Are men and women the same when it comes to drug addiction and recovery? Should their treatment look the same? At a 2013 conference in Britain, the topic of male and female addiction similarities and differences was addressed by Joanne Neale, a professor of public health at Oxford Brookes University. Neale interviewed and followed up with 40 male and female former heroin users in recovery (ages 24 to 50). She also detailed findings from the Drug Outcomes Research in Scotlandtrial, or DORIS, a 2001-2002 study of 1,033 men and women.
How Men and Women Drug Users Differ
There are distinct ways in which men and women differ, both in what may lead them into drug use as well how they experience recovery. Men struggling to get out of addiction often have unhappy childhoods. Before, during and after using men are more likely than women to be involved in assaults (either as victim or perpetrator). A man’s injuries will have been caused by someone else; a woman is more likely to self-injure. Unlike women, men in recovery don’t worry about how they look or how much they weigh, but they do experience more changes in libido – either up or down. Men are less likely than women to have children living with them. They also tend to have more trouble sleeping and to have a harder time making social connections with anyone outside of their support group. Female drug users frequently report sexual or physical abuse during childhood and adult partner violence after they leave home. They worry about weight, which can put them at risk for developing an eating disorder, but in many ways they have more help during recovery. For example, women tend to have stable living conditions during recovery whereas men are often homeless or shift from place to place. Women more often have children living with them to motivate their recovery, and they do better at forging friendships with non-drug users. And, in general, women budget their money more wisely.
Despite the very real differences in male versus female recovery, there are important similarities as well.
- Both men and women in recovery tend to be in poor physical and mental health
- Both are afraid to enter detox
- Both experience cravings and need to learn how to avoid triggers
- Both express a desire to be “normal”
- Both experience strained relationships with family members
- Both have had romantic relationships and friendships harmed by their addiction
- Both tend to have limited education and limited expectations for their future
- Both report having very few real friends
- Both have trouble with up-and-down emotions
You could call it recovery capital, but in terms of resources needed to sustain recovery both men and women face challenges. If anything, women may have a bit more capital (social support, stable environment, motivation) at their disposal. The overwhelming story is one of similarity; however, there are often gender-related challenges that require more individualized attention.