Women Leading the Recovery Movement
• March 2021 •
From Juan Navarro, Executive Director
Los Angeles Centers for Alcohol and Drug Abuse
Women Leading the Recovery Movement
The way we view people with substance use and mental health disorders has undergone tremendous change over the past few generations. We’re still learning, but honoring the progress is essential. Women’s History Month in March is a great time to celebrate the courageous women who have represented behavioral health recovery in America.
Remember, at one time the world used to believe that “nice women” didn’t drink to excess or use illegal drugs –that was for beggars and other “fallen women”. It was a widespread concept that made it difficult for women to admit the problem and seek help. Not that there was much help around. Even the early efforts of A.A. (Alcoholics Anonymous) did not go so well – the Good Oldtimers just didn’t know how to approach recovery for women. At first, A.A.’s co-founder Robert Holbrook Smith (Dr. Bob) threw up his hands and said, “We have NEVER had a woman and will NOT work on a woman.”
Marty Mann was the first woman to step forward and prove him wrong. Mann is the founding female member of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and author of the “Women Suffer Too” chapter in early editions of the Big Book of AA. Marty also founded The National Council on Alcoholism to reduce social stigma surrounding alcoholism and to encourage women and their family members to get treatment. Marty Mann did groundbreaking work to raise social awareness of alcoholism as a deadly disease and not a moral weakness.
Other recovery pioneers include Lois Wilson, wife of A.A. founder Bill Wilson, and Anne Smith, wife of co-founder Dr. Bob. Although these women were not alcoholics, both served as early A.A. staff and the lifeblood of the fledgling organization. In 1951, Lois Wilson founded Al-Anon to provide a source of support for the family members of alcoholics.
An early advocate for mental health recovery was Nellie Bly, a young investigative journalist. In 1887, after hearing of the horrible conditions in a New York State asylum, she posed as a patient to get herself admitted. After 10 days, Bly wrote about her experiences in an exposé for New York World. Her bombshell report was a catalyst for early mental healthcare reform.
America’s First Lady Betty Ford was another important leader. She frankly admitted her drug and alcohol problems, and it won her widespread acclaim. Mrs. Ford helped found The Betty Ford Center, a treatment program for drug and alcohol abuse – one of the best-known facilities of its kind in the country.
Another pioneer was actress Carrie Fisher of Star Wars fame. Her courage in openly tackling the stigma of her mental illness was groundbreaking. Carrie said, “The only lesson for me, or for anybody, is that you have to get help. It’s not a neat illness. It doesn’t go away.”
And there have been many, many more brave women who are role models for behavioral health recovery. Some of them are our mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, cousins, and friends. Los Angeles Centers for Alcohol and Drug Abuse, our Board, and staff stand on their shoulders and salute all women in recovery and those working for treatment progress.
Learn how Carrie Fisher became our hero.
“It’s a lot of shame in being a woman on drugs, you know? Bad mother, bad daughter, bad woman. And who wants to admit that? Being a man on alcohol and drugs just doesn’t seem so bad, and it should. It’s just that women are supposed to be quote unquote good. Well, I wasn’t good. I got pregnant at 16 and left my boy for my mom to raise. I wanted to have fun. I didn’t see taking care of my kid as fun. Drinking with friends, smoking, parties, that was fun. As long as I stayed in school, my mom let me do it. I knew she didn’t like it and was scared for me, but that was how I was then. I did what I did. After I graduated from high school, I got pregnant again. That’s when my boyfriend and my mom ganged up on me then and made me go into the program. I didn’t think I needed it, that’s how far gone I was. Today, I am 21 years old and in recovery for two years. And I love it. I love being a good mom. Getting clean and sober changed me for the better.”
SPOTLIGHT – THE EVIDENCE IS IN:
Gender-Focused Treatment for Women
Women and girls have different behavioral health risk factors than males, with different pathways into behavioral health disorders – and the criminal justice system. Women also need different treatment strategies. L.A. CADA operates several women-focused treatment programs. Alice’s House provides 18 residential treatment beds for women and their young children. Our Custody-to-Community Transitional Reentry Program (CCTRP) operates 112 residential treatment beds for incarcerated women leaving prison. And Victoria’s Place is a 10-bed Recovery Bridge Housing program for homeless women in recovery. For women, gender-focused care requires:
- Trauma-informed assessment and treatment
- Recognition of the significance of personal relationships in women’s lives
- Addressing the unique health concerns of women
- Acknowledging the importance of socioeconomic issues and differences among women
- Promoting cultural competency that is specific to women
- Attending to the various caregiver roles that women assume throughout their lives
- Recognizing that cultural roles and gender expectations affect society’s attitudes toward women with substance use issues
- Using a strengths-based treatment model for women
- Incorporating an integrated and multidisciplinary treatment approach for women
- Maintaining a gender-responsive treatment environment
- Supporting development of gender competency specific to the issues of women.