Let's Talk About How Women Experience Drug Addiction Differently
"Woman of Substances" is a new book exploring how women are susceptible to self-destruction in ways men aren't.
In her new book, Woman of Substances, Jenny Valentish admits to indulging in just about every illicit drug in existence. A decades-long addiction began with stealing liquor from her father's cabinet as a teenager and quickly transitioned into a full-blown habit of getting drunk every afternoon after school. While working in music journalism and PR, Valentish went on to spend the entirety of her 20s under the influence—spiking each morning coffee with speed and going from there. After getting clean in 2009, she has spent the past seven years researching the neuroscience behind her own addiction. The result is something more than your typical drug redemption memoir. It's a book that investigates through a mix of personal anecdotes and in-depth research into the female experience of drug and alcohol dependency.
It's an issue that's only just starting to break through into the public health consciousness. In its 2016 Annual Report, the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board made a point of calling for "gender-sensitive drug policies and programs, better health-care access for drug-dependent women, and more funding to prevent and treat drug abuse among women." The report also cites new statistics revealing that once women start abusing drugs like cannabis, heroin, or cocaine, their rate of consumption progresses more rapidly than among men. Women, it says, also tend to develop a substance use disorder more quickly than men. While women and girls comprise one third of global drug users, just one fifth of addiction treatment recipients are women—as systemic barriers affect their access. The report also highlights how compared to men, women are more likely to be prescribed narcotics and anti-anxiety medication, and are consequently more likely to abuse that medication.
"It's like before we started thinking about women on festival bills," Valentish tells me frankly. "Whatever is the norm, you don't question it. I never really questioned that these issues might be different for women compared to men in terms of addiction and treatment. But the more research I did, and the more people I spoke to, it turned out to be a bit of a joke—how little research is done into women and women's experiences. Men are the norm in this research. But in terms of the population, they're not the norm."
Interviewing expert drug and alcohol researchers, and at the same time recalling her own experiences partying with drugs, self-medicating with drugs, self-harming with drugs, and finally seeking treatment for an addiction to drugs, Valentish's book makes discoveries that were both startling and somehow unsurprising. One is the inherent vulnerability of women trying drugs for the first time.
As a teenage girl, Valentish recalls "hitching her identity" to older and cooler men who inducted her into the seemingly glamorous world of substance abuse. And it turns out that experience of older dudes indoctrinating young girls into addiction is extraordinarily common. Researchers told her that about a third of females who inject drugs were initiated by sexual partners. And that women often use drugs and alcohol to bolster ideas of equality and put themselves on the same playing field as male counterparts. Women are also more likely to use self-destructive drug habits to create a sense of personal autonomy they otherwise find difficult to grasp. And women are far likelier to use drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms in social situations, while men use them for positive enhancement and fun. The list goes on.
What really fascinated Valentish, though, was the science behind all this. Her research in the book begins with a study of impulsivity—a key driver of addiction. Impulsivity, she notes, "Is typically understood as a male trait." Which is why we think of a stereotypical alcoholic or drug addict as a man, and why we've overlooked a fact that could be key to treating women's drug abuse. Girls with more impulsive personalities are far more likely to get hooked on addictive substances. But because we don't understand girls—and particularly teenage girls—as impulsive, these risks go undetected until it's too late.
"It's just yet another example of how women are very much on the backfoot when it comes to problematic substance abuse," Valentish says. "To me being a teenage girl was really perplexing, I couldn't understand how I couldn't control my impulses and why for someone supposedly intelligent why I would do such stupid things."
Through her research, Valentish also discovered how heavy drinking and drug-abuse affects men's and women's brains and bodies differently. Adolescent male drinkers experienced decreased attention spans; adolescent females experienced decreased spatial functioning. She learned that women susceptible to drug and alcohol addiction are predisposed to other disorders that seek control over bodily functions—anorexia nervosa, bulimia, suicide, and self-harm. And that childhood trauma, especially rape or sexual abuse, can predispose women to alcohol and drug abuse later on. In the book, Valentish recalls two traumatic experiences of rape that influenced her heavy substance use.
More frightening than these findings themselves, Valentish says, is the fact they haven't resulted in different medical approaches to female substance abuse and treatment. "I should probably use the hashtag #NotAllDoctors, but women are often packed off with medication [when they go for treatment]. But if you don't look at the underlying trauma it's like putting a plaster on a tumor, isn't it? You're not addressing the actual issue."
Female patients objectively require different treatment approaches than men, but that's rarely a given. "It does take some careful probing and screening from the doctor. Someone might say to their doctor they really need Xanax for panic attacks, but might leave out the bit about them having panic attacks because they're using coke or ice," Valentish explains.
Valentish ran a certain risk publishing a women's addiction memoir, and she knows it. Female addicts are at once tragic and glamorous figures. They're prominent in our culture; Amy Winehouse's name comes up a few times in Woman of Substances. It's easier to see women as victims of drug and alcohol abuse than it is to acknowledge that we might simply enjoy partying as much as men. How do you write a book that takes this into account, additional to the fact women self-medicate and use drugs and alcohol to cope in ways that men might not have to?
"It's a tricky issue," says Valentish. "I think both things can exhibit in one person. You can use drugs for both fun and self-medication. And you use different drugs differently as well. You use them for fun but also to feel normal or a better version of yourself or to cope. It isn't as big a dichotomy as you might think. The line between self-harm and self-medication is very thin. They sound like opposite things, but really they're not. Women self-medicate because we don't feel good enough, a lot of the time."
Woman of Substances will resonate with women readers who have never really questioned the role that patriarchy has played in their drinking and drug habits. But they're not the only intended audience.
"I hope that it will impact young researchers more than anything," Valentish says. "Make them question whether they're being inclusive enough. Because with any kind of research on women, you really need to take into consideration their bodies. Like where they are in their cycle and their age. And the reason this kind of research gets shut down is funding issues… I hope to create some conversation around that."
Woman of Substances: A Journey Into Addiction and Treatment is out now from Black Inc Books.
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