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Empowering Women to Recover from Addiction
Understanding stigma and shame creates strength and hope for women struggling with addiction.

by Erin Goodhart, Director of Women’s Services and Kate Appleman, Clinical Director for Adult Services

We’re excited about this Diane Sawyer special edition of “20/20” on ABC, which features journalist Elizabeth Vargas and several Caron patients and staff members.

A moving depiction of the addiction and recovery journey, the special tells about Elizabeth Vargas’s journey from addiction to recovery, thus deviating from the mainstream media’s tendency to leave recovery out of the story. 

Authentic stories like Elizabeth Vargas’s give hope to the 23 million adults who suffer from addiction. They give voice to more than 23 million adults who are in recovery. Above all, they play a critical role in removing stigma from addiction. 

The Stigma of Addiction 

There is still a stigma surrounding addiction, and it’s especially strong for women. The modern woman is expected to do it all: work, take care of the children, pay the bills, manage the home and more. The pressure to constantly strive for perfection can lead to stress, depression and other mental health issues. A 2013 survey conducted by Caron Treatment Centers found that stress or anxiety is one of the top five contributing factors to addiction for mothers.

At Caron, we’ve seen many women come to treatment with more progressed addictions than male peers. This could be because, as primary caregivers, it’s difficult for women to leave home and enter treatment for 30 days. The 2013 study found that, “over 30% of respondents were reluctant to seek treatment because they were worried about leaving their families; however, over 55% sought treatment at the request of their families.” High-functioning female professionals are also driven to by the stress of trying to handle everything. We hear statements like, “If you understood the stress I have, you’d drink, too,” or “At the end of the week, I deserve this.” These women often express quiet desperation. On top of all this, addicted women must deal with the stigma attached to addiction. 

The good news is, once addicted women meet women in recovery, they find a group they can relate to without judgment. In this environment, they can begin to heal. It takes courage for a woman to take this step—to look in the mirror and admit her life has gotten out of control. It is the first step on the path to recovery change, and spiritual health. It’s a willingness to say, “I want to be a better version of myself. I want to be strong and healthy today.” 

Seeking help for addiction is the only path to recovery. It’s important to have access to comprehensive treatment that addresses not just substance use, but also co-occurring issues, spirituality and health and wellness. Treatment should also incorporate a family program, because addiction is a family disease and the whole family needs to be able to recover and heal.

Addiction and Shame 

Shame arises during addiction when a person’s beliefs and values contradict each other. The addict might think, “I believe in honesty, but I tell lies,” or “I believe in commitment, but I don’t commit because I don’t show up.” Shame also arises when one focuses on others’ perceptions. Women commonly think, “What are the other moms or the kids’ friends going to think?” “What does this mean about my ability to be a mom?”

When we ask women to work through the shaming messages they tell themselves, we usually hear things like, “I’m not a good wife, employee or mother.” What these women are really saying is, “I’m not good enough.” Working through this “not good enough” message is a necessary precursor to freedom from addiction. 

Another key to overcoming the shame of addiction is to recognize it for what it is: a brain disease characterized by physiological and behavioral symptoms. 

Sharing Your Strength

Elizabeth Vargas deserves an immense amount of credit for speaking so openly about addiction, stigma and recovery. We also want to acknowledge Caron patients and staff for candidly sharing their stories. Their courage helps end the stigma of addiction. 

That being said, not every addict is in a place to talk overtly about addiction—and that’s okay. In fact, part of recovery is learning when it’s safe to speak out and when it’s best to reserve trust. If you are struggling with an active addiction, however, we do recommend that you speak to a family member or a mental health professional.

Shattering Stigma Together

We hope to continue to see women sharing their experiences, strength and hope. The more we raise awareness about the disease of addiction, the sooner stigma will disappear, which will hopefully result in more women and families reaching out for help. To all who are struggling with addiction, please know you are not alone. There is hope. Treatment works and recovery is possible.

Struggling with Addiction?

Caron can help. Among other programs, we offer individualized, gender-specific addiction and behavioral health treatment for adults. To learn more, please explore the program or contact us today.

Find the 20/20 special, behind-the-scenes photos, media contacts and related content on women and addiction here.