When it comes to addiction – from epidemiology to treatment – gender matters. The facts show that men and women get addicted differently, to different drugs, at different rates, and for different reasons.
This translates into having a direct effect on treatment, where women and men respond differently to certain circumstances and approaches.
As the message of addiction as a treatable illness continues to spread through society, it’s important to follow that up with the clarification that each and every individual deserves a unique treatment that best fits their needs.
Part of ensuring that a person gets the right treatment for their addiction involves accounting for the differences in their experience as a result of their gender.
Women’s sober living homes present an opportunity to address the unique needs that women in recovery possess, serving to help them overcome the challenges of early recovery, avoid relapses in the first months of sobriety, and equip them with the tools they need to continue the recovery process at home and in regular life.
Women Face Unique Challenges in Addiction
Men and women are biologically and socially different, and these factors greatly affect how and why men and women struggle differently with addiction. But first, a primer.
An addiction begins in the brain. When a person takes a drug, the drug travels through their bloodstream into the brain, where it affects the way they think by affecting the way chemicals naturally produced by the brain are released. This can cause feelings of euphoria and other emotions, generally known as a high.
Once this wears off, the urge to go for round #2 immediately presents itself. Yet it is only after several rounds that the brain begins to genuinely struggle without the drug, causing what is understood as dependence.
This is where the brain generally stops functioning properly without a continued supply of drugs, and it’s the crux of why addiction is a brain disease, rather than a matter of choice.
Addiction is a progressive illness, which means it gets worse over time. It’s also an illness described in stages, beginning with initiation, then escalation, then maintenance, then withdrawal, and finally, relapse. The timeframe for this process is highly individual.
Women face unique issues in matters of addiction because the numbers show that they get addicted much faster than men do, on account of certain neurobiological sex differences. Other differences include:
• Women are more likely to experience a pleasurable response from an addictive substance.
• Women are more likely to self-medicate using addictive drugs.
• Women escalate their drug use at a more rapid pace than men.
• Women stabilize at higher doses than men do (women who struggle with addiction use more drugs than male addicts).
• Women are at a higher risk for drug-related side effects.
• Women experience withdrawal symptoms much more severely than men do, and experience greater levels of stress during withdrawal.
• Women are more likely to relapse than men.
The differences change from drug to drug. For example, women experience fewer withdrawal symptoms from alcohol than men. They also use smaller doses of synthetic opioids.
They are more likely to end up in the ICU, yet fewer women use drugs than men. Women who use opioids tend to be younger than men, and less likely to inject the drug. Those that do inject are likely to do so under peer pressure from sexual partners and social circles.
Women drink less than men but are swiftly catching up. Among adolescents, women’s drinking habits are ahead of men. Nevertheless, the risks of alcohol use weigh more heavily against women than men – women are disproportionately victimized in alcohol-related crimes.
Women report illegally using stimulants for functional reasons rather than recreational purposes (better performance at school or work, more energy, weight loss) while men are more likely to use stimulants for fun.
A higher level of estrogen means women get addicted to stimulants faster than men do, and at a younger age, yet they are more likely to complete meth addiction treatment than male counterparts, and are not as likely as men to suffer from cognitive side effects as a result of cocaine use.
The previous factors point to just how different male and female experiences can be in addiction, yet they account largely for biological factors.
Many social factors also heavily influence the rate at which women develop an addiction, as women are disproportionately affected by domestic violence, sexual violence, and other traumatic experiences.
Due to a higher incidence of depression and anxiety, as well as chronic pain, and conditions related to fertility and the menstrual cycle, drugs often become a way for some women to seek refuge from emotional and physical suffering (hence the stats on self-medication).
How Women’s Sober Living Provides Greater Benefits
Sober living homes for women provide a safe space for women to be away from men, and free from any triggers or forms of temptation. Sober living homes are strictly structured, but they don’t feel like a prison sentence.
Women are free to go and leave whenever they feel ready, and the homes are set-up to have a welcoming atmosphere, with plenty of amenities to provide tenants with things to do and ways to spend time.
Some homes feature meditation areas, on-site gyms, and a fully equipped kitchen. Others provide tenants with a series of other benefits, including beautiful outdoor areas and access to local parks and beaches.
On-site staff are trained to help women in recovery through counseling, therapy, and supervised group activities. While the thought of sharing a home with other strangers might not sound comforting to begin with, there is a heavy emphasis on promoting a sense of community and sisterhood among the tenants.
Many women in recovery feel alone and feel like the weight of sobriety is too much to bear alone. Sober living homes present an opportunity to discover how others deal with many of these same fears and feelings, and how those who have been sober for a long time continue to motivate themselves to stay clean.
The Benefits of Sober Living Homes in the Long-Term
One of the greatest strengths of any sober living home is its structure. Rather than pushing tenants to follow a program, tenants are given the tools needed to explore their sobriety together and determine for themselves how and when they would like to move forward.
While rehab facilities focus on providing a program for addicts to follow within a set timeline, sober living homes provide a place of temporary residence while placing emphasis on several simple rules:
• A strict daily curfew.
• Mandatory employment or job-searching.
• Regular social activities between tenants.
• Each tenant is responsible for maintaining a clean and livable space.
• Drug searches make using or keeping drugs within the facility impossible.
• Tenants are encouraged to seek treatment through therapy and group therapy.
• Tenants are encouraged to find hobbies, nurture skills, and make productive use of their free time.
This better prepares them for life outside of a recovery setting by making the choice to move onwards a conscious one, informed by a feeling of readiness rather than any pressure to feel ready on a certain set date.
People progress through recovery at a unique pace, and sober living homes help ensure that they are well-equipped to handle the challenges of long-term sobriety regardless of how quickly or slowly they adapt to a life without drugs.
Because women are more at risk of struggling with a relapse, because they are often financially dependent on the people around them, and because they are more often trapped in physically and emotionally abusive relationships than their male counterparts, it’s critical for women’s sober living homes to provide autonomy and the ability to live in a safe, supportive, and non-judgmental environment.
Many women’s sober living homes work with local women’s shelters and transitional as well as long-term housing projects to help those who are victims of violence.
Once a recovering addict feels confident in their newfound strength as a sober individual, emboldened by the way sober living homes prioritize independence and self-determination, they are not simply ‘done’ with recovery. Staying sober and continuing to grow as a sober individual is a life-long process.