Revolutionary Women in Addiction Treatment | Women’s History MonthBrittany Brizendine
March is Women’s History Month, a time to reflect on the many accomplishments that women have made throughout the years. There have been a number of revolutionary women in addiction treatment, who have been instrumental in research as well as in bringing the facts of addiction to light. Three women, in particular, stand out among them.
Founder of the National Committee for Education on Alcoholism, Marty Mann was inspired by a prayer in which she asked for a way to help other alcoholics. Born into a wealthy family in Chicago in 1904, Marty attended the best private schools, was married and divorced by age 23, and was an alcoholic by age 24.
She was an international traveler, eventually settling in New York City. There she had a career in public relations and publishing but never found herself too far from a drink. Within 10 years she went from a promising future to a dreadful existence that involved round-the-clock drinking. Losing one job after another, she became destitute and attempted suicide twice.
In 1939, Marty discovered the help of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and joined as one of their first female members. Although she became sober with the help of her sponsor, Marty prayed for a way to help other alcoholics. One cold February night in 1944, after prayer, a plan came to her to teach people the facts about alcoholism. She planned to remove the stigma around it so that people could face their alcoholism “unashamed and unafraid.”
In October 1944, with the help of Bill W., her AA sponsor, and researcher EM Jellinek as well as the Yale Center for Alcohol Studies’ Dr. Howard Haggard, Marty Mann founded the National Committee for Education on Alcoholism in Manhattan. The organization was successful in communicating the three tenets of its core message, which still today encompasses drug dependence and addiction:
- Alcoholism is a disease, and the alcoholic is a sick person;
- The alcoholic can be helped, and is worth helping;
- Alcoholism is a public health problem, and therefore a public responsibility.
Neuroscientist Nora Volkow has long championed the idea of addiction as a disease of the brain instead of being a moral failing. Director of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) since 2003, she has led the organization’s efforts to prioritize research on the biological basis of addiction. NIDA has also been instrumental in fighting against the mistreatment of drug abusers in the medical and the criminal justice systems and is one of the revolutionary women in addiction treatment.
Her work in neuroscience research at Brookhaven National Laboratory revealed many new discoveries about addiction. For example, she found that many of the brain changes caused by alcohol addiction could be reversed after months of abstinence. More recently, Nora has found that factors such as homelessness, isolation, and unemployment can make people more vulnerable to drugs and addiction and can challenge their recovery.
Nora’s obsession with understanding the biological effects of addiction, which was fueled in part by her own family’s history, has not only shattered basic theories in neuroscience, but it has also helped to mitigate the stigma associated with addiction. Under Nora’s leadership, NIDA has helped to develop the first medication approved in the US for alleviating the physical symptoms of opioid withdrawal.
Probably the most well-known of the revolutionary women in addiction treatment is Betty Ford. Although somewhat famous for her problems with alcohol after her husband, Gerald Ford, left the White House as President, Betty’s addiction actually began in the early 1960s. She began taking opioid analgesics then to treat pain from a pinched nerve but was able to overcome her dependency while serving as First Lady.
However, her alcohol use and prescription drug use increased significantly after leaving the White House. It reached the point where, in 1978, the family felt the need to stage an intervention. They forced Betty to confront her addiction to alcohol and pain pills. She underwent a monitored detoxification and then entered Long Beach Naval Hospital for alcohol and drug rehab.
While at the hospital, Betty shared a room with other women, worked cleaning restrooms, and participated in therapy. Her experience affected her profoundly. She fully disclosed her addiction and her treatment to the public after being released.
Recognizing that she had the power to make changes, as a former First Lady, and realizing after her experience that no recovery facility existed that was specifically designed to help women with their unique addiction treatment problems, Betty helped established her own addiction treatment center. The Betty Ford Center treats men as well but focuses on helping women with their particular issues around drug and alcohol abuse.
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