Does addiction affect women differently than men?

Yes, addiction affects women differently than men. An exploration of the ways that men and women differ in active addiction and recovery here.

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Q: Well, does addiction affect people differently by gender?

A: The answer is a resounding: YES, of course addiction affects women differently than men!

Addiction affects everyone it touches differently. However, when you’re dealing with two different genders, well, there’s a HUGE difference. More here on how addiction affects people differently. Then, we invite your comments and questions at the end.

Differences in Active Addiction by Gender

Women’s experiences in active addiction differ drastically from men’s. Sometimes, this difference is in dramatic ways, sometimes it’s subtler. Let’s look at some of the major ways that men and women differ in active addiction.

1. Drug Use

Men often abuse drugs harder and faster than women. This isn’t set in stone, but it’s generally true. I’ll use my own experience here. Most of the guys I was running with (that’s addict slang for getting high) were using cocaine and heroin, while I was still smoking weed and taking pills.

Fiona, you might say, heroin and opioid pills are basically the same thing, right? Absolutely. Chemically speaking there’s not much difference between the two. The difference is in how they’re sold, where they’re sold, and the people doing the selling. I bought my pills from nerdy Jewish boys in the suburbs. My friends bought their heroin from scary gangster types in the projects.

2. Buying and Selling Drugs

The above example also illustrates my next point, women often buy drugs in different ways than men. Also, women don’t usually sell drugs. Selling drugs seems an inherently masculine activity. Dealers sidestep the law and leave themselves open to robbery, arrest, violence, and death. It takes a level of testosterone I just don’t have to assume those risks. Because of this, I sold drugs in high school for about one week. I also seldom bought from women dealers. Hell, I seldom saw women dealers.

I never felt safe going to the projects to buy drugs. I would buy pills from suburban dealers with names like Zach Frent, or Jesse Goldburg (these are totally made up names, I’m just trying to make a point!). As my addiction progressed, I started to give people money to buy and deliver heroin from the projects. As things got worse and worse, I started venturing into rough areas. Even though I eventually became a mainstay on “the corners,” I never liked it.

There was the possibility of physical violence. What scared me more was the possibility of sexual violence. Most, if not all, men I used with didn’t have to worry about rape or assault. Often, addicts sell small amounts of drugs to help cover their expensive addiction. I never did. Well, okay, I did sell some pills, but not for long.

3. The Stigma of Addiction

I think, for women, the stigma of addiction is much like the stigma of sex. I mean, a junkie’s a junkie, but women seem to be criticized for using drugs more than men. This is probably due to the context of an overwhelmingly patriarchal society. Women are seen as the caregivers, the sensible sex. Men are seen as the hunters, the reckless sex.

Whatever the cause, I know I experienced more negative reactions from non-addicts than my male counterparts did. For that matter, I experienced more negative reactions from fellow addicts than my male counterparts did!

4. Addiction and Our Bodies

Again, addiction affects every addict differently. This includes how it affects our bodies. However, there are some biological trends that occur frequently in female addicts.

Women seem to get high from lower doses of drug. Probably, this is because women are physically smaller, carry less water in their bodies, have hormone fluctuations due to of menstruation, and process drugs differently than men. This also means that drugs do more damage to women’s bodies. It’s sad, but true.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that women can become pregnant. A pregnant woman reacts very differently to drugs than a non-pregnant male. Part of this is due to the hormones women produce during pregnancy. These drastically alter the way our bodies process, metabolize, and eliminate drugs.

Differences in Recovery by Gender

Women’s experiences differ from men’s in recovery as well.

1. Not as Many Women Seek Help

It’s a fact that more men go to rehab than woman. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism proposes that men are twice as likely to meet the criteria for drug or alcohol dependence as women are. If there are that many male addicts, then there’sdefinitely going to be more men in treatment than women!

Why is it, though, that not as many women seek help? The answer to this may lie in something I mentioned above. We live in a society where women are seen as the caregivers, the responsible ones, the rock of the family. If a woman is suffering from addiction, she’s probably going to be hesitant to make it known. She’ll be judged harsher than a man would. This discourages many women from reaching out.

2. It’s Harder for a Woman to Get Sober

This last point isn’t a hard and fast fact, but rather my opinion. I believe it’s harder for women to achieve and maintain long-term sobriety. I base this on my experience. When I sought help, I dealt with the stigma of addiction, as well as body-image issues unique to women. Sure, men can be objectified for their bodies, but this doesn’t happen nearly as often as with women.

Not only was I getting sober, but I was getting healthy. I gained weight. This made me want to relapse, plain and simple. I also had to deal with dating in sobriety. That’s a whole other story!

About the author
Fiona Stockard is a writer and media specialist for Lighthouse Recovery Institute. She’s been in recovery since 2008 and finds no greater joy than helping other young women achieve and maintain long-term recovery.
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