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January 2011 Issue

Breaking The Silence

Addiction is often related to or results in depression.
Brandon Milner/flickr

By Shanta Bryant Gyan

Women are the fastest-growing segment of substance abusers in the United States. Recovery programs must factor in their roles as women if they are to succeed.


For years, Beth Fisher was in denial about her alcohol problem. At age 12, she took her first drink and became intoxicated. After the introduction, she often drank until she was physically ill.

“I had the ‘alcoholic gene’ and couldn’t wait to drink again,” Ms. Fisher said. “Despite the consequences, I would be craving for more.”

Ms. Fisher studied counseling in college and interned at a detox center, working directly with individuals battling addictions. She graduated from college, worked as a social worker with addiction treatment centers, obtained a master’s degree, yet continued her own hard drinking.

By age 27, Ms. Fisher’s life began spiraling out of control, and she hit rock bottom emotionally. She finally acknowledged that she was an alcoholic and sought treatment.

As she began her journey, she discovered there were no long-term recovery facilities that fit her specific need as a woman seeking to stay sober and heal. “There were few places for women that I could go to — at least a nice one,” said Ms. Fisher, a member of Smyrna United Methodist Church in Smyrna, Ga.

At that time in the 1990s, managed health care systems began dictating the length of stay for people seeking treatment from substance abuse. Many halfway or three-quarter houses — residential facilities supporting individuals in recovery after treatment — had only a limited number of beds available.

Even if beds were available, the length of stay was often not enough to effectively facilitate a recovering addict’s transition from treatment back into the community. “You were lucky for four weeks of treatment,” Ms. Fisher said.

Because of her personal experience with alcoholism, recovery and long years of working in the addiction treatment field, Ms. Fisher started a recovery center in 1996. She and Wick Hatch — a friend from Alcoholics Anonymous meetings — opened Hope Homes, Inc., transitional housing with a supportive, nurturing environment for women and men in recovery.

It was the type of facility she wished was avail-able to her in the early recovery process.

Because alcohol and drug addiction is a chronic, debilitating disease, recovery is not finite in itself and requires management over the course of a person’s lifetime. Hope Homes focuses on building a healthy, balanced lifestyle for ongoing recovery and preparing individuals for independent living. Residents stay in the program for at least six months and can reside there for up to two years.

“It’s an aftercare for those in recovery,” explained Ms. Fisher, who has been in recovery for 17 years. At Hope Homes, residents receive life skills classes for ongoing recovery, on-site counseling, 12-step guidance and support, job skill training and assistance in enrolling in school.

All residents are expected to be employed or in a vocation during their stay.

For women, especially chronic abusers, recovery can be an uphill battle. Women are the fastest-growing segment of substance abusers in the United States and make up a fourth of all abusers, according to the U.S. Center for Substance Abuse Prevention.

Antonietta Wilson, executive director of United Methodist Special Program on Substance Abuse and Related Violence (SPSARV), said it is necessary to recognize how substance abuse and its related violence disproportionally affect women. The issues are similar to the feminization of ministries with HIV and AIDS “and the need to educate, treat and provide compassion to those afflicted with this pandemic,” Ms. Wilson said.

Times have changed dramatically since the 1990s. Recovery programs are increasingly taking women’s unique needs into consideration and developing gender-specific recovery support services specifically designed for addicted women and their families.

“There can be tremendous stigma and deep shame attached to women’s addiction experience that needs to be addressed as part of their recovery,” said Pat Taylor, executive director of Faces and Voices of Recovery, a national recovery advocacy network of 30,000 individuals and organizations. “Also, because of violence, sexual abuse, risky sexual behavior, unwanted pregnancy, and other trauma that they have experienced, the recovery process will involve addressing these and other issues as women regain their lives.”

At Hope Homes, chronic alcoholic women in their mid-40s are the most challenging demographic for ongoing recovery. “These women are the hardest to see success,” said Ms. Fisher, who also serves as the president of the Georgia Association of Recovery Residences.

“Women are torn; we are multitaskers. It’s hard for them to stay in a program because of family demands. Many felt they couldn’t stay away from children and their marriage.”

Strengthening family systems is critical to a woman’s long-term recovery. Addiction is a family disease, passed from generation to generation, and nearly two-thirds of Americans have friends or family members who have struggled with addiction.

“The reason to work hard for recovery is not just for the addict but for the entire family,” said Sis Wenger, president and chief officer of National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA), a national membership and affiliate organization advocating for children and families impacted by parental alcohol and drug use.

The untold years of a mother’s addiction can tear at the very fabric of the family. Children of substance abusers may become conditioned to harbor family secrets about the addiction and may be distrustful of other adults. Many children in families impacted by addiction are increasingly vulnerable to abuse by other adults.

Also, an alcoholic wife is at a much greater risk of getting a divorce than an alcoholic husband. Single mothers may potentially lose custody of their children during the addiction or recovery and will likely need legal assistance to be reunified with their children.

“Everybody suffers from this disease and everybody needs healing,” Ms. Wenger said. The deep shame women suffer from the addiction impacts relationships with their children and spouse, she said. “For some women, it’s heartbreaking and sad for them to think about how their drinking has harmed their children. You have to train them on how to parent. You have to teach them basic life skills and how to live.”

Ms. Fisher knows what it’s like to be a mother in recovery, and that it’s possible to overcome self-reproach to face a brighter future. Her dream is to expand her residential recovery center to help more mothers keep their families intact so they can grow and heal together.

“That’s my dream,” Ms. Fisher said. “I don’t think women should feel like they need to leave their children if they need help.”

Community support can be a great source of strength. From the admission process to the support services, recovery centers like Hope Homes engage the community in every step of each resident’s recovery. “The healing agent is the community,” Ms. Fisher said. “Everything is based in community. Women thrive in this. Success comes from other women in recovery. They can relate to each other, comfort each other and understand each other like no one else can.”

Powerful voices

Speaking up about addiction and recovery can be a powerful way to break the silence of family alcoholism and other drug addictions and motivate individuals struggling with substance abuse to seek treatment.

“By speaking out together, we support and give hope to our friends, neighbors and family members who are still struggling with addiction and those who have found the power of long-term recovery,” Ms. Taylor said. Faces and Voices of Recovery collects stories and testimonies of people in recovery and highlights them on its website.

Too often children of alcoholics and addicts grow up in isolation, fearful of sharing what’s going on in their home. “They don’t talk about it; nobody thinks to bring it up,” Ms. Wenger said. The dynamics of a family living with addiction is: “Don’t talk, feel or trust.”

“The more the church pastor and leadership speak out about this epidemic and brokenness, we will allow members who have been gravely affected to begin to tell their stories,” said the Rev. Cynthia Sloan, program associate of the United Methodist Church’s addiction program.
Members of United Methodist Women and clergy can play an important role in ministering and providing a supportive network for individuals with addictions and their ?families.

Ms. Wenger said families dealing with addictions need to hear messages of hope and possibility of recovery for their whole family. Families need help in finding recovery resources for support. Making information easily accessible may include displaying pamphlets on alcoholism and other drug addictions in the church or bulletins and highlighting information on Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon or Alateen meetings, locations and times.

“Bring it up,” Ms. Wenger said, encouraging church people to talk openly about addictions in families and offer support. “They need recovery resources, and you need to get it to them. Good people know about the addictions and never say anything about it. But if you don’t say anything, it ?doesn’t help.”

Shanta Bryant Gyan is a frequent contributor to response living in the New York metropolitan area.

Last Updated: 03/22/2014
 
 

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