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Women and Addiction

Close your eyes and think woman alcoholic or woman lawyer alcoholic. What image comes to mind. Probably not any. There is not the image of the dirty, sleeping-under-the-train trestle wino image we often have for the male alcoholic. That image is inaccurate, but at least we have one. There is not the more accurate image of the hard driving lawyer who was on the law review, went to work for the big firm and had the perfect family, but before he was forty-five, lost them all to chemical addiction.

The truth of the matter is that we don’t have any image of the woman alcoholic, much less the woman alcoholic lawyers not even a wrong image. Most of us don’t have any cognitive idea of how the disease of alcoholism and/or drug addiction affects an ever growing segment of our profession. For the last ten years a significant number of the students enrolling in our law schools have been women. During this period between 37% and 40% of the law students enrolling in Wake Forest have been women. At Carolina the percentage has varied from 41% to 45%. The membership of our general volunteer professional associations is between 22% and 25% women.

Chemical addiction is an equal opportunity disease. Research data suggests that it may affect as many as one lawyer in five in our state at some time during the years of his or her practice. Obviously many women lawyers have or will be affected by this disease, and yet most of us have no idea, not even an incorrect idea, of what this means. The focus of this issue of the Bar Quarterly is to explore the unknown and untalked about facts around women and addiction.

Until recently very little was known about the effects of alcohol on women; it was simply assumed that they were the same as in men. I have only just begun to learn how alcohol affects women differently from men. Physiologic research shows alcohol is not oxidized as efficiently in women as in men. Possibly because of this, women appear to suffer the physical consequences of steady drinking earlier than men.

But if the effects of alcohol and addictive drugs were just physical, chemical dependency would not be the baffling disease that it is. Understanding this disease also means trying to understand its psychological effects, how it affects the personality and the psyche, as well as how it affects and influences social patterns and interactions. Another way to look at all these factors is to ask the question: what does it mean to be a woman alcoholic in a male-dominated profession? We are fortunate to have a first-person article entitled “The Woman Alcoholic and Law Firm Culture – A Personal Story” that tells you. This article by a woman member of our bar was contributed without attribution in the spirit of the traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. Implicit in this article is the question: How does your law firm environment make it more difficult for a woman to gain her standing as a lawyer, and if she happens to be afflicted by chemical dependency, to regain her health as a recovering alcoholic lawyer. 

We are fortunate in North Carolina to have good medical treatment facilities and practitioners who specialize in dealing with addiction. Dr. Loretta Silvia is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Bowman Gray School of Medicine, Wake Forest University. She is the director of addictions treatment there and has led a five-year faculty development grant aimed at educating primary care physicians in substance abuse treatment. From her academic and clinical perspective, she explores in her article, “All Alcoholics Are Not Created Equal,” differences in the way female alcoholics are viewed and treated and the factors that may be especially important to women in recovery.

Fellowship Hall, Inc., in Greensboro is one of the excellent treatment facilities we have in our state. Resa McKinney works at Fellowship Hall as a chemical dependency counselor. Her article “Women and Addiction: A Treatment Perspective” gives us a down-to-earth look at treatment for the addicted woman from a multiple female perspective, that is from a woman who is a counseling professional, who is involved in her own personal recovery, and who is also a wife and a mother of three children.

Dr. Nicholas E. Stratas is a psychiatrist who has a private practice in Raleigh and is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina Medical School and associate consulting professor of psychiatry at Duke Medical School. Dr. Stratas is board certified in psychiatry and has written widely on a number of subjects. He has a wide range of experience and interests including addictions medicine. He has teamed up with Cynthia D. Hazen to author the article “A Systems Approach to the Female Alcoholic.” Ms. Hazen is a certified clinical social worker who has had a private practice in Raleigh for a number of years. She is on the part-time faculty at Smith College School for Social Work, is pursuing her doctorate in clinical social work research and medical sociology, and has particular interest, among others, in working with clients with substance abuse issues.

The Stratas/Hazen article, while highlighting our emerging understanding of gender differences in alcoholism and drug addiction, also makes clear the wide area of common ground shared by all who suffer from addictive disease. Their article gives you, the reader, the chance to focus on your experiences with mood-altering chemicals. And finally their article brings home the fact that we will encounter in our professional lives not only men who suffer from chemical addiction but also women. Our greater understanding of how chemical addiction affects women may be one of the many small steps that helps a chemically dependent lawyer gain the road to his or her recovery.

A special thanks to our contributors. I hope your understanding is enhanced by what they have to say.

– by Don Carrol

From, The North Carolina State Bar Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 2, Spring 1995

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