Study examines how women recover from addiction

November 14, 2002

CHICAGO - Women who recover from drug and alcohol addiction may not kick the habit just for their children or because they have a sudden "wake up call" about their problem, according to a small new study of former female addicts. These women - many of whom are over the age of 35 and hold a college degree - took a proactive role in overcoming substance abuse, replacing those addictions with new lifestyles that include school, work, community service and physical exercise.

Women are the fastest-growing segment of substance abusers in the United States: About 2.7 million American women abuse alcohol or drugs, or one-quarter of all abusers, according to the federal Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. But there is little research on women's stories of how they recover from drug and alcohol addiction, according to Ohio University sociologist Judith Grant.

Grant, a visiting assistant professor, spent three years in a non-profit agency in Canada, where she worked as a researcher and educator with more than 300 female addicts enrolled in a recovery program. Many of the women faced different challenges than male addicts and devised unique ways to overcome substance abuse, Grant said. To document their stories, the sociologist interviewed 12 Canadian women and 14 Ohio women who have been off drugs and alcohol for at least 18 months. She presented preliminary findings this week at the American Society of Criminology meeting in Chicago.

While this study may not be reflective of all women addicts, it implies that some of the earlier studies may have mischaracterized addiction recovery for women. One concept the analysis refutes is that women abandon drugs and alcohol for the sake of their kids, said Grant.

"Children are important, but if these women don't recover for themselves, they generally relapse," she said.

The women also could not specify a "turning point" that prompted their recovery; for most the awareness of the need to overcome their substance abuse was a slow process, Grant found. And their success at recovery did not hinge on changing their identities from "addict" to "ex-addict," as the literature suggests, but unearthing their real selves. The women viewed using drugs and alcohol as an activity they were involved in, not an identity they had assumed.

"They bring back an old identity from before they got addicted, before the violence and drug abuse," she said. "This is really me now,' they say. 'The blanket is gone.'"

Half of the women in the study had used a program such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous to overcome addiction, but the other half succeeded on their own. All of the women have replaced addiction with another passion in their lives, Grant said, ranging from physical exercise to volunteer work to school. Some now mentor other women who are overcoming addiction.

The participants began using drugs or alcohol in their teens or early 20s to mask the pain of family violence and incest, according to Grant, who added that all also reported having a family member who was an addict. These experiences produced crippling low self-esteem, a theme particular to these women's stories.

"I've never heard a male addict, to this day, in my work, talk about a 'lack of self-esteem,'" Grant said.

Grant hopes her findings will be of use to addiction recovery agencies and other organizations that assist women. The strong link between domestic violence and substance abuse should be acknowledged by addiction recovery centers and battered women shelters, she said, which tend to treat each problem in isolation.

"If there isn't a melding of the two issues, they won't give them the programs they need," she said.

Grant will continue to collect interviews with women who have recovered from substance abuse and eventually plans to compile their stories in a book.
-end-
Written by Andrea Gibson.

Attention Reporters, Editors: A copy of the conference presentation on which this news release is based is available. Contact Andrea Gibson at gibsona@ohio.edu or Becky Gill at gillr@ohio.edu. This release is available online at http://www.ohiou.edu/researchnews/research/women_addiction.html.

Contacts: Before Nov. 18, Andrea Gibson, 740-597-2166, gibsona@ohio.edu; After Nov. 18, Judith Grant, 740-593-1372, grantj@ohio.edu

Ohio University

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