Women, Domestic Violence and Substance Abuse

By Hugh C. McBride

Women who develop dependencies upon alcohol or addictions to other drugs do so for myriad reasons, including recreational usage that gets out of hand, misguided attempts to self-medicate chronic pain and unhealthy efforts to numb themselves to emotional anguish.

This last group (those who abuse alcohol or another drug to numb themselves to emotional suffering) can be further subdivided into a number of categories, including the following:

  • Women who have been raped or otherwise physically assaulted
  • Women who have survived a traumatic accident, such as a car crash
  • Women who were abused or neglected as children
  • Women who suffer from depression, bipolar disorder or other mental health issues
  • Women who have been abused by their spouses or romantic partners

This article will focus on the final subcategory listed above – women whose substance abuse or addiction has resulted from or been exacerbated by domestic violence or relationship abuse.

An Unfortunately Prevalent Problem

Many Americans would like to think that domestic violence is a rare occurrence most commonly found on afternoon soap operas or police procedural shows. However, the statistics paint a decidedly bleaker picture.

According to a document produced by the Tennessee Association of Alcohol, Drug & Other Addiction Services (TAADAS), domestic abuse is a prevalent problem in the United States:

  • A woman in the United States is battered by her husband, boyfriend or live-in partner every 15 seconds.
  • Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44, more common than automobile accidents, muggings and non-domestic rapes.
  • Fifty percent of married women in the United States will experience some form of violence from their partners, and about 33 percent will be beaten or attacked more than once.

Given the fact that countless acts of domestic abuse are never reported to police, medical personnel or any other authorities, it is impossible to know the exact degree to which women in the United States are exposed to physical violence, verbal abuse and emotional torture. But even the most conservative estimates indicate that the problem is widespread, and that no age, ethnicity or socioeconomic group is immune from the scourge of domestic violence.

The Effects of Domestic Violence

On its website, the advocacy organization Stop Violence Against Women describes in stark and comprehensive terms both the prevalence of domestic violence and the degree of damage it can inflict upon female victims:

Violence directed against women by their intimate partners (current or former spouses or boyfriends) is an epidemic of global proportions that has devastating physical, emotional, financial and social effects on women, children, families and communities around the world.

When considering the prevalence and effects of domestic violence, it is important to keep two concepts in mind:

  1. Contrary to the implication of the word “domestic,” this type of violence is not limited to legally married partners. Domestic violence and relationship abuse affects boyfriends and girlfriends, same-sex couples and even teenage dating partners.
  2. Violence and abuse are hardly limited to rapes, beatings and other types of physical assaults. Overly controlling behaviors, stalking, verbal harassment and emotional abuse are common elements of relationship violence, and can result in considerable and lasting damage to the victim.

In addition to the physical pain that can result from being assaulted by one’s partner, domestic violence can also inflict considerable emotional damage. Women who have been abused by their spouses or partners are at increased risk for suffering from low self-esteem, depression and anxiety.

They are also more likely than non-abused women to turn to alcohol or another drug as a means of numbing their pain — or at least allowing them to temporarily escape from their partner’s continued physical, verbal and emotional abuse.

Domestic Violence & Substance Abuse

Regardless of whether the trauma they endured was inflicted by a wartime enemy, an unknown assailant, a brutal parent or an abusive partner, many trauma survivors find themselves struggling later in their lives with substance abuse problems.

According to information provided by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, women who have been abused are 15 times more likely to abuse alcohol and nine times more likely to abuse other drugs than women who have not experienced abuse.

Researchers have estimated that as many as one-quarter of women who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) will develop a problem with alcohol, and 10 percent of female PTSD sufferers will end up abusing drugs.

Not every woman who is abused by her partner will suffer from PTSD – but the daily stress, impaired self-esteem and resultant emotional damage of life in an abusive relationship can also increase the odds that these women will end up abusing or becoming dependent upon alcohol or other drugs.

Getting Help

If you or someone you care about is being abused by a spouse or partner, the most important first step is getting to a safe place. Attempting to be treated for trauma or related substance abuse while remaining in an abusive situation is akin to trying to heal a broken leg in the middle of an extended march.

Depending upon the nature and severity of both the abuse and the substance abuse, some women may be able to receive appropriate treatment via outpatient therapy or through participating in an organized support group. For others, the ideal treatment milieu is a residential recovery program.

At a residential recovery program for trauma victims (such as The Life Healing Center in Santa Fe, N.M.), women can receive comprehensive services designed to address both their substance problems and the effects of the abuse they endured.

Another effective treatment option is a recovery program for women, such as The Rose of Newport Beach, Calif. At a program like The Rose, women who are struggling with drug or alcohol abuse are treated in a safe and nurturing environment by staff members who are attuned to the unique needs and challenges of women in recovery.