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Under the Influence: Moms Who Need Help for Alcohol and Drug Addiction

Moms of today may seem like superheroes in the eyes of their children. They wear many hats-main breadwinner, caregiver, teacher, cook, and more. But moms are human; they're not invincible, and they're not immune to the disease of addiction to alcohol and other drugs. About 10 percent of the general population has a substance abuse disorder, and the "superhero" moms are among that group.

By Sheila Hermes, MEd, LADC, and Laura Kunde, LADC, LAMFT

Moms of today may seem like superheroes in the eyes of their children. They wear many hats-main breadwinner, caregiver, teacher, cook, and more. But moms are human; they're not invincible, and they're not immune to the disease of addiction to alcohol and other drugs. About 10 percent of the general population has a substance abuse disorder, and the "superhero" moms are among that group.

Because moms are often considered the "rock" of the family, they may work hard to mask or deny a substance abuse problem. They're supposed to be the strong ones-always caring for others. They're counted on to "be there" for their families. The shame and stigma of addiction propels mothers to hide their addiction.

Stigma, stereotyping, inadequate screening, and under reporting make the prevalence of women addicted to alcohol or other drugs difficult to assess. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimates that about 7.4 million females age 12 and above were classified in 2004 with "substance dependence or abuse." We know that women appear more vulnerable than men to many adverse consequences of alcohol use. Women achieve higher concentrations of alcohol in their blood and become more impaired than men after drinking equivalent amounts of alcohol. Research suggests women are more susceptible than men to alcohol-related organ damage.

Signs of addiction
There are many factors that can cause women to drink or become alcoholics. Some women are genetically predisposed to addiction; their brains and bodies respond differently to alcohol and other drugs. Other women start abusing alcohol as a way of dealing with mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Others may start using chemicals like methamphetamine to lose weight or to keep up with their busy lifestyles. Additional triggers are relationship-oriented - filling a void for something missing in a relationship or escaping the pain of an abusive relationship.

Perhaps the biggest reason it is hard to identify women who have an addiction problem is that they hide it well. Because it may not be apparent to close family and friends, the most important first step is for the woman to acknowledge that she has a problem.

If a woman even contemplates whether or not she has a problem, she most likely does. People who use alcohol socially rarely, if ever, question their use. A woman who thinks she is dependent should look at her relationship with alcohol and other drugs. Addiction is not necessarily about the amount or frequency a woman uses, but rather the relationship and impact it has on her life. Women who are alcoholics place a high priority on drinking, and even though they may be experiencing negative consequences from it, they will continue to drink.

Another sign of a problem is if the woman's behavior when using alcohol or other drugs violates her value system. If she does things while she is using that spur guilt, shame, or remorse, she most likely has a problem. Some women can clearly identify these behaviors, such as driving their children while under the influence of chemicals, or putting alcohol and drugs ahead of family obligations and promises.

Children will suffer consequences
If a mother has an alcohol or drug problem, no matter how hard she tries to hide it, her children will inevitably suffer consequences of her use. Sadly, if a woman is using while she is pregnant and does not receive treatment to abstain, her child may suffer long-term fetal alcohol effect, damaging their brains and affecting verbal, attention, and motor abilities. A child born to an addicted mother will likely suffer effects ranging from physical and emotional neglect, to various forms of physical, emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse.

Getting help
If a woman struggles with alcohol or other drugs and is willing to seek help, the first step is to ASK for help! There are many resources in the Twin Cities community that can help mothers receive quality treatment for addiction.

Single mothers face some of the stiffest barriers to accessing treatment. They may not seek help because they lack financial resources, or they fear losing their children. Also, they tend to think they can overcome their disease alone, since they're used to doing everything else on their own. Countless single mothers have found recovery from addiction in part because of the support and guidance from others.

Mothers can take steps to get help:

  • Ask friends or family for childcare or financial assistance.
  • Seek an assessment from an addiction counselor or local addiction treatment center to determine the appropriate level of care and treatment options available.
  • If insurance does not cover the cost of treatment, research financial assistance programs, such as government funding or treatment programs that have sliding-fee scales or patient aid opportunities.

If a woman has exhausted financial and childcare resources with no success, Twelve Step support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous can help. These mutual-help groups are free of charge and can help people recover from addiction. Some groups, specifically those for women with children, may have childcare available during the meetings.

What loved ones can do
It is very painful to watch a friend or family member struggle with addiction, especially when there are children involved. If you suspect a female family member or friend has a problem and needs help, you should get involved, but there are some guidelines. You should not approach her when she is under the influence or immediately after a crisis that is caused by her use, as she will most likely be defensive and still in denial. Instead, look for an opportunity when she is sober. Use "I" statements such as "I feel" or "I'm worried" so as to not pass judgment, but rather voice your concern and love.

Next, you can offer her help to the extent you feel comfortable. Examples include:

  • Research options for her
  • Offer childcare while she receives treatment or attends AA meetings
  • Offer transportation or financial help for treatment
  • Offer your friendship and support to see her through the recovery process

Remember to set limitations, and only commit to what you know you can deliver. An empty promise about helping her may give her another excuse or reason not to follow through on her recovery.

In any situation where a mother needs help for addiction, the children must be the first priority. Again, you should share this concern with her when she is sober. Let her know that you are not judging her as a parent, but cannot support her current behavior with her children. If she is not willing to seek help for her problem after you've shared your concerns about the children, you may let her know that you are willing to support her but will not hesitate to take steps to protect her children. If she chooses to discontinue her relationship with you, contacting social services or child protection may be necessary. You need to consider whether the risk of losing the relationship outweighs the risks you foresee for the children remaining in an unstable home. The risks to the children are inevitably greater.

Sheila Hermes, MEd, LADC, is supervisor of the Simpson Unit at the Women's Recovery Center at Hazelden in Center City, Minn., and Laura Kunde, LADC, LAMFT, is a counselor on the Jellinek Unit for extended care patients at Hazelden.

Photo by Nihan Aydin

Categories: Health & Wellness, Women's Health,

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