BANGOR, Maine — When it comes to drug and alcohol addiction, there are differences between men and women, and that means treatment programs need to be different, local substance abuse providers learned Friday at a conference about addiction and recovery.
“Some of the biological differences are pretty well known,” Trip Gardner, chief psychiatric officer for Penobscot Community Health Care, told the group during a panel discussion. “Most of the studies show that women get sicker — quicker.
“They have a shorter time [to getting sick] from use, to regular use, to dependency and are more likely to get consequences,” he said.
Gardner spoke at the “Addiction and Recovery for Women: Celebrating Empowerment and Renewal” conference hosted by the Husson Institute for Continuing Health Care Education and held at the Hilton Garden Inn.
He was flanked on the panel by Superior Court Justice Andrew M. Mead; Bangor police Officer Jason McAmbley, community relations officer; Guy Cousins, director of the Maine Office of Substance Abuse; Anne Giggey, director of the Hope House, a homeless shelter for those with drug and alcohol abuse issues; and Christopher Gardner, special agent with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency.
Across the room was keynote speaker Christine E. Grella, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the Integrated Substance Abuse Programs, Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“Women and men follow different pathways into treatment and present with different clinical profiles,” Grella said.
Men are often urged by a loving spouse or family to seek treatment, whereas drug and alcohol addicted women typically seek treatment on their own and are often in relationships with users of the drug or alcohol they are trying to escape, the UCLA professor noted.
Having children in the mix also complicates things for women, who worry about the social stigma associated with addiction, as well as the fear of losing their little ones, she said.
Women often show up at the doors of the treatment facility with emotional and other baggage that needs to be dealt with, Grella said.
“When they make their way to treatment, they present with more complicated problems,” she said, listing mental health, trauma, parenting, lack of economic self-sufficiency and relationship problems amongst some of the issues many women abusing drugs and alcohol need to deal with as part of their treatment.
“Treatment for substance use disorders among women is most effective when it addresses the broad range of issues that accompany substance use among women,” she said.
“Women are often dealing with depression and any number of other issues, so the addiction treatment needs to address not only using the substance,” Grella added. “For women, stopping the substance is just the first part.”
When women learn to “slowly unpack those issues” — and Grella admitted that “it’s a process” — they are more successful with treatment.
Three women in recovery spoke at the conference, telling stories of using drugs to overcome past traumas, “fooling” business partners and loved ones before falling into the hole they dug for themselves, and their struggles to pull themselves out.
“If you are stuck in the past, it only leads to one outcome — relapse,” said a young mother in recovery named Sarah.
Taking proactive steps to stop people from using drugs and alcohol by encouraging education or future career paths, even if it’s a minimum wage job, can steer people away from problems, McAmbley said.
“Jail is not the answer,” the Bangor police officer said.
MDEA agent Christopher Gardner noted that different parts of the state are dealing with different drugs, with meth and methamphetamines a problem in The County, bath salts and diverted prescription pills a problem in the Bangor and Rockland areas, and heroin showing its ugly face in Portland, southern Maine and along the coast.
Gardner said he knows the work he is doing pays off because he often hears from people he has busted.
“We have people who send us Christmas cards saying they wouldn’t be alive today if they hadn’t been arrested,” he said.
When a nurse in the audience asked what to do for homeless clients when she knows they need services but have nowhere to turn, Cousins answered by introducing a new program called “The Path,” which is designed to help with the transition from homelessness.
“There are a lot of resources that people are not aware of,” Cousins said.
Just taking the time to talk to people suffering with addiction by itself can be empowering, said Alanna S. Stetson, former director for the Husson institute.
“You may be planting a seed,” she said.