Imagine for a moment – you are driving through a neighbourhood in Barbados and you see a woman sitting on a rum shop step with a beer in her hand, and then you see a man doing the same… What thoughts come to your mind? Is your reaction the same for the woman as it is for the man? Most people would probably say “no”, if they are being honest.
[Sex is the property by which organisms are classified as female or male on the basis of their reproductive organs and functions. Gender, expressed in terms of masculinity and femininity, is how people perceive themselves and expect others to behave, and is largely culturally determined].
From an early age, girls are told how they should behave, how they must dress, what they should look like and what is expected of them. Although we are living in a more progressive society, all these expectations still bear down heavily on our girls and women.
This is especially so in matrifocal societies such as Barbados, where women are placed in the traditional central role of raising children and being the “breadwinner” of the family. In light of these gender-specific expectations, when a woman finds that she struggles with an addiction, whether it be to alcohol, prescription medication or other related substances, she is more likely to hide her addiction for fear of being shamed and disdained from family and friends.
The disease of addiction is often misunderstood, and is generally perceived to be controlled by choice, willpower or moral values. This misperception is amplified with women, given societal expectations. Too often, women who struggle with addiction are viewed as females with “loose morals” who spare no thought for their children. They are berated and stigmatized and often become self-imprisoned with society as their warden.
Barriers to drug treatment
Women experience unique barriers to drug treatment that men do not necessarily have to contend with at all or to the same degree. Drug addicted men are less stigmatized and less harshly judged than women. Women must also contend with lack of child care and family support, fear of losing custody of their children and the fear of losing their jobs and the ability to take care of themselves financially. Weighing the perceived barriers against the perceived gains, the decision to enter drug treatment becomes much more complex.
Differences in the drug treatment experience
If a woman is able to make it into drug treatment despite the barriers, treatment is often intensified for women due to biological differences. Generally speaking, women typically are smaller and have a lower body mass index than men. What this means is that a woman and a man with the same body weight who drink the same amount of alcohol or take similar amounts of drugs, will be affected differently.
Another critical factor in the biological difference between men and women is the female hormone component. According to research conducted by the National Institutes of Health in the USA, oestrogen increases drug cravings and intensifies the effects of alcohol and other drugs. The result is that women will usually be more severely affected and at a faster rate than men. Therefore, women who enter treatment are usually more progressed in their drug addiction, and their medical and mental health needs are more extensive compared to a man who used for the same length of time.
In addition to these physiological differences, women tend to require more trauma-focused work earlier on in their treatment. Although men and women are both affected by trauma, women are usually more apt to share about it earlier in treatment, thus they need a treatment environment that is trauma responsive and sensitive to the role trauma plays in addiction.
The Barbados experience
In 2000, the Substance Abuse Foundation Inc. (SAF) established Verdun House as a residential drug rehabilitation facility. It was created by individuals who experienced first-hand the devastation that occurs when a loved one is impacted by addiction. These men and women recognized that there had to be an alternative to the only treatment option existing at the time; [a state-operated facility at the Psychiatric Hospital], which had an undeserved stigma attached to it and hence rarely appealed to the countless individuals and families in dire need of treatment.
In the beginning, Verdun House provided treatment for both men and women. During its second year of operation, it became clear that housing two genders simultaneously undergoing treatment at the same location, was impractical. So for clinical reasons, it became necessary to close the smaller women’s facility. It would take approximately 12 years to open a facility dedicated to women.
From October 2015, through a very generous donation from The Maria Holder Memorial Trust, women in Barbados and the Caribbean have access to an ultra-modern residential treatment. Marina House has a multi-disciplinary team of professionals who developed a gender-focused treatment programme that takes into account the specific issues of women and their families. It aims to reduce barriers and provide specific interventions.
Over the past four years, they have witnessed first-hand the specific challenges facing Barbadian women who struggle with substance misuse and addiction. Women do face unique challenges and whilst our local experiences are no different to those anywhere in the world, research has shown that women are more likely to have been the victims of trauma, abuse or neglect including intimate partner violence, childhood sexual abuse and abandonment.
It is for these and other reasons that the programme at Marina House is trauma-informed to be better able to unearth the core issues that may have fuelled female drug addiction. Getting help for your mother, sister, aunt, grandmother or girlfriend is now available in Barbados and must be taken advantage of. Our aim is not only to treat the addiction but to promote wellness for women, men and their families. The overall goal is to contribute to a healthier and safer Barbados for everyone.
If you or someone you love needs help for drug addiction, please call one of our treatment professionals at 246-433-3488 or email [email protected] All inquiries are kept confidential.