Breaking The Stigma of Women In Addiction

My recovery has been all about breaking the stigma of women in addiction.

It was the spring of 1978. I had started becoming aware of, and thinking about, how my drinking was messing up my life. 

I was 28 years old with two children. One day, over an afternoon coffee, I confided my fears to a woman friend. She never missed a beat, responding with, ‘Wow, your poor hubby must go to work every day worried about those kids. Has he ever wondered if you’ve cheated on him?”

Boom! I clammed up, changed the subject, and waited another year and a half before I opened up about my substance use to anyone again. 

Much later, sober and in treatment, I began to understand that my friend was simply a product of our time and had bought into the stigma surrounding women who drink too much.  The assumption that women substance users are sexually promiscuous and that our drinking automatically makes us bad mothers is pervasive. Indeed, today this is still a reason that keeps women from seeking help for fear that their children will be taken away. 

I’ve seen women more often blamed and shamed for their substance abuse than men. Indeed, women are often also shamed and blamed for their spouse’s substance use, too. 

Women are often seen as the caretakers of society, that we are somehow the upholders of all things moral. My friend was echoing that societal stigma when, instead of responding to her very real live and terrified friend – me – who was struggling to articulate a highly personal and painful issue, could only think of the impact I was having on those closest to me. 

Sadly, in 1979, even many of the sessions I sat through in treatment reflected that stigma. Much of the recovery material at the time was centred around how I, and women like me, could recover enough to get back to fulfilling those traditional roles again as quickly as possible. 

Being up against this stigma was difficult in 1978. Thankfully, there is a far greater awareness among experts and professionals in treatment today for women seeking treatment for substance use disorders.  

National Addiction Awareness Week brings attention to the fact that it’s not perfect yet. Only a few years ago, a highly publicized case of sexual assault, in which both the perpetrator and the victim had been drinking, showed that in the court of public opinion, she was asking for trouble, while he simply showed a bit of bad judgement – a double standard which is at the heart of the stigma around women in addiction.

Our personal identities as women are sometimes still completely wrapped up in our roles as wives, mothers and daughters. The stigma persists, internally. At 40+ years sober, I still sometimes have to remind myself that my personal value, and my intrinsic right to health and wellness as a human being, isn’t contingent on who I am in someone else’s eyes. 

As we turn our attention to National Addiction Awareness Week, we are actively breaking the stigma of women in addiction. Aurora stands out as one of Canada’s leaders in contemporary approaches to addiction treatment. Empathetic, compassionate language, dignified practices and integrated personal treatment plans – all building blocks that embody compassion in treatment.

Our aim is to uplift and encourage women on their paths to recovery, teaching them tools that overcome the stigma and empower them to emerge into a lifetime of recovery.

By Marilyn Guille