In this interview, one of our newest members of the SMART Recovery Australia Board discusses gender-sensitive care, her own story, and the #MeNoMore campaign shining a light on predatory behaviour in the music industry.

Welcome to the SMART Recovery Australia board! We’re very happy to have you. What are you looking forward to most about your appointment?

I was delighted to be approached, because I’d independently been banging on about SMART Recovery in my book and at talks, having been to meetings myself as someone taking control of their alcohol use. The ability to help shape the organisation is a real privilege, and I’ll be focusing on expanding our reach through media and other initiatives.

You may be aware that the SMART Recovery Australia online meeting attracts a higher proportion of women than the bulk of in-person meetings (excluding woman-only meetings). How could addiction treatment be better tailored to the experience of women?

There are more barriers to treatment for women than there are for men, such as childcare challenges; greater stigmatisation leading to a desire to be anonymous; and feeling unsafe in mixed-gender groups – so it makes sense that SMART Recovery’s online meetings are attractive to women. In general in the treatment sector, gender-sensitive care is vital, but often lacking. Gender-sensitive care means taking into consideration a woman’s possible history of sexual abuse, assault and domestic violence, as well as the extra complications around family that she faces. At SMART Recovery meetings people don’t share their ‘war stories’, but at rehabs and detoxes they are generally encouraged to, and I’ve heard disturbing accounts of women being told by their counsellors that they must share the details of being sexually assaulted with the whole group – or get out. This is completely inappropriate, and so it’s small wonder that online meetings are more appealing.

In The Guardian, you described your story as “archetypal”. How do you believe that your experience is representative?

Well, I experienced childhood trauma – which certainly isn’t a prerequisite for later drug and alcohol use, but you do find that people who have experienced it are exponentially more likely to become dependent on substances. I also used alcohol and drugs as a toolkit for social anxiety. This tool kit can work okay if employed with care, but not if you’re allowing your underlying issues to rampage on unchecked, as I was. For me drugs and alcohol were very much the path of least resistance – they were my answer to all problems, and I was quite resistant to change.

Your book, Woman of Substances, asserts that the experience of addiction is different for women than it is for men. What do you believe makes this the case?

Women often have different pathways into drug and alcohol use. They tend to experiment at a younger age (since they mature at a younger age) but also tend to get into more serious use via older men, which can result in a very unhealthy, sometimes dangerous power dynamic. Often they’ll use substances to try and stay on top of work and childcare – or to ease the stress of it. If their use is very heavy or chaotic they are at greater risk of being sexually assaulted, which can further isolate them or lead to heavier substance use as a coping mechanism. When it comes to treatment, they may struggle to find a service that takes into account all the above complexities.

The #MeNoMore campaign is currently endeavouring to shine a light on abusive and predatory practices within the Australian music industry, which has a stereotype of being rife with drug and alcohol abuse. As a music journalist with lived experience of addiction, do you believe there’s a correlation between the two?

Since the music scene has long been male-dominated, it’s intimidating for either sex to call out abusive behaviour, for fear of being marked as difficult/breaking the ‘bro’ code. Throw in drugs and alcohol, and you have a scene that is… what’s the word dodgy musicians from the 1970s use to describe their behaviour then? Oh yeah – ‘permissive’. Really, that just means that there’s an unspoken implication that you have to be a good sport. Thankfully this attitude is being heartily discussed and challenged at music conferences, in board meetings, in Facebook groups, in taskforces, and in the media. Times are changing.

Finally, you have personal experience with SMART Recovery groups. What do you like about SMART Recovery, and what could we be doing to improve the experience for participants?

I’m lucky – there’s a SMART Recovery group in my country town. However, there are people from three neighbouring towns that attend that group, some of them driving for 40 minutes. It shows the need for services such as SMART, so it’s my hope that those groups will multiply.