may not be something they want to discuss in a group setting that is portrayed as a typical aspect of addiction treatment. Women who are in treatment for substance use disorders are more likely to have a history of sexual abuse. 

Receiving care also means women have to find resources to cover the childcare, eldercare and other responsibilities that most often fall to women. Women also face being judged or shamed in a way that is different from men, because of these roles as mothers and caregivers.

And women are often the hardest on themselves, resulting in self-stigma, where negative beliefs are internalized, lowering their self-esteem and feelings of  shame and guilt.

Exercising boundaries is another tool to help women understand what results in self-stigma and turning to substances for relief. Carolyn is a Renascent alumni who learned how to take back control to help her heal. “Previously, I was prone to over-committing,” she says. “I didn’t want to disappoint or upset others. I wanted to be liked, sometimes at the expense of my own wellbeing. Learning to say ‘no’ has taken trial and error, mindfulness, and meditation – time each day to be silent and focus on my own breath, my own emotions and feelings.” 

These skills continue to serve her well. “Stressors that would have made me drink in the past don’t have such a hold anymore.”

Finding answers

Answers can be found in supportive treatment that includes an understanding of the stigma women face. Doing what we can to educate and reduce stigma in other areas, including health professionals and law enforcement can also help provide a lifeline to care. 

Lindsay is a past client of Renascent and one who is passionate about challenging stigma and helping others in recovery. “ Anyone can struggle with this illness – not just the homeless. It could be someone’s mother or brother,” shares Lindsay. “There are so many people who struggle in silence. Addiction touches everyone’s lives in some way or another.”

Leah is another friend to Renascent who has made a commitment to reducing the stigma around substance use disorders.

“It is my goal to break down the barriers associated with this disease and make having conversations about addiction normal. I want to break down the stigma so that everyone can get treatment when they need it.”

How Renascent helps

Renascent understands women’s different treatment issues and needs. Indeed, Renascent has been committed to removing the barriers women face since opening one of Ontario’s first live-in addiction treatment centres for women in 1981. Providing access to gender-responsive care is critical to ensuring that women can recover from addiction.

We can help you too. Your Road to Recovery starts here. 

About the Authors

Renascent Staff
The staff at Renascent is passionate about helping people with substance addictions so they can reach their full recovery – with compassion, respect, empathy and understanding. Our staff includes our counsellors, all of whom have lived experience of addiction and recovery.