If anyone is qualified to give a firsthand account of the ways addiction, treatment and recovery are deeply gendered experiences, it’s certainly Jenny Valentish, who has more than enough knowledge of addiction to fill any number of memoirs. Fortunately, Valentish also has the mind of a journalist, and in her new book, Woman of Substances, she combines investigative rigour with illustrative snippets from her own life. The book accomplishes its balancing act well, being both gripping memoir and an illuminating investigation into the specific experiences of women with addiction. Valentish uses her own story of early trauma, teenage rebellion, alcoholism and addiction as a case study for understanding the latest research into how addiction functions. In straightforward, lively prose she relates even her darkest moments without self-pity or aggrandisement, and often with a streak of gallows humour, leading to more laugh-out-loud lines than you might expect.
Valentish addresses the myriad ways in which being a woman makes recovery from addiction that much more difficult. She cites a study that found 74 per cent of women with addictions had suffered sexual abuse, yet because it has long been believed that treatment for trauma and for addiction cannot be undertaken simultaneously, the trauma that may underpin the addiction is often ignored. Another study reveals that drug and alcohol counsellors took histories of trauma for less than half of all patients – a case of treating the effect, but not the cause.
Many women with addictions may also face family violence, coercion from partners, financial insecurity and the forced removal of children – experiences that compound trauma and create a cycle of pain and self-medication that can be nearly impossible to escape. Even where treatments might be possible, the deep gender bias against women in medical research, which routinely excludes women from medical trials, means the effects of both illicit substances and medicines on women are not always understood.
The unusual structure doesn’t always work smoothly, and there is some chronological confusion in the memoir sections, making it sometimes hard to follow the trajectory of Valentish’s life story. But considering both the raw intimacy and the depth of research present in the book, Valentish has produced a remarkably engaging and forthright look at this neglected subject. DV
Black Inc, 304pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 17, 2017 as "Jenny Valentish, Woman of Substances ".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription