Written By: Mahnoor Ali
Edited By: Anna Mohan
Design & Illustrations by: Ella Rahizan
Addiction. We like to throw the word around when your sister is constantly on her phone snapchatting her friends or your boyfriend is on his 4th hour of FIFA, but in reality, this word means so much more. A feeling or thing that consumes you, it’s all you can think about and you don’t believe you will survive your day without it. A constant itch that never leaves you. I know, cause I’ve been through it.
Everyone’s experience with addiction is unique to them.
As women we are constantly dealing with societal expectations of how to live, responsibilities to our families, fitting into the standards set by social media, trying to excel and prove you can survive and come out on top in this patriarchal, dog eat dog world we live in. Every day is a battle, no wonder some of us find it hard to find peace. Women report falling victim to stimulant abuse for more energy (commonly associated with family or work responsibilities) and weight loss. The general pressures we face might take you to a place where the things that bring other people joy become meaningless to you. The satisfaction other people gain only brings you feelings of hollowness and dissatisfaction. You just don’t understand how everyone around you is so happy and at peace.
But then you have an experience.
You have a drink, a smoke or take a substance and suddenly everything feels amazing.
You may not understand why, but it suddenly starts to feel good to be alive. You’ve found something to depend on to help you feel alright. Something that makes the nights a little easier and helps you get through the days. Your addiction controls you and you may act or do whatever needs to be done to get your peace. Whatever means you need to take, you know the result is worth it.
As addictions progress, you lose the desire to partake in other activities you used to enjoy.
You instead develop these intense cravings that consume you and distract you from anything else. You feel a sense of unease or discomfort if your “hunger” isn't fed. And for chemical addictions, the withdrawal symptoms are even harsher, both physically and mentally.
Addiction is classified as an illness that affects the brain. It is not a personal failing or an individual choice. When you hear the word “addiction”, most people immediately think of drugs but that is not the only form. The research breaks it down into two branches: chemical (use of substances) and behavioural (compulsive, repeated behaviours that you carry out even if they don’t offer any real benefit). Types of addiction can range from; food, opioids, alcohol, nicotine, gambling, methamphetamines, cocaine, to “milder” ones such as shopping, sex, exercising, and even internet gaming disorders.
Addiction interferes with normal brain function, particularly regarding the reward system. This reward system releases the neurotransmitter dopamine along with other chemicals which seem to reinforce our brain’s association between certain things and feelings of pleasure, which then drive you to seek those things out again in the future.
Desire to experience this euphoria again can trigger cravings. As you continue to feed into the action or behaviour, more dopamine is released, enough so that your brain produces less than a normal amount when you conduct “normal” behaviour or actions.
Studies suggest that estrogen plays a role in the dopamine “reward” effects of stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine. Women may become addicted faster and take larger doses of stimulants than men because of this.
There is no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” approach to addiction recovery. Until the early 1990s, the majority of research on substance abuse and dependence focused on men and traditional treatment programs were developed based on that research. In the past, women were not included in most research because of the predominant belief that women were much more biologically complicated than men and were also too busy caring for their children to participate in studies.
A review conducted concluded that programs that provided perinatal care, child care, and other family services would better enable women to enter treatment. Some subgroups of women — such as those with a history of trauma or abuse, or who have other psychiatric disorders — are more likely to recover in gender-specific treatment programs that address these factors.
Why do we judge women with addiction issues more harshly than men? On TV and in films when a woman has an addiction she’s labelled a bad parent, a burden on the family, the bane of the protagonist's life. In reality, anyone can have an addiction, however, when we look at the representation of women, the key demographics that fall victim to addiction tend to be either a single mum, a woman from a low-income household, transwomen, and women of colour, or even a combination of these.
Women face unique issues when it comes to substance abuse. These are influenced by sex (differences based on biology) and gender (differences based on culturally defined roles). Women themselves describe the unique reasons for using drugs, including controlling weight, fighting exhaustion, coping with pain, and attempts to self-treat mental health problems. These women with substance or even food addiction can have issues related to hormones, menstrual cycle, fertility, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause.
Women are more likely to transition from substance abuse to substance dependence and addiction, and that at a faster pace than men.
They are more likely to experience intense cravings and chances of relapse, which in turn results in them more likely going into the emergency room or even overdosing from the addiction.
Those who are victims of domestic violence are at increased risk of substance use. In fact, women who have been abused are 15 times more likely to abuse alcohol and 9 times more likely to abuse drugs. Divorce, loss of child custody, or the death of a partner or child can trigger women's substance use or other mental health disorders.
That being said we need to note that addiction IS treatable. However, stigma can get in the way of seeking help.
Mothers may be less willing to seek treatment over fears of societal judgements or legal fears regarding the guardianship of their children. Nobody wants to be pushed out onto the fringes of society. Being labelled “bad”, “trouble” or “a problem” is in no way going to make someone feel confident in seeking help.
We use our addictions as a way to manage unwanted emotions, feeling compelled to continue even when you know it causes you distress. Being ostracised by your community is in no way going to help you face your reality, that you have an addiction and it's hurting you.
There are many ways you can cope with your addiction, or help someone in your life experiencing it. Ranging from therapy, support groups, to journalling and retreats. There is a way to help anyone.
The more people criticise addiction and label addiction as an “intentional bad choice”, the more we push an individual towards the comfort they may feel from their addiction.
When we stigmatise addiction, no one wins.