The human experience of recovery impacts us all on every level, regardless of gender. However, there are actually differences in the way that males and females experience recovery that is more commonly attributed to gender. Being aware of the differences and shared experiences helps all of us to be mindful of one another as we recover.
Separate but Equal Paths to Substance Use
Substance abuse is an equal-opportunity life destroyer, but how we get there is often different depending on our gender. For example, women are more likely than men to have co-occurring disorders such as depression or anxiety or eating disorders. Many women cite sexual trauma in childhood or later as the impetus for their substance use. There is also a higher number of women who suffer from PTSD and turn to substances. Women are often introduced to substances by a familial or romantic relationship, and statistically, women progress in their addiction from casual use to addiction much more quickly than men do.
Men, on the other hand, are statistically more likely to start using and also to become addicted to substances than women, particularly young men. Men are more likely to use substances due to peer pressure. Men are also far more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors while using substances. This includes unprotected sex, sex with multiple partners, violence and criminal behavior, sexual violence, and accidents. The rate of substance use amongst males who are incarcerated is astronomically higher than that of the general population.
How we start using substances is often different, how quickly we become addicted or whether or not we become addicted is different, and what we do while under the influence can be different, too. But addiction still impacts our entire lives, regardless of whether we are male or female.
Barriers to Treatment
Just like our paths to addiction can be different, men and women can face different barriers to treatment. For example, the most common barrier to treatment for women is that statistically, women are the primary caregivers in their families, whether they care for children, elderly, or family members with disabilities, access to residential treatment is difficult due to their role in their families. While women are more successful in abstinence from substances while they are pregnant or actively caregiving, their role as caregivers is prohibitive in getting the help they need.
Men face cultural barriers as well. The traditional male stereotype of the male being strong and capable makes it very difficult to admit that there is a problem, let alone ask for help. Men are also more ambivalent about seeking help for health issues. Whether it is a matter of avoidance of the problem or that stereotype of perceived weakness, these can be barriers for men in seeking help for substance use.
Gender-specific Challenges in Treatment
The challenges that women uniquely face in treatment include finding appropriate treatment for a co-occurring disorder, which creates a ping pong effect in a relapse of the other disorder, then substance abuse, and back again endlessly. The caregiver role once again makes it difficult, because even if they are able to find care for their family members for which they are responsible, women have a more difficult time with the emotional separation during treatment. Additionally, women have to be concerned about pregnancy or potentially becoming pregnant during recovery, which is more difficult at such an emotionally vulnerable time.
Men experience more powerful withdrawal symptoms in recovery, making it a more unique physical challenge for them. Men stereotypically struggle with expressing their emotions, making the recovery process more difficult and potentially longer for them. Men also feel more shame for their substance use, often due to cultural perceptions of strength and weakness that are placed on them. All of these factors can make the recovery process more difficult for a specific gender.
Recovery: The Shared Experience
All of the challenges, statistics, and stereotypes about substance use and recovery amongst the different genders are helpful in understanding differences. But at the end of the day, we are all still human. All of us are struggling with something that is beyond our power to control. We can celebrate our differences, but we struggle together as one. We need each other to heal, no matter how we got here or what our individual challenges may be.
That woman who is always crying and pulling out pictures of her kids can use support just as much as the man who is struggling to open up at all. Because at the end of the day, we all need every ounce of support that we can get. Addiction does not care what gender we are or any other demographic aspect that we fall into. Luckily, recovery also does not care what gender we are, it is there for us to embrace and make our own, with the support of the shared experience.
Men and women often access substances differently. Our reasons for using substances may be different, but the pain is the same. The result is the same. And our need for recovery is the same. Even if we experience unique challenges in accessing treatment based on our gender, we benefit from sharing our experiences as we recover. We can be sensitive to gender differences while offering support equally in recovery. Substance abuse may be an equal opportunity life-destroyer, but recovery is an equal opportunity lifesaver. Whatever your gender, you can start your recovery today.
Find a personalized recovery for you. Call AToN Center at (888) 535-1516 today to begin your journey.