I did my doctoral research on women and alcohol consumption. There were many indices which caught my attention, including stress in women and socio-cultural influences. There was one indicator that initially wasn’t part of my research, but kept surfacing through my inquiry pilot study: the lack of women in treatment facilities. The question that I asked myself then was how come addiction issues escape the female gender in our society. At the surface, that is what my data seemed to suggest but on further inquiry, I realised that a disturbing fact and that was the tip of the iceberg in women related health issues.
Treatment utilisation is a major problem in our society when it comes to women’s health. In the later part of my research I got the sense that women’s drinking is such a taboo that women alcoholics are closet drinkers and rarely seek any kind of assistance for their health. Thus, these women face great risk.
But it is not just women alcoholics but most women who don’t end up to the clinic for treatment until the disease is probably reached a rather chronic state. There is a dearth of women who seek medical attention for themselves when they are not well. Most women are so caught up trying to juggle between roles of spouse maintenance, or child welfare that they ignore their own health concerns.
Often women will end up in the clinic only because a female relative or friend has expressed concerned about her symptoms.
It is not surprising that women find that they have some serious ailment only at the later stage of their disease progression.
Why does this happen? I was surprised at one level but not so surprised at the same time. It was almost like I had the ‘aha’ moment in my research. Treatment utilisation also follows a patriarchal paradigm.
It is such a classic scenario, when a man coughs, the women in the house move about fretting and worrying over the dreadful disease their beloved has been anguished with. When women cough, they think ‘how am I supposed to complete all my tasks?’
Sometimes you see this distinction made even with their children’s health. A son falling sick will be seen as a critical incident than a daughter who is sick. When I did my literature review I was further surprised that research itself was male-oriented, ignoring the women-specific alcohol addiction problems. Women’s behaviour dealing with access to treatment for illnesses has been sparsely studied.
My research pointed out that women may start out as social drinkers but a lack of coping skills pushes them towards addiction, which is not the case with men. Men get initiated into alcohol addiction through their social interactions and peer pressure rather than stress.
Women’s need for alcohol consumption was largely due to some emotional stressor, especially relationship problems.
Women tend to prioritise relationships in a different way than men. It may not be entirely biological but it is more evolutionary. Being the caretaker in the family, women have evolved to keep their own needs secondary. Additionally the patriarchal mindset in our society ensures that this behaviour is reinforced.
Women have to start voicing their self-care and say ‘I too need to take care for myself’.
I never understood this idiom before. I remember watching Maya Angelou say this to Oprah Winfrey. ‘Let your cup runneth over!’
What she meant was that you have to first have good health, love and care for yourself, fill your cup if you want to help others. Fill up that cup and take care of yourself.
One of the surest ways to be the good mother, daughter, wife or partner is you have to be good. If you need to be the caregiver of your family, ensure that you take care of yourself. And lady, you need to take that responsibility because I have researched this and nobody does it for you. Or be that woman who decides to do it for other females around you.
So when you see your mother, daughter, sister, aunt, cousin or friend showing those unusual symptoms please advise them to go and get themselves to a doctor for treatment. Even better, regularly go for checkups and yearly health checkups so you can nip the problem in the first stage.
You need to show yourself the same concern you do to the men around you. And if you are a man reading this then please remember – when you see your mother, daughter, sister, wife or partner feeling unwell take her to the doctor. Show her the same care and concern that she would have shown you.
(Writer is a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and the HOD of psychology at Carmel College for Women)