The Importance of Women’s Recovery Spaces

By Kristance Harlow 07/18/18

Women’s meetings gave me the space to talk about the unspeakable, allowing me to move closer to becoming free from the fear that has kept me shackled.

women in group therapy
When the women’s 12-step meeting began in the city where I got sober, it was a game changer for me.

[Content Note: Discussions of IPV]

I started my sobriety journey in a foreign city where there was one English speaking 12-step meeting daily, and a relatively small number of attendees. During part of the year, there were few travelers coming through the city, which meant fewer attendees. It wasn’t out of the ordinary to be the only female in the room. I was struggling to accept the gendered language of the literature we read, and had difficulty relating to the stories of the men in that space. I appreciated their support and camaraderie, but I didn’t see myself often reflected in their experiences. I didn’t know it at the time, but what I needed was to connect with other women in sobriety.

When a recovery meeting for women was suggested by a few ladies who had recently moved to the area, it was met with some resistance. The same happened when I later moved and suggested a women’s meeting in the new city where I was living. The resistance wasn’t a force in numbers, but there was a strength of conviction in the small number of people who had a problem with it. I’ve been told that a women’s-only meeting (that is also open to all non-binary, gender non-conforming, and trans identifying folks) can’t possibly be considered part of a [insert 12-step group name here] program because Tradition Three states, “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop [drinking/using/overeating/etc].”

When it comes to recovery from addiction, gender-aware spaces are important and there has been a long history of them within 12-step programs. Identity-focused groups have existed for decades, including men’s meetings. The first meeting for Black folks began in the 1940s in Washington DC. In 1971, the first gay and lesbian AA meeting began in the same city. While some binary-gender-specific meetings are open to trans folks, there are many that are not. The transgender community still struggles to find a place to recover safely, but there are some meetings in some large cities that are specifically for people who identify as trans.

The first women in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)–the first and most common of the 12-step programs–didn’t have other women in recovery to guide them and would receive support and sponsorship from non-alcoholic women. The founders originally disagreed on whether or not to admit women into the fellowship, at all. The first women-only AA meeting began in 1941 in Cleveland, Ohio. By 1947 there were more than a dozen women-only groups throughout country and that number has since grown exponentially, worldwide. In 1965 the first forum for women alcoholics was held as the National AA Women’s Conference. Every February since, the International AA Women’s Conference has held a conference “just for women in AA.”

The gender we identify with and the gender we were assigned at birth both play major roles in how we are socialized growing up and how society treats us as adults. Our experiences and choices are, without a doubt, guided and influenced by these societal gender norms. Men and women (generally) benefit in different ways from participation in 12-step programs. According to a paper published in the journal Addiction which looked at AA specifically, women seem to benefit the most from “improved confidence in their ability to abstain during times when they were sad or depressed.” Men tend to benefit more from an increased “confidence in the ability to cope with high-risk drinking situations and [an increased] number of social contacts who supported recovery efforts.” In this study, men benefited from experiencing less depression and having fewer drinking buddies hanging around. Women needed the confidence to experience depression and still not drink.

Women’s meetings can foster validation for feelings of sorrow, and women share their experiences on not drinking despite those feelings. Men, on the other hand, frequently cite the need to combat “self-pity” and credit tough love for their early success in sobriety. For women, it’s often about learning to abstain while in the dark feelings, not escaping from the dark feelings altogether.

The majority of people entering into treatment for addiction are victims of trauma and they present trauma-related symptoms to a significant degree. It’s a vicious cycle: trauma increases the risk of developing a substance use disorder and substance use disorders increase the risk of experiencing trauma. Johanna O’Flaherty, a psychologist specializing in trauma, says that over the course of her career she’s seen people admitted for addiction treatment and “80 to 90 percent in the case of women, have experienced trauma.” Most of the trauma is related to physical and sexual abuse.

The most common trauma in the world is sexual violence and intimate partner violence. Active substance use disorders are positively correlated with an increased risk of domestic violence. Alcohol does not cause domestic violence, but someone who is controlling and abusive is more likely to carry out violence when under the influence. The interconnections of violence, traumatic disorders, and addictions are profound.

The truth is, most sexual violence is carried out by men. A 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found that “90 percent of perpetrators of sexual violence against women are men” and 93 percent of perpetrators of sexual violence against men are also men and overall “men perpetrate 78 percent of reported assaults.” Asking women to talk about their sexual traumas in front of men is a violent act. Yet, trauma must be worked through or it will never heal. The only way to do that is to provide safe options for people to talk about things they wouldn’t otherwise feel comfortable discussing.

Google “women in AA” and the results are heavily saturated with critiques of the program. There are suggestions for alternatives and articles on predators in the rooms of AA and NA (Narcotics Anonymous). It happens, 12 step groups are not utopias and the people in the rooms aren’t there because their lives have always been amazing and their choices ethical. It is possible to meet manipulative and abusive predators there. Strong connections between women can be a buffer and a safety net for other women who might become entangled in an unhealthy or abusive relationship in early recovery.

As a paper written by Jolene Sanders in the Journal of Groups in Addiction & Recovery explains, “Women also feel more comfortable speaking about issues not directly related to their immediate concern of alcoholism. For example, women may talk about childhood abuse, sexual abuse or harassment, and other forms of assault. Similarly, women speak more candidly than men about their relationships with significant others and tend to focus on emotions more than men. Finally, women tend to discuss mental health issues, such as depression, more than men and focus more on building self-esteem, rather than deflating pride or ego, which are primary concerns for men in AA.”

When the women’s 12-step meeting began in the city where I got sober, it was a game changer for me. I had been in a state of traumatic symptom overload. I was experiencing intrusive and vivid recollections of my traumas. I was being triggered all the time about the emotional, psychological, and physical abuse in my past. There are some things my body will not allow me to speak about in certain scenarios. It’s a physical reaction, neurological in origin, and uncontrollable. My body becomes hell bent on protecting me from past danger, literally preventing me from talking.

If I attempt to speak when my body wants to protect me, I begin stuttering and tripping over each utterance. Unbeknownst to me, what I needed was the company of people who were not men. Women’s meetings gave me the space to talk about the unspeakable, allowing me to move closer to becoming free from the fear that has kept me shackled to the past.

Women’s only spaces in recovery from trauma and addiction can help people to express things they may have been taught to not talk about in front of people outside of their gender. Or about events that they have gone through or acts they have carried out or things that have been done to them in relation to their gender identity. I’ve heard rumors suggesting that women’s meetings are not good because they’re just “man-bashing.” This is unequivocally false; just because something isn’t for you doesn’t mean it is against you.

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Kristance Harlow is a freelance writer and mental illness advocate. She fights stigma and writes about uncomfortable experiences. She lives in a foreign land with her husband and rescue pupster. Find Kristance on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, or her blog.