Workshop Review: Gender Matters; Addiction and Trauma in Women’s Lives 28th September 2006

Presenter Stephanie S. Covington, Ph. D., LCSW

This day- long workshop for professionals was presented by the Rutland Centre as part of its Addiction Awareness Week 2006.  Dr Stephanie Covington who presented the workshop is a world renowned clinician, lecturer and organisation consultant.  She is recognized for her ground- breaking work on women’s issues and specializes in programs on addiction, sexuality, trauma, families, and relationships.  Her practical and empathetic approach to these demanding issues provides an opportunity to learn new skills in dealing with the challenges that face us in the 21st century.

The name for the workshop “Gender Matters” set the theme for the day.  Gender really does matter in the recovery of women in trauma, women in the criminal justice system, and women caught in addiction.  Describing her work in the criminal justice system and the differences between male and female offenders, she sensitively outlined the fundamental differences and referred to the body of research in this area. She provided many interesting statistics, and the audience was left in no doubt about gender differences and its implications for treatment programmes.

This was a very well organised workshop.  The use of  Power Point presentation, with presentation notes handed out beforehand, made it very learner friendly, easy to follow and make notes.  Each part of the workshop was illustrated by rich examples and sensitive stories from the work of the Dr. Covington. This ensured that the audience didn’t lose interest, and I found the material very absorbing. There was also an experiential aspect to the workshop and the exercises, role plays and guided imagery ensured a reflective personal experience for the participants.

Right from the start it was evident that Dr Covington has a wealth of experience in treating addicted and traumatised women.  The workshop explored how women grow and develop, and the unique needs of women in recovery.  It addressed issues that many women struggle with, especially if they are addicted to alcohol or other drugs.  Dr. Covington explained that while each woman’s journey into healing is unique, there are many common threads, including finding our real selves, forming healthy relationships with others, understanding our sexuality, and gaining some spiritual connection.

The speaker looked at women’s issues from an international perspective.  Shame and stigma, physical and sexual abuse, relationship issues are the same, no matter which country you live in.   The wider systemic issues, like lack of funding, poorly coordinated services, are the same everywhere. Treatment issues, lack of services for women, waiting lists etc, are common across countries.

Dr Covington initially began by highlighting guiding principles for setting up gender responsive services. Acknowledging that gender makes a difference is a first important step. She defined gender responsiveness as creating an environment through site selection, staff selection, programme development, content and material that reflects the realities of the lives of women and girls, and that addresses and responds to their strengths and challenges .Drawing on the work of Sandra Blume who said that women treatment centres need to feel like a sanctuary, the speaker expanded on the necessity of this.  She quoted the work of Peter Levine who stresses the importance of the mind – body connection. I thought the metaphor she quoted to describe trauma in the body was quite powerful:- like an automatic car with the brake on, and the foot on the accelerator at the same time, the car shudders. The body in trauma is similar, shut down and revved up at the same time. The speaker expanded quite a bit on the mind – body connection.  Trauma can result in a disconnection between memory and feeling.  One of the important parts of healing is getting the feelings and the memories connected and expressed.

Her transformational model “the upward spiral” is a good depiction of what happens in addiction and recovery, and can be paralleled in the trauma recovery cycle. If you can imagine the process of addiction and recovery as two spirals, one is going downwards and the other upwards, the downward spiral of addiction centres on the drug of choice. Addiction sucks the addict into ever tightening circles, getting narrower and narrower, constricting her life until she is powerless over the drug.  This downward spiral represents what happens when a woman is addicted.   Then with the right interventions, or a life changing event, there may be a turning point, a shift, and she steps onto a new path – recovery, and this is represented by an upward spiral. Her life is growing and expanding with new interests and relationships. The upward spiral of recovery revolves around the drug in ever-widening circles, as the addiction loosens its grip and the woman’s world expands away from the drug. Her world grows to include healthy relationships, an expanded self-concept, and a richer sexual and spiritual life.

Notice that the process is not merely one of turning around and ascending the same spiral but one of profound change, so that the woman climbs upwards on a different spiral. When women speak of recovery, they speak of a change at the core of their being: “I’m not the same person. I’m different than I was.”

In the afternoon the workshop explored relationships, sexuality and spirituality in the context of addiction, trauma and recovery.  There was so much to learn in these three areas, and even though the time was limited, a lot was integrated because of the experiential nature of the work. Six volunteers were asked to do a family sculpting exercise. This prompted us to think of family and roles. It illustrated in a very powerful way what happens in a dysfunctional home.  It showed the different roles children adopt. It demonstrated family dynamics, and it brought home to me how families shape our physical and emotional boundaries.  I now understood at a deeper level why women stay in abusive relationships. I found this to be very thought – provoking.

The next exercise was a guided role reversal fantasy exploring messages we receive from society about our gender and our sexuality. It challenged the stereotypic ideas that society  has about women, particularly the lack of power that many women experience in a male dominated society. In this patriarchal society men make most of the decisions in relation to women.   The exercise prompted a lively discussion on the dynamics inherent in a gendered society.

The spiritual dimension to addiction was explored. Addiction is a thirst for something, and this seems like a thirst for a deeper spiritual connection.  I was struck by the group exercise she described to embody this thirst.

We ended the workshop by doing an exercise to create a vision for ourselves for the future, and we got the opportunity to share this vision and put it out to the universe. This encouraged me to be reflective about my life and the changes I want to bring about.

Dr Covington certainly delivered a very informative, inspiring workshop.  Those of us who looked forward to the workshop were not disappointed.  The information about gender, addiction, and trauma gave me a new viewpoint on working with women.

I feel that it is essential to look at each woman’s addiction from a multidimensional perspective and recognize the interconnectedness of her life issues. It is equally important that the systemic barriers to gender-responsive services for women be seen from a multidimensional and interconnected perspective.

The manner in which the workshop was facilitated reflected the values that were imparted. The boundaries of time were to the minute, the professionalism of the delivery and the obvious evidence of preparation, ensured I felt valued, and it felt like a very safe place to be.

Thank you to Dr. Stephanie Covington, and also to Stephan Rowan and the Rutland Centre for making this possible. Long may the”Addiction Awareness Week” and its ripple effect on society continue.

Among the many articles and books written by Dr. Covington are:

  • A Woman’s Way through the Twelve Steps
  • Awakening Your Sexuality: A Guide for Recovering Women
  • Leaving the Enchanted Forest: The Path from Relationship Addiction to Intimacy  

She has authored three curricula:

Helping Women Recover: A Program for Treating Addiction
               (with a special edition for the criminal justice system )

Beyond Trauma: A Healing Journey for Women

Voices: A Program of Self-Discovery and Empowerment for Girls

Mary Flannagan  is a member of IAHIP working in private practice. She also works in a college of further education where she has a particular interest in working with self development groups for women.