The Tara Treatment Center Blog

Gender and Addiction: The Scars of Past Trauma

“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: the past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.”

— Bessel van der Kolk, psychiatrist and author, from The Body Keeps the Score

Experiencing a traumatic event leaves a mark on a person. Trauma comes in many forms, and it affects victims in a variety of ways. It could be an act of violence which destroys a person’s ability to feel safe, or it could be an instance of emotional abuse which erodes their self-esteem.

Research has shown a strong link between trauma and substance abuse. People who have suffered trauma can often develop mental health issues like depression, anxiety and PTSD, and they may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to manage their symptoms.

For our second post exploring the role that gender plays in addiction, we’ll examine some of the different ways trauma can impact women and men. Joining us again to lend their expertise are Tara Treatment Center’s Women’s Program Coordinator, Amber Hoff, our Men’s Program Coordinator, Barbara Warner, and our Clinical Supervisor, Jennifer Parker.

Amber Hoff (MSW; left), Jennifer Parker (BSW, LAC, ACRPS; middle), and Barbara Warner (MSW, LCAC, LCSW; right) have a combined 46 years of experience working with recovering substance users at Tara Treatment Center.

Women: Sexual Abuse and Domestic Violence

According to research conducted by the CDC, 63% of women have experienced some form of sexual violence in their lives, and 33% have suffered physical violence by an intimate partner. Many women who have substance addictions have also experienced trauma of this kind.

“I think it would be safe to say that 90% of the women we treat have experienced some sort of trauma, either as a child, an adult, or both,” Jennifer says. “And for most, it wasn’t just a one-time incident. They’ve been consistently re-traumatized.”

In addition to substance use, many women who have been physically or sexually abused suffer from co-occurring mental health issues. These may include anxiety, depression, PTSD, eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder.

A history of sexual violence can also lead women to take up sex work and make other unhealthy lifestyles choices that must be addressed in treatment. Amber explains:

“When women have trauma, it often comes with issues of self-harm or significant lifestyle issues like prostitution, sex trafficking and dancing. And it’s hard for them to want to break out of that lifestyle of earning money quickly and having things at their beck and call because of it. So we deal with that, too.”

Men: Both Victims and Perpetrators of Violence

Although it is less common among men than women, men can and do experience sexual and physical abuse, too. In these cases, they may suffer from many of the same co-occurring mental health issues as women.

However, men are more likely than women to be the victims of traumatic violence that occurs outside of the home. “We have a lot of guys who have been shot or have lived ‘alternate’ lifestyles,” Barbara says, referring to involvement in criminal and gang activities. Men are also more likely to have served in the military, which often leaves emotional scars in the form of PTSD.

On the other hand, men may also have unresolved guilt about violence they’ve committed against another person. Coming to terms with their past actions (which may have been exacerbated by substance use) can add an additional layer of complexity to their recovery process. Barbara elaborates:

“If a man admits to battery, some of the other guys will react to him. I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘I don’t know how I feel about that guy because he put his hands on a woman.’ It’s interesting to see that dynamic. They have respect for women, so men who will own up to some of their conduct are judged by their peers.”

For both women and men, building trust is the first step in the process of healing from trauma. According to Jennifer:

“They come to us, and we want to get down to the bottom of why they’ve been doing what they’re doing, but we’re not going to get there in 30 days. A lot of times it takes at least a week or two for them to even trust us enough to say anything. But we have to address their trauma at least on a surface level, because they have to feel like they’re going to be emotionally strong enough to walk out that door without drinking or using.”

Stay tuned for the third and final post in our “Gender and Addiction” series, where we’ll examine some of the most common reasons women and men relapse into substance use. Until then, check out a few of our other blog posts below!

Gender and Addiction: How Stigma Affects Women and Men
Chris Plunkett, Farley Foundation: Drama, Trauma & Student Mental Heath