Are you sure he’s not cheating on you?” I asked the woman next to me in rehab.
She was silent. It was probably the wrong question to ask. Usually I’m more tactful, but it was late at night after a long day of “group” and AA meetings and lectures on the 12 Steps, during my 2015 stay at one of the best known, oldest rehabs in the country, near Philadelphia. I was nearing the end of my 28-day stint, but she had come in less than a week ago. She had cried non-stop for the first few days.
“He’s not,” she said.
I let the subject drop. But from what she had told me, I was pretty sure I was right. Her husband of 20-plus years, a rich executive with a national company, had taken a job far away from the place where they met and her family. He moved her and their two teenage daughters there, and proceeded to ignore her.
Her drinking, while never at dangerous levels or risking a DUI, increased. She also started taking Xanax to deal with anxiety. Meanwhile, her husband was buying expensive gifts for their daughters. He took one of them on an overseas trip—a trip on which her mother was not invited.
Was he setting up a new life, I wondered, and was packing her off to rehab part of the plan?
Another woman in our group, whose drinking had become problematic a few years earlier, after her parents were killed in a tragic accident, told us that her husband was hiring a nanny for the summer. When she asked him why, he said, “To take care of my children.”
She replied that she would be home soon and taking care of their two small children.
Shortly thereafter, he informed her that he was filing for divorce and full custody. Her lawyer advised her to stay in “Extended Care” for an additional three months, adding another $90,000 to the $34,000 she had already spent (this rehab does not take insurance). The lawyer thought it was her best chance to prove that she could be a fit parent—even though she had zero record of abusing or neglecting her children.
I got out of rehab, found my way into harm reduction, and eventually came to participate and conduct research among many support networks for women who drink or use other drugs.
Their stories were terrifyingly similar. It usually started innocently enough. They drank with their partners during their courtship, sometimes cut back when they had kids—most of the women I’ve met, even those with serious alcohol issues, quit drinking entirely when pregnant—but then something would change.
“My husband pushed me down the stairs last night.”
Perhaps it was a major life transition—like moving to a place where she was separated from her support network, or her husband losing his job—that escalated both the tension in the marriage and her drinking. Usually his drinking accelerated too, but he would never call that a problem. The focus, in the stories I’ve heard, was always on her.
The manipulation often grows. I’ve been told of partners complaining about a mother’s drinking, for example, then showing up the next day with a bottle of wine or vodka—keeping the behavior going while holding it against her.
And then there’s the outright abuse.
“My husband pushed me down the stairs last night,” one woman told me while I was conducting research on traumatic brain injury and addiction. “It’s not the first time it’s happened. He refused to take me to the ER, even though my forehead was bleeding, because he thought they’d figure out what happened. All my friends tell me to leave, but I can’t because I’ve been to rehab for alcohol and he says he’d use that against me to take my son.”
This awful scenario—where the husband abuses the wife, but she can’t leave because if she tries, he’ll use her rehab record to take the children—is one I’ve heard about far too often. These women may not hear a cell door clanging behind them every night, but they are imprisoned—and sometimes in a situation that is dangerous both to them and their kids.
More generally, the idea that one’s drug or alcohol use—in the absence of abuse, neglect or other behavior directly harmful to others—should be the criterion by which anyone can limit your freedom or access to your own children is a clear injustice.
Reliable data on divorces and custody settlements involving substance use are elusive; so many cases are settled out of court, or with details obscured and undisclosed. But anecdotal evidence to suggest that these situations are widespread goes well beyond the testimonies of directly impacted women.
Divorce lawyers, for example, frequently warn that one of the most common reasons mothers lose custody of their children is substance use.
“More than ever, I am counseling mothers on how to not lose custody of their children,” writes matrimony law attorney Jacqueline Harounian, Esq. “A parent who even casually partakes in alcohol and/or drugs will have a problem winning custody. Most judges will take allegations of substance abuse seriously, and these allegations will be investigated thoroughly via random testing, psychological evaluations, and interviews.”
“Let your attorney know, as there may be evidence that she had been drinking, even if she was statutorily not drunk.”
Clinicians are also all too familiar with these issues. I asked Dee-Dee Stout, a counselor with over two decades of experience working with clients, about the issue of substance use and treatment being used to control women.
“In my 25 years of practice,” she said, “I’ve seen this kind of scenario many times, [and] it’s not just limited to heterosexual relationships. I see it as a subtle way of controlling: First, there’s the power differential… The second piece is convincing the partner who is using the substance that this is all their problem, and If you would just stop this behavior, everything would be okay!”
“Third,” she continued, “the partner with more power says to the using partner, I’m not going to make any changes to my own behavior because this is your problem. This feels to me like another version of ‘tough love.’ When the partner in power does something hurtful, like shaming the partner who is using, he or she will often say, I’m doing this for your own good.”
The exertion of this kind of abusive control over someone who uses stigmatized substances can be all too easy. “[It] works so well to disempower us because we are already so full of shame and guilt,” Stout explained.
As Tessie Castillo recently reported for Filter, the consequences of discovery of drug use can be worse than the consequences of drug use itself: “Often, the first reaction from a loved one upon discovery of drug use is to resort to ‘tough love’ in the hopes that it will teach the user a lesson.”
Stout has seen this play out in family scenarios. “Often, pressure is put on a person who may not even be using problematically,” she said. “The partner is freaking out because he or she finds out that partner is using drugs, and, programmed by the drug war, says, Oh my God, this is going to damage our children!”
“So many families have bought into the stigma machine that says you can’t be a good parent if you ever use drugs—or drink, even in moderation, if they’ve labeled you an ‘alcoholic’.”
The consequences of this stigma are greatly exacerbated by divorce battles, and by lawyers who encourage parties to exploit their spouse’s real or alleged substance use issues. Online advertisements abound for firms offering to help parents gain sole custody due to their ex’s alcohol consumption.
The law firm Cordell & Cordell, PC, for example, has a service called “Dad’s Divorce.” It features a blog entry dedicated to helping men use a mother’s alcohol use against her in court. It offers this advice:
“Make sure your lawyer knows any incident of hers where the police were involved, even if she was not arrested, and where alcohol was involved, even if it was not an alcohol-related arrest.
For example, if she was pulled over for DUI but she pled guilty to reckless driving, discuss it with your lawyer. Or maybe she was in an accident after going out with her friends, but she was not charged with DUI. Let your attorney know, as there may be evidence that she had been drinking, even if she was statutorily not drunk.
People with alcohol problems almost always minimize their problem and surround themselves with people who support and excuse their drinking.
Attack the credibility of her witnesses. If her best friend is testifying to an incident, make sure you point out how long they have been friends. You might even testify to any “bad blood” between you and the friend because she or he may be testifying this way to get back at you.”
Dee-Dee Stout’s clients have been treated in many harmful ways by partners and families. “One [way] can be to force the drug user to inform the child of their drug use: I want you to explain to our son/daughter exactly what’s going on because I don’t want them to use and get the impression that it’s an okay thing to do.” Stout notes that this approach typically frightens the children involved, who may have no way to process such difficult information
“What’s missing,” she continued, “is the compassionate approach, such as: I really like spending time with you when you’re not so heavily using. Instead, it comes out as punishment and humiliation.”
“Restricting access to the kids is another way of punishing the parent who uses,” Stout added. “If you’re still using, you can’t see the kids.”
“While we can understand wanting to make sure a child is safe, insisting on total abstinence as a condition of contact with children not only deprives the child of love from his or her parent, it takes away a reason to live and find better coping strategies from the person who is using problematically.”
The fear that a person who drinks is in danger of losing her children if her partner decides to use that against her is based on reality. It is further strengthened by societal double standards about what constitutes “too much” alcohol for women versus men.
Moreover, women often have fewer financial resources with which to fight a custody case. So settling for less than they deserve in “amicable” divorce settlements, or remaining in homes and relationship that are detrimental or dangerous are frequent outcomes.
It has in various historical eras been convenient to lock up, shut up, or get rid of women who troubled those who had power over them. This has been done by labeling them hysterical, immoral, or insane. The witch-hunts that took place in Europe and North America over hundreds of years were a prime example. And as the paper “Women and Hysteria in the History of Mental Health” details, “hysteria” was the first psychological disorder named exclusively as a women’s disease; it was attributed to movements of the womb.
Addiction, it would seem, is often just a newer label through which similar purposes can be accomplished.
Fear of losing their children is not likely to end in healthier substance use patterns for women who already drink or use to medicate fear and depression. (The ineffectiveness of confrontational, degrading tactics that make people with substance use problems feel worse has been well chronicled by William White and William R. Miller, among others.)
Rather, it fuels a downward spiral, leaving the partner with less power, who may already be subject to physical or verbal abuse, gradually drained of her inner resources, self-esteem and support system—while the partner with more power racks up more evidence against her.
Meanwhile, the typical refusal of the partner in power to change his (or her) behavior in any way, including any drinking or using patterns of their own, is a often clear indicator that this is all about control—not about the welfare of children.
Our society’s stigmatization of substance use disempowers women in particular, by enabling both abusive relationships and devastating injustices.