AURORA | Percocet, Flexeril, Soma — Sarah Humble said she never met a prescription painkiller she didn’t like. When she had her first knee surgery in 1979, the painkillers gave her a better high than the street drugs she was used to, like marijuana, acid and speed.
“It was easy, legal, and my insurance paid for it. That was good,” said Humble, who lives in Arvada. Her addiction worsened after a back injury in 2008. She spent years alone on her couch, popping pills and blocking out the world until a DUI in February landed her at the CeDAR Center for Addiction Recovery and Rehabilitation at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
It was there that she became whole again, she said.
She attributes her sobriety to CeDAR’s women’s-specific treatment program, where she met other women in the throes of addiction who were struggling with the same issues she was. She found comfort in female support.
“By the second week, I saw how my life could be different, and how miserable my life really was,” she said.
As prescription painkiller abuse rises, CeDAR officials say they’ve found success in recovery programs that are gender-specific. CeDAR staff have found that dividing men and women and creating individualized curriculums for each gender is so effective that they’re hosting a conference Oct. 10-12 called “Gender Matters.” The conference is aimed at helping other addiction and recovery professionals understand the important role that gender plays in recovery.
“You’ve got a lot of very well-intentioned professionals who don’t have the knowledge base yet to really be treating genders differently,” said Ben Cort, community liaison for CeDAR. “They treat them separately, but to treat them differently is really what we’re trying to get people in the industry to do.”
CeDAR staff launched gender-specific rehabilitation programs three years ago because they found that women have different addiction issues than men. For example, men struggle with their perceptions of male roles.
“Men are taught from a very early age, sometimes through words or part of culture, that you don’t ask for help and don’t show feelings,” said Michael Dinneen, who is a social worker and manager of clinical operations for CeDAR and will be speaking at the conference. Men also feel more pressure than women to be successful in their jobs and to make money, he said.
Women have vastly different issues in recovery than men, said Anne Meese, social worker and team leader at the CeDAR women’s program.
“Traditionally, drug and alcohol treatment was designed for men,” she said. “It’s been a slow evolution to understand the different areas that affect women.”
In group sessions, both men and women feel more comfortable talking about issues surrounding sex when there are no members of the opposite sex around, he said. Women are also more open to talking about issues like domestic violence, body image and self-esteem when they’re around other women, Meese said.
“If they have to be around guys, it’s too much,” she said.
There’s also more of a stigma that goes along with drug and alcohol addiction for women than there is for men, Meese said.
According to a Centers for Disease Control report released in July, prescription painkiller overdose deaths among females increased about fivefold from 1999 to 2010. Still, CeDAR treats more men than women because of the social stigma surrounding addiction.
“There’s a different kind of shame and embarrassment that comes along with it,” Meese said.
That might be why it took so long for Humble to come to terms with her addiction, even though she spent four years holed up in her house, swallowing painkiller after painkiller with no human contact.
It wasn’t until she blacked out on painkillers and got behind the wheel of her car with her dog in tow that she realized she was an addict who needed help. But the kind of help she needed wouldn’t have been possible if men were in the picture, she said.
“It would have changed the dynamics dramatically,” she said.
There would have been distractions and competitiveness among the women if men were around, and the women wouldn’t feel as comfortable speaking up. For Humble, there was something special about being around females who were struggling with the same issues. It’s what has helped her pass her 6-month anniversary of being sober.
“I hadn’t experienced that support from anybody in a long time,” she said. “It was nice to hear my peers tell some of the same stories I did, working through them like I was.”
Reach reporter Sara Castellanos at 720-449-9036 or [email protected]