Women and the Secret of Prescription Drug Addiction
Amelia liked to think of herself as a survivor—soft but strong, able to persevere. Raised by a mother with mental illness, she knew a lot about how to handle difficult people and delicate events; it seemed she’d been walking on eggshells for as long as she could remember. Her father had left when she was 12 and the care and keeping of her mother, who only grew more unstable as a result, had fallen exclusively to Amelia. By the time she was 17, she was an expert on her mother’s medical records, how and when she needed to take her medication, and was working to support the two of them. She never made it to college. Maintaining a full-time job and the constant attention required in the care of her mother didn’t leave time for school.
As anxiety settled in throughout her 20’s and with the occasional “dark moods” that lasted months sometimes, Amelia found herself less and less capable of enduring not the physical hardship, but the psychological. Still, she wanted nothing to do with therapy; why should she spend upward of $100 an hour talking about herself? Life was just the way it was. When headaches started to overtake her, she finally saw a doctor.
Offering her full history to the small town general practitioner, Amelia was persuaded to provide a background. She discussed not only her unrelenting headaches but also the steady sense that things simply weren’t right—how she shook nervously and sweated. Her GP prescribed benzodiazepines to be used for acute episodes of anxiety and opiates for what he determined were migraines.
For a while, Amelia found comfort in the hypnotic quality of the drugs. It was as if she were floating somewhere just outside herself and nothing could harm her there. As weeks and months wore on, however, Amelia discovered that the recommended dosage no longer treated her anxiety or her pain. She began to increase her dosage. When she was threatened with eviction after one of her mother’s “incidents”—she’d taken after the neighbor with a garden hoe—it all became too much. Amelia made it through the experience relatively unscathed, but she’d discovered something useful to her: her medications were more powerful when combined with wine.
It wasn’t until a friend noticed how much Amelia was taking that she questioned it herself. She realized she’d been relying exclusively on the medication and the sense of escape it gave her, taking it every four hours whether she needed to or not. But when she tried to quit she discovered something even more alarming—she couldn’t.
Gendered Differences in Addiction
The CDC reports that between 1999 and 2010, opioid overdose deaths among women increased fivefold, while the numbers for men increased three times. Since 2007, more women have died from prescription overdose than in car accident related injuries, cervical cancer or homicides. Further studies reveal that while women tend to become addicted later than men, they do so more quickly. Once addicted, women are more vulnerable to relapse, and are less likely to seek treatment than men. According to Constance Scharff, Ph.D., “Women most often use drugs to deal with stress and regulate moods.” Women are prescribed potentially addictive medications more often than men, and for longer periods. This may be because women are speaking more openly with their doctors about both physical and psychological complaints, but the reasons are not entirely understood.
Prescription drug dependence may go unnoticed even to the user—many believe that because the medications are prescribed, they are safe. When more than the recommended dosage is being used and for longer than is required and when symptoms of withdrawal (such as nausea, agitation and sleep disturbance) occur at the cessation of the medication, addiction should be considered.
Recovery from prescription drug dependence is as important as any other addictive substance or process. The White House considers women to be among the top three high-risk groups for addiction, and looking at the numbers for accidental overdose deaths, it is no wonder. Long term abuse of certain addictive prescription medications, such as the benzodiazepines, carry potential consequences: “over sedation, impairment of memory, balance and learning, depression and emotional blunting.”
Treatment for Prescription Drug Addiction
Treatment for prescription drug addiction is similar to other treatments for addiction; it consists of a behavioral component wherein addicts learn to cope with life stress or physical pain without the use of medications, and where previous users are taught to become self-observant and proactive when cravings arise. There is evidence that psychotherapy in combination with NA group attendance, or another form of collective substance abuse support, can be effective in helping women recover. Given the high pressure lives that so many modern women contend with—where work outside the home is a foregone conclusion even while work inside the home does not diminish—the stress and pain that lead many down the slippery slope of secret addiction is unsurprising. What is most important is that women like Amelia find the help they need to recover—including doctors who better understand the risks of prescribing medications known to create dependence.