At Amethyst Women’s Addiction Centre, it is important for us to make the link between women’s experiences of violence and their addictions to drugs, alcohol, or gambling. Unfortunately, we know that violence is a reality of many women’s lives in our community. For example, according to a national Statistics Canada study on violence against women, 51% of women in Canada have experienced at least one incidence of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16.1 Violence can occur at any point in women’s lives from childhood abuse through to elder abuse, and in many different contexts and relationships, whether it be at the hands of parents, partners, acquaintances or strangers. Violence also exists in many different forms such as emotional or psychological abuse, physical abuse, or sexual abuse.
Not all women who experience violence will use drugs, alcohol, or gambling to cope, or become addicted to these things, and not all women who use substances or who gamble have experienced violence. Experiences of violence and trauma, however, create a huge risk or potential for this to happen. Research by Coalescing on Women and Substance Use, a Working Group based out of British Columbia, suggests that 90% of women who seek addiction services have experienced violence in childhood or as adults.2 Violence impacts women’s lives in many ways, some obvious and some more subtle. For example, women may experience responses that are commonly associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, such as intrusive memories, flashbacks, panic attacks, or feeling numb or empty. Other responses may relate more to the ways that trauma and violence can impact our sense of self and our world view. For example, these experiences can influence whether women see the world as a just place or not, or see people as generally trustworthy or dangerous, and also whether women feel worthy or deserving of love or not. Women are also often given the messages that they “just need to get over it”, that “nice women don’t get angry”, or that asking for help or crying is a weakness. These messages validate women’s fears that they are inadequate, minimize the impacts of violence, and teach women not to trust their own emotions and reactions.
Women may also be dealing with numerous additional stressors and demands including poverty, being a mother or a single mother, dealing with mental health issues, doing caretaking for other family members, etc. Experiences of oppression such as racism, sexism, heterosexism, transphobia, ablesim and classism are additional forms of trauma that women experience, and add other layers of complexity to their experience. Women with multiple minority statuses are also at greater risk for experiencing violence in their lifetime because of their unequal status in our society.
In the beginning, drugs, alcohol, and gambling (among other things that can become addictive), can provide a solution to many of the issues women who experience violence are dealing with. They can help cope on so many levels, for example: they can stuff down overwhelming feelings that women may not be in a safe position to express or have been told they are not allowed to feel, they can allow women to function in situations where they may normally feel overwhelming anxiety and can increase feelings of confidence, they can help some women to break isolation and connect with peers, they can provide some relief from physical pain, and they can provide a temporary break from intense emotional pain. Addiction is not about personal weakness; on a basic level, it is about survival.
Eventually, when someone relies on substances or gambling for these reasons however, the temporary solution that they offer begins to become a problem of its own. Women may come to rely on these things to cope other issues in their lives, and can eventually rely on them to function in daily life. Struggles with addictions are strongly associated with physical health problems, financial problems, social stigma, and problems in interpersonal relationships among other issues. Women who use substances to cope can additionally be vulnerable to further victimization. This can create a vicious cycle where stress, guilt, shame, regret, and further victimization are added to an already heavy emotional load, which can in turn increase a woman’s reliance on substances or gambling to cope.
The philosophy of Amethyst Women’s Addiction Centre is that addiction cannot be looked at in isolation, and must be situated in the context of women’s lives. Experiences of trauma and how we cope with these experiences are part of the same package. At Amethyst women are supported to heal from past experiences of violence, and to find new healthier ways to cope with stress and to manage their daily lives.
1. Statistics Canada. (1993). The Violence Against Women Survey. (Unfortunately, this study has not been repeated since then.)