Why Gender-Specific Treatment Is Crucial for Women

By The Fix staff 04/26/17

“When co-ed therapeutic groups happen, the women will often hesitate or hold back while the male members of the group speak up and get their needs met."

Women in yoga poses.

Addiction does not discriminate but there are legitimate reasons why treatment should. Gender-specific care is becoming more and more common and for women especially, it could be the key component to making the most of a client’s time in rehabilitation. There are a multitude of reasons why women might thrive more in recovery if they’re fighting the addiction battle alongside other like-minded women.

Physiological Differences

The sheer physiological differences between men and women are an incentive for women to seek out female-centric treatment. “Women’s bodies metabolize chemicals differently than men’s bodies do so women are often much sicker from the physiological effects of addiction by the time they get treatment. They have a harder time getting a running start,” says Cecelia Jayme, Director of Clinical Services at Hazelden Betty Ford’s Center City, Minnesota campus. So the impact is two-fold: women physically experience the medical remedies for getting relief from the addiction differently than men, and in turn might garner more empathy from those who have had similar physical side effects.

The Height of Vulnerability

Early sobriety is a time of healing, discovery and often total disorientation. Jayme explains, “Take your primary relationships, which is that with [the] drug; go into treatment and remove [the]drug, which is removing your primary relationship, and there is this big, gaping empty feeling left behind. Women are vulnerable to predation at that point.” Many professionals (and recovering addicts who’ve learned the hard way) believe that early recovery is not the ideal time for new romantic relationships. A women-only therapeutic environment is the simple solution. “People can confuse that emptiness and that predation as romantic love and build their stability on that, and we all know how stable relationships are in early recovery—they dissipate quickly and they need the relationship with the other women to support them through that,” Jayme says. Gender-sensitive treatment assures one more essential layer of protection.

The vulnerability factor goes beyond the risk of mistaking attraction for safety. Jayme has seen in her own work that women are less likely to share openly in a group setting when there are males present. “When co-ed therapeutic groups happen, the women will often hesitate or hold back while the male members of the group speak up and get their needs met,” she says. “Women hold back until the men have had their turn, which often results in women not getting their time.”

There is also a comfort level that’s not available in co-ed groups. “It’s really difficult for many women regardless of age or generation to talk about women-specific issues around body image or family relationships,” Jayme says. “The way that women relate is very different than the way men relate to significant others and family.” In short, gender-specific groups usually result in more honest feedback and a lot less rescuing.

Double the Stigma

The issues people have with women and addiction can be traced back for centuries. “The stigma around addiction for women has been since pre-Biblical time,” Jayme notes. “The thing is that a good woman doesn’t get drunk. A good woman doesn’t fall back on these chemicals. While men in their cups are foolish, women in their cups are evil.” The stigma that follows women is so accepted in the social consciousness, it usually results in the mistaken assumption that women are really emotional or dramatic if they have an issue they’re trying to work though. A man in a similar scenario is often thought of as just being honest.

Drinking has been glamorized in advertisements for years. Marketing the concept that women need alcohol to cope with life is the same—the method has just changed. What used to be salesmen peddling elixirs of alcohol and opium to stressed out moms in the late 1800s and early 1900s is now Instagram memes revolving around the running “joke” that wine is the only way to survive motherhood. Social media just takes it to another level, and in turn creates a whole other barrier to women seeking treatment. Repeatedly seeing images of not just pretty strangers, but people we actually know on a personal level, presenting seemingly perfect lives of balance—the kids, the husband, the fit body, the great smile, and the more-than-occasional wine indulgence—elicits anxiety. Those who have discovered that alcohol can become problematic quickly may regularly wonder how other women maintain those well-manicured lives and still drink. Women might look at their peers and think, They can keep it together and still enjoy cocktails, why can’t I? “It’s just one more thing to make the ideal impossible, which pushes [people] to strive more to that ideal,” Jayme says.

The Upside for Women in Recovery

Despite the challenges that reside at the helm of seeking and undergoing treatment, the positive news is that women usually adapt extremely well to a sober life in recovery. “Recovery often happens fast for women,” writes Brenda J. Iliff, executive director at Hazelden in Naples, Florida. “Recovery is a natural for women. That’s because women are wired for relationships, and recovery from addiction starts with connection.”

Jayme wholeheartedly agrees with this sentiment, and constantly witnesses the power of women connecting in recovery. “Women are relational creatures,” she observes. “We love to be in community; we learn best in groups; we interact better in groups and we like being in a society.” It’s important to be reminded of this because so often the image of women in a communal setting is tarnished with inaccurate stereotypes. “This whole idea about how women are catty and can’t live together is false,” Jayme insists. “I’ve run units with 26 women who are able to live together well and help each other heal in a positive way.”

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