Women and Addictions

How could this be me? This is the question most women find themselves asking as they realize addictions may be a problem. Usually this question arises after many difficult experiences including: drinking and driving, getting a DUI, physical injuries/accidents, blackouts, sexual encounters that would not have happened sober, poor work performance, hangovers, a run-down immune system, shame, self-loathing, etc. Unfortunately, alcohol and drug problems do not announce themselves directly, and one of the primary features of these problems is the ability to deny and rationalize them away, even after repeated negative consequences that are clearly related to drinking or using.

*Did you know that women are the fastest growing segment of substance abusers in the US?

*That substance disorders in women are under-recognized and under-treated?

*That virtually all drugs including alcohol are far more damaging to women’s bodies than men’s?

*That women experience more social disapproval for their alcohol use? That alcoholic women are more stigmatized than men?

*That women with substance use problems are more likely than men to have experienced trauma and to have higher rates of concurrent psychiatric problems?

If you have this problem, then you may know that these statements are true.

More questions arise.

*How do I know if I have a problem?
*What do I do to get help?
*How can I battle the demon of denial—(it’s not that bad, I can just have a few, I’ll deal with this tomorrow.)?
*How can I battle the demons of shame and self-loathing—(I’m a miserable idiot, why can’t I just stop/drink normally like everyone else, what could I have said or done during my black-out.)?
Most people have heard about Alcoholic’s Anonymous, and many of you reading this may have already tried it. To read more go to AA for Women.

 Since women tend to be more vulnerable to the physical consequences of alcoholism, it is important to try to catch a drinking problem early.
What are the warning signs that you might have a drinking problem?

1. Other people express concern about your drinking. If this is happening to you especially if the concern is coming from a close friend, family member, or partner, it is important to pay attention.  Remember that your drinking friends might tell you you have nothing to worry about, but the nature of drinking problems is the strong desire to avoid or deny and group denial can be a powerful force.
2. Do you repeatedly tell yourself that you will limit your drinking and find that you are unsuccessful? Include “going on the wagon” here–even if you can stop drinking for a time, that is not a sign that you are not in trouble.  It is how you drink when you are drinking that points to a problem.
3. Does your mood change when you are drinking? Sometimes women drink to self-medicate for depression.  However, alcohol is a depressant and actually will cause your depression to get worse.  Alcohol can also cause you to be angry and argumentative.  Are you having more arguments with people when you are drinking?
4. Do you drink alone? If you are starting to crave glasses of wine with your dinner or bottles of wine before you go to sleep, this can be a sign of trouble. And although drinking may help you get to bed, it can also disrupt your sleep cycle during the night. 5. Blackouts Although not always a sign of addiction, blackouts are a warning sign from your brain telling you that you have had too much to drink.  They are scary and can be shameful, but paying attention to them by getting information and seeking help can be invaluable.
To summarize, as a woman drinking alcohol your body is more susceptible to the risks of too much alcohol.  The risks to women with serious alcohol problems as the following:
*Alcoholic women develop cirrhosis, damage of the heart muscle (i.e., cardiomyopathy), and nerves (i.e., peripheral neuropathy) after fewer years of heavy drinking than alcoholic men
.*Women develop organ damage faster, and at lower levels of alcohol consumption then men  because a woman’s body generally has less water than a man’s causing their blood alcohol content to reach higher level, faster.
* Adolescent girls who consume even moderate amounts of alcohol may experience disrupted growth and puberty. Heavy drinking in adult women can disrupt normal menstrual cycling and reproductive functions. Alcohol abuse and alcoholism can cause women to suffer from infertility, increased risk for spontaneous abortion, and impaired fetal growth and development.

I list these risks, not to scare you, but to ask, wouldn’t it be preferable to look into your drinking before it got to a point of such potential damage?  If you or someone who loves you is concerned about your drinking, getting help can feel really hard.  However, there are many ways to reach out without being judged. If you have questions and live in the San Francisco Bay Area feel free to email  In other areas check the internet for resources that seem like a good fit for you.

Image from Karen Arnold at