Everything about addiction, from the way we talk about it to the way we treat it, is tailored to men’s experience, says author Jenny Valentish. (Supplied: Black Inc.)
In the six months before she finally quit alcohol for good, journalist and author Jenny Valentish did everything she could to not stop drinking.
“I was trying to control [my alcohol addiction],” Valentish tells ABC News.
“I was trying to do anything but quit. I went to a hypnotist, I kept going to the doctor — who put me on antidepressants even though she acknowledged I wasn’t depressed; I went to counselling.
“I thought, [the drinking] can’t stop, I don’t know anything but this.”
Indeed, having started drinking at the age of 13 — and using drugs including hash, ecstasy, speed, heroin, and crack in her late teens and early 20s — at 34, Valentish had lived the majority of her life addicted to substances.
But after another night of blacking out and waking up in the spare room of the apartment she shared with her husband; after another day of barely keeping it together at work, where she suffered constant nausea, diarrhoea, breathlessness and fatigue, Valentish couldn’t deny her situation any longer.
“It was actually a relief to have no options left but to quit,” she says.
Valentish, now 42, details the highs and lows of her first year without alcohol — including her time in the Alcoholics Anonymous program (AA), her marriage breakdown, and her experience with “hormonal uprisings” — in her new book Woman of Substances, part memoir, part research project about women’s addiction.
Addiction treatment: society is failing women
Using her own experiences as an anchor, Valentish aims to discover why certain people get addicted (spoiler alert: there’s no definitive answer), and how women’s experiences with addiction can differ from men’s — issues such as self-medicating anxiety and depression, the comorbidity of eating disorders, and susceptibility to coercive or sexually abusive relationships are all discussed.
Crucially, Valentish also argues that, because of a lack of research into female addiction, society is failing women, particularly mothers, when it comes to treatment options.
“I wanted to write about the female experience because there’s a norm across society today, and men are that norm,” she explains.
Jenny Valentish uses her own experiences as an anchor as she explores why certain people get addicted. (Supplied: Black Inc.)
Indeed, despite evidence collated recently by researchers at the University of New South Wales that shows women are catching up to (and in some cases exceeding) men’s rate of alcohol consumption, Valentish believes the stigma surrounding women’s drinking and drug taking can deter women from speaking openly about their experience and seeking help.
“Men’s addiction stories are often framed as tales of daring,” Valentish argues, “whereas women’s drinking and substance abuse is seen as ‘sad’ or irresponsible, especially if you’re a mum”.
“Everything about addiction, from the way we talk about it to the way that it is treated, is tailored to men’s experience.”
For example, Valentish cites research from Columbia University that shows 35 per cent of people with problematic substance abuse also have an eating disorder.
“Eating disorders,” she writes, “are very female coping mechanisms. Any act of aggression against one’s own body is also an act of regaining ownership of it, which can be particularly appealing to a woman with little autonomy.”
And don’t think the problem ends when the substance abuse does.
According to drug and alcohol workers Valentish interviewed, many women find themselves purging or abstaining from food in order to maintain the svelte figure they’d grown accustomed to during their drug use.
“They weren’t anorexic before,” Glenda Milne from rehab facility Guthrie House said.
“But now they’re conscious of the fact they’ve put on weight and they don’t like it. They won’t eat.”
‘God forbid women take drugs to enjoy ourselves’
Women, Valentish says she heard time and time again while researching the book, are also more likely than men to abuse drugs and alcohol as a means of self-medicating the symptoms of mental illness.
“In general,” she says, “women are … more likely to use drugs and alcohol for reasons of negative reinforcement, such as to alleviate anxiety and depression, while men’s reasons tend more towards positive reinforcement, such as getting wasted with the boys, or for performance enhancement.”
Alcohol, says Jenny Valentish, releases serotonin and can become like “an abusive relationship”. (Supplied: Black Inc.)
Valentish does wonder if the refrain is accurate, though.
“Maybe women are widely believed to use substances to self-medicate because that’s the sad little box we’re supposed to stay in,” she writes. “God forbid we take drugs to enjoy ourselves.”
However, with depression and anxiety at all-time highs, and new research showing young women are twice as likely as men to meet the criteria for having a probable serious mental illness, that women might be self-medicating their unease doesn’t seem too farfetched.
Woman of Substances also examines the influence of cultural messaging, peer pressure, temperament, genetics, and other factors that may shape an individual’s relationship with drugs and alcohol.
And in Valentish’s case specifically: “Why the urge to always push the big red button?”
“For me, I think [addiction] was a combination of an impulsive nature, and also, as a kid, not having the tools to talk myself off the ledge or regulate my emotions. I think I’m a pretty good case study as well, with all the sexual trauma [I experienced],” she says.
When she was just seven years old, Valentish was sexually abused for some months by a boy — the son of a family friend — five years her senior.
“I didn’t have any context or language for it,” Valentish says of the abuse.
“It wasn’t discussed with my family; it was something I was dealing with alone, and it emerged as depression and anxiety [in my teens].
“Alcohol was a good salve for that. But it’s also a bonding thing. A lot of people find they’re really lonely and isolated when they first start using drugs or alcohol, and you bond to it like you would a person.
“It releases serotonin and it becomes like a little relationship. An abusive relationship.”
Treatment needs to be better tailored to women’s experience
Of course, the correlation between sexual abuse and substance addiction is well documented.
Valentish says the experts she interviewed — including drug and alcohol counsellors and clinical psychologists — said a significant proportion of their female clients had been sexually abused as children (estimates ranged from “around 70 per cent to 99.9 per cent”), and that during her time in AA, many women shared tales of sexual abuse.
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For this reason, Valentish says, childhood and adult sexual abuse, as well as domestic violence and addiction in pregnancy and motherhood, are areas that need to be better researched and funded from a treatment perspective.
A 2012 study by researchers from the University of Western Sydney and UNSW, for example, found both workers and clients of alcohol and/or drug services did not acknowledge the use of substances as a coping strategy by sexual abuse survivors, and that alcohol and drug treatment programs frequently ignored the relationship between abuse, mental illness and substance use.
“Treatment policy continues to be one-size-fits-all in many services,” Valentish says, “despite the fact that the pathways that lead women into addiction, and the traumas that they will likely endure, are very gendered”.
“Of course, some rehabs and out patient services do have trauma counselling, for instance, but it needs to be across the board.”
Women with children, she adds, are at an even greater disadvantage.
“You can always go to things like an AA meeting, but if you’re the primary caregiver or a single mum, or you don’t trust anyone to supervise your kids, you need a treatment where they can be with you. It’s very rare,” she says.