Attempting to pinpoint one single cause of drug addiction and alcoholism would truly be an exercise in futility — but identifying common experiences among individuals who have struggled with addiction or chemical dependence has allowed treatment professionals to make significant improvements in the ways that these disorders are addressed.
For example, the knowledge that many cases of drug addiction or alcoholism are accompanied by co-occurring depression, chronic pain, bipolar disorder, or other conditions has prepared addiction treatment professionals to screen for and treat these challenges instead of merely focusing on the biology of addiction. This holistic approach to drug addiction recovery offers myriad benefits to clients, as it gives them the opportunity to identify and address all aspects of their lives that have either led to or been made more difficult because of their addictive behaviors.
For many women, alcoholism and drug addiction treatment is likely to address body image, self-esteem, and, unfortunately, a history of trauma. As several studies have revealed, the majority of women who seek treatment for drug addiction or alcoholism have been the victims of abuse – usually sexual abuse, and most often during childhood.
A Prevalent Problem
A document prepared by the Mental Health Association in New York State Inc. indicates the degree to which the connection between sexual abuse and later-life drug addiction or alcoholism has been observed in a number of research efforts:
- Seventy-five percent of women in treatment programs for drug and alcohol abuse report having been sexually abused. (American Journal on Addictions, June 1997)
Nearly 90 percent of women who have become dependent upon alcohol suffered “severe violence at the hands of a parent” or were sexually abused during childhood. (Journal of Traumatic Stress, December 1999)
- A study of 100 adult patients with polytoxic drug abuse revealed that 70 percent of the female subjects had been sexually abused prior to the age of 16. (Schizophrenia Research, December 2002)
These findings are supported by an April 2002 “NIDA Notes” document that is posted on the website of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In that article, writer Patrick Zickler reports that being sexually abused as a child increases the risk that a woman will develop a drug dependence later in life:
Using data gathered from interviews of 1,411 adult twins, Dr. Kenneth Kendler and his colleagues [at the Medical College of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond] assessed the association between three levels of childhood sex abuse (nongenital, genital, and intercourse) and six adult disorders – major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, bulimia nervosa, alcohol dependence, and drug dependence.
Women who experienced any type of sexual abuse in childhood were roughly three times more likely than non-abused girls to report drug dependence as adults.
“Overall, childhood sexual abuse was more strongly associated with drug or alcohol dependence than with any of the psychiatric disorders,” Dr. Kendler says. “Only drug and alcohol dependence were significantly associated with all levels of abuse.”
Assault & Addiction
In an October 2005 “Letter from the Editor,” Janet Anderson, the advocacy education director of the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs (WCSAP) noted that the confluence of drug use and sexual trauma can create myriad difficulties for women who are attempting to get their lives back on track:
This issue is complicated because the use of substances may have preceded the assault, occurred during the assault, or developed as a coping strategy in response to the trauma the victim experienced; all yielding potentially different responses and reactions for the victim and by society at large.
Regardless of when the substances were consumed, this topic is further complicated by the fact that substance abuse and victimization both carry a great deal of social stigma in and of themselves, and when a survivor holds both, the stigma can be especially difficult to overcome.
The stigma that is associated with sexual assault and addiction can be a significant obstacle to treatment, Anderson noted, citing statistics about rape victims to indicate the prevalence with which sexual assault is associated with drug abuse:
- Rape victims are 5.3 times more likely than non-victims to have used prescription drugs nonmedically.
- Rape victims are 3.4 times more likely to have used marijuana than non-victims.
- Victims of rape are six times more likely to have used cocaine than are women who were not raped.
- Compared to women who had not been raped, rape victims were 10.1 times more likely to have used “hard drugs” other than cocaine.
These factors, Anderson, noted, are of particular importance because many treatment programs fail to address the unique sociological and biological aspects of drug abuse, addiction, and women.
“This issue becomes more complex due to early addictions research which was based on a male-dominated framework and did not address issues of victimization or understand that women may have different treatment and recovery needs,” Anderson wrote. “Consequently, many traditional treatment models simply do not work for female substance abusing victims of sexual assault.”