During the early years of the women-only treatment center Wayside House, addiction experts thought women were less likely to develop substance use disorders. But as changing attitudes brought less social stigma for those openly discussing recovery or seeking treatment, it became increasingly clear that women were addicted at rates equal to men.

Even with a treatment demographic that spans women as young as teenagers and as old as retirees, women with substance use disorders usually share some common threads.

"Often the women who come to us have been led into addiction through their relationships and have a harder time in recovery because so many of their most important relationships are built around their substance of choice," says Jessie C. Everts, vice president of Clinical Programs at Wayside House, in St. Louis Park. "Many of the women we see here experienced trauma or abuse as children. They have often been exposed to these substances at a young age and have turned to them as self-medicating or as a coping strategy."

Out in the open

Wayside House was founded in 1954 by Sarah Mary "Sally" DeVay, a Honeywell employee. She gathered community stakeholders from around the Twin Cities metro area to launch an agency that would address the needs of women in poverty. Nine years later, Wayside House began to focus on women's chemical dependencies, identified as a primary barrier holding them back from personal, physical and economic success. The center currently treats more than 400 women each year, many of whom bring their young children with them for a residential stay.

Women, biology and addiction

Metabolism plays a big role in addiction and that creates greater risk for women. Because the female body typically contains a higher percentage of fat than a man's, its fat cells store toxic substances like drugs and alcohol for much longer, metabolizing them at a slower rate than men do. This biological reality can set women up for serious trouble.

"We feel the effects more quickly, often after just a use or two, and the effects of use are longer lasting," Everts says. "Even more critically, women often progress more quickly into substance abuse. The phenomenon is called telescoping, and it's a major issue for many women."

Everts cites statistics that only one in 10 Minnesota women with these disorders is accessing treatment. Wayside House approaches substance use disorders as only one symptom of larger, systemic mental health and trauma issues, which often requires a longer treatment period than most programs.

"People go to rehab to get the chemicals out of their system, but we start with an examination of what's going on in the rest of their lives," she says. "We believe that the opposite of addiction isn't sobriety, it's being connected in healthy relationships, so that's a big focus for us."

Wayside House residents often spend 60, 80, or 120 days in residential care, and then continue with outpatient treatment several times a week. "We can keep someone sober for 30 days, but if they are experiencing the same memories, trauma and out-of-control emotions as they did when they came in, it's going to be much harder to stay sober," Everts says.

The leadership and counseling staff at Wayside House has been all-female since its mid-1950s founding. "We're a therapeutic community in which clients are surrounded by other women all the time," Everts explains. "We want them to see women working together and working with them in a healthy way."

"I've observed that men often prefer working one-on-one as they seek recovery, but women are more likely to be relationship-focused," she says. "We have family therapy that encourages family members and children to be part of the solution. We purposely build a sense of community as part of our treatment model."

New threats: opioids and pot

About 20 percent of Wayside House clients are battling an opioid addiction, which has grown over time. "Often a woman will start taking prescription painkillers, and when those drugs are no longer available she will turn to heroin, which is relatively cheap and readily available in the Twin Cities," Everts says. She also notes an uptick in the number of women who are seeking treatment because of an addiction to marijuana. "Just because 24 states have made it legal in some form or another doesn't mean it's not a potentially dangerous drug."

"We see the needs, which are growing," Everts says. "We are making plans to increase in size and scope so we can help even more women to reach recovery."