Phoebe Paradise

Illustration by Phoebe Paradise

Go to the DEDICATED WOMAN OF SUBSTANCES SITE 

Journalist Jenny Valentish investigates the female experience of drugs and alcohol, using her own story to light the way. Her travels around Australia take her to treatment facilities and AA groups. Mining the expertise of 30 leading researchers, she explores the early predictors of addiction, such as childhood trauma and temperament, and teenage impulsivity. Drawing on neuroscience, she explains why other self-destructive behaviours – such as eating disorders, compulsive buying and high-risk sex – are interchangeable with problematic substance use. Valentish follows the pathways that women, in particular, take into addiction – and out again. Woman of Substances is an insightful, rigorous and brutally honest read.

What they’re saying about Woman of Substances

“You don’t have to be a spectacular comet of crazy like the young Valentish to find something of yourself in these pages. This book taught me things I wasn’t expecting about the landscape of substance use. Takes all the old bullshit assumptions about junkies and boozers and kleptos and wild ones and sticks them in a pipe and smokes them.” Kate Holden, author of In My Skin

“A startling and thorough investigation into the relationship between gender, trauma and addiction, and the women who fall through the gaps.” The Guardian

Woman of Substances will resonate with women readers who have never really questioned the role that patriarchy has played in their drinking habits.” Vice

“No holds barred … a witty and gripping first-person narrative.” Daily Review

“Employing expert interviews and research, each rich personal episode is contextualised within the under-examined issue of women’s substance abuse. Detailed, insightful and told with a feature writer’s narrative flair.” Bookseller and Publisher

“Engages readers with storytelling while presenting scientific findings and theories in a way that is accessible to a broad audience.” Broadsheet

“Part monograph, part memoir, part Ginsbergian howl of outrage at a culture in which gender bias is a tenet. It is a work of compellingly articulate anger.” The Australian

“In straightforward, lively prose she relates even her darkest moments without self-pity or aggrandisement, and often with a streak of gallows humour, leading to more laugh-out-loud lines than you might expect.” The Saturday Paper

“We need books like this, and writers like Valentish, to give voice to our frustrations and concerns, to help legitimise and mobilise.” Kill Your Darlings

“Valentish’s passion lies in exploring the underlying causes and their effects and, in the most female of ways, offering companionship and reassurance for her readers.” The Monthly

“Doesn’t mince her words.” Sydney Morning Herald

 

A few spoilers of topics within

* Every three years the National Drug Strategy Household Surveys provide cross-sectional data on substance-use in Australia. The 2013 results showed that among past-year users, the percentage of women reporting the most frequent use of methamphetamines, cocaine, ecstasy and cannabis surpassed that of men.

* Impulsivity is a big driver of substance abuse. It’s long been thought to be a male trait but actually men and women are on an equal footing when it comes to inhibition control, which is the ability – or inability – to put the brakes on. Women also tend to act out their impulsivity in less obvious ways, such as through theft or promiscuity.

* Substance use in women often co-occurs with eating disorders, with different substances being better suited to different disorders. According to one three-year US study, 3% of the general population has an eating disorder, rising to 35% of substance abusers.

* Heavy drinking during adolescence damages the quality of the brain’s white matter, responsible for relaying information between cells, and reduces the size of the hippocampus, responsible for memory formation and learning. In girls, the effect of this damage tends to be poor performance in spatial functioning, which includes navigation, recognition of faces and scenes, and the observation of fine details. Boys tend to fare worse on focusing their attention.

* Critics consider borderline personality disorder to be a ‘dustbin category’ in which women who have been sexually abused (or experienced some other form of childhood trauma) are frequently placed. The ‘symptoms’ are actually just a collection of coping mechanisms and women tend to chaotically self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.

* Women are largely excluded from drug tests by ethics committees because of the chance they might be pregnant. The same applies to animal studies. Consequently, substitute drugs such as methadone and buprenorphine, or drugs used in treatment, such as naltrexone and barbiturates, have often only been tested with the male experience in mind.

* Estrogen doesn’t only make substances more attractive, some studies suggest it slows down their elimination. This means estrogen-based birth-control pills might extend the effects of intoxication of drugs and alcohol. The flipside is, alcohol can raise oestrogen levels. In one study, blood and urine estrogen levels increased up to thirty-two per cent in women who drank just two drinks a day.

* When it comes to party drugs, women are more at risk of water intoxication and hyponatremia (low sodium) – which accounted for the deaths of Leah Betts in the UK and Anna Wood in Sydney.

* A study published in 2016 by the University of New South Wales pooled data from sixty-eight studies about drinking across thirty-six countries. It found that by the end of the last century, men’s and women’s drinking were about equal. Further, there was some evidence that women born after 1981 may be drinking at higher rates or in more harmful ways than men.

Drug and alcohol articles by Jenny Valentish:

Three drug researchers debate the pros and cons of ‘coming out’: The Saturday Paper

Why Addiction Isn’t a Disease: The Age

Twisting My Sobriety: The Saturday Paper

Writing in a Fugue State: Elspeth Muir’s Wasted: The Lifted Brow

Meeting the team behind Dutch youth program Drugslab: The Fix

The Neglected World of Comorbid Disorders: The Saturday Paper

I’m also a member of the AOD Mediawatch reference group, helping to inform journalists about responsible reporting around alcohol and drug stories.

The author back in the spasmo days. They weren't all bad.

The author back in the spasmo days. They weren’t all bad.