Addiction & Young Women
Q&A with Molly Barbieri, LMSW, ICADCI
Your life has value.
It’s a conviction that eludes young women in active addiction, trapped in destructive relationships and seeking only the next high. But learning to believe in their own self-worth can hold the key to freedom.
Molly Barbieri works to equip young people with such understanding as a clinical therapist in Oxford Treatment Center’s Young Adult Program. She joined Oxford Treatment Center from the Mississippi Delta, where she was part of an alcohol and drug treatment team serving pregnant young women and new mothers.
What has your experience been like working with young adults in addiction treatment?
“It is quite different from working with older adults. To those of us who work with young adults, people will come up and say, ‘I don’t know how you do it.’ But these young adults need help, too. They come here for help, and we work hard to give them the best possible treatment and set them up in the best possible way to be successful when they leave here.”
What gives you motivation each day?
“I believe that if I make a difference in one person’s life, then I’ve made a difference. Being in recovery myself, I know there’s hope. My goal is to take that knowledge, along with the education and training that I have, and pass that along. I don’t hide the fact that it’s not easy. This job is not easy. But the mere fact that maybe there’s one person out there I can help — it’s worth it to me.”
Among the young women you work with, what are some common experiences they share?
“Often they have been doing undesirable things to maintain their addiction. These are things that you don’t write home to mom and dad about — like prostituting for drugs.
“Occasionally, we get a young woman who has had a child before they come in. The guilt and shame they feel for not being a mom adds to what they already feel, for the things they’ve done and the way they’ve treated themselves. So there are layers and layers of guilt and shame, when it comes to treating the addiction and the way it’s manifested dysfunction in their lives.”
What are your particular approaches for reaching them?
“My role as a female therapist includes really tapping into compassion and empathy. One of my approaches with young women in treatment is to really help them develop self-worth and respect for themselves, and for their bodies.
“A lot of what I work on, in tandem with addressing their addiction, is self-worth and self-validation. Those are the things that help you find yourself outside a romantic relationship. So many young women we see come from unhealthy relationships, including abusive relationships and prostitution. Those kinds of relationships create such an unhealthy belief system about themselves, it takes time to come out of it. It’s not going to be done in 45 days — but in that time, the spark can be lit for continued recovery.
“Particularly if a young woman has abuse or trauma in her past that is contributing to the addiction, continued therapy after treatment is essential. What happens here is the beginning: Learning to believe you’re worth something.”
How central are relationship issues in dealing with young women and addiction?
“It’s something we talk about a lot with them. Particularly for females, many have been dependent on a relationship for so long. That’s why we always suggest that they not get involved in a relationship for at least a year after they get sober. Use that time to focus on your recovery and find out who you are. Learn how to validate yourself and be OK with who you are as a human being — not just in recovery, but in all aspects of life.
“For so long, you’ve been so focused on a relationship. Your own identity gets lost in the process. In recovery, it’s so important to focus on working the 12 steps — working with your sponsor, going to meetings, connecting with your higher power. But when you’re in a relationship in early recovery, it’s easy to lose that focus.
“Instead of pursuing a romantic relationship, we encourage them develop some meaningful friendships. I remember how important it was for me to develop friendships with other women in early recovery. Still today, almost 15 years later, they are my support system. I try to share that with the girls I work with, and I get a lot of resistance. I hear: ‘I don’t want girlfriends. They’ll stab you in the back.’”
How do you help them to find the right friends and develop healthy friendships?
“We try to teach them as women to work together — to lift each other up and empower each other.
“Unfortunately, many of them are more apt to lean on male attention, because that’s what they’re used to and what they find easier. In gender-specific therapy groups with the female staff and population, we help them learn that women can empower other women and support each other. Those relationships don’t have to look like the ones you found on the street. You can have positive interaction with other women and not have to depend on male attention for validation.”
How is separating young men and women in therapy groups beneficial?
“We are moving toward more gender-specific treatment groups simply because it’s proving helpful in teaching them those skills, of validating themselves and each other.
“In one recent group, we were talking with the young women about the toxic relationships they had before they came here. One particular young lady really grasped the concept. She shared with the group about how she has figured out since coming to Oxford Treatment Center that she really doesn’t know how to have a healthy relationship. She’s figured out that she really needs to work on loving herself and validating herself and becoming a responsible female in society — rather than allowing men to continue to use her for things.
“It was really a breakthrough moment for this young lady. But what we noticed was, some of the others in the group sat up and began to pay attention to her as their peer. We’ve learned that relating peer-to-peer is really effective at conveying that message. It was a powerful moment to witness.”
About Molly Barbieri, LMSW, ICADCI
A licensed social worker at both the bachelor and master’s level, Molly holds a bachelor’s degree in social work from Delta State and a master’s degree in social work from Mississippi Valley State University. She is a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor through the Mississippi Association of Addiction Professionals. Her experience includes working in residential alcohol and drug treatment programs for both adults and adolescents, as well as in mental health case management.