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Couple Beat Drug Habit, Now Are Helping Others

Times Staff Writer

She started drinking at 15, taking diet pills at 22, smoking marijuana at 23 and taking LSD at 25. He was 27 when he smoked grass for the first time, and he stayed with it.

They had a lot in common when they met. They were both 28 and they liked to do the same drugs.

By the time they got married, their relationship centered on drugs, and, although their union soon degenerated into a series of fights and separations, they remained blind to their addictions. When a friend suggested to Emanuel and Lucy Silvay Peluso that their marital problems might be linked to drug dependence, they were shocked.

“I thought, ‘I’m not an addict because I cut my Quaaludes in two,’ ” Lucy said during a recent interview in their San Diego home.

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So she made a color-coded chart of all the different drugs she had ever taken.

When she was finished, the chart looked like a multicolored quilt.

“I saw that I had been on a chemical every day for years on end,” she said.

Turned Away From Drugs

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About seven years ago, after 13 years of shared addictions, the Pelusos decided to quit taking drugs. Since then, they say, they have achieved and maintained sobriety, each has earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology, and together they have begun interning as marriage, family and child therapists.

And they’ve written a book about all this, called “Women & Drugs: Getting Hooked, Getting Clean.” It is, they say, one of the first books to touch on the unique problems that women have with chemical dependency.

“We felt that there was no model out there for women who want to recover. To look at and say, ‘Oh, wow. There’s someone who was as bad as I was and they’ve recovered,” Emanuel said. “Women & Drugs” provides a number of models spanning the spectrum of age, race and socioeconomic class.

Among them are Jill, an Ivy Leaguer turned alcoholic; Melani, an incest victim who used Valium and alcohol to blot out painful memories; Tricia, a nurse whose easy access to drugs helped her get hooked on painkillers and Nanci, a young woman whose family’s wealth bought her a cocaine habit.

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The women, now recovered, tell their stories in their own words, which the Pelusos have rearranged for chronology.

“We knew many women because we were ourselves recovering, and the women knew this,” Lucy said. “The women were so anxious to pass on a message to other women and to help other women, to give back some of what they had been given that they were completely open. “

“Women & Drugs,” the result of three years of research and writing, also outlines the patterns of women’s experiences with alcohol and drugs and how they differ from men’s.

“Even in the therapy community,” Lucy said, “most people are not aware of how many differences there are between men and women and between recovering addict men and women. Women take drugs to learn to cope. They take drugs to medicate themselves. Whereas men take drugs for kicks.”

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Physical Differences

Physical differences also separate women addicts from men, Lucy said.

Take the case of women alcoholics. Because of the higher fat content of women’s bodies and smaller proportion of water, alcohol is less diluted in their bodies than in men’s, Lucy said. In the short run, this causes them to get drunk faster. In the long run, it makes them more vulnerable to alcohol-related diseases such as liver disorders, obesity, high blood pressure, malnutrition and alcoholic hepatitis.

“A man can start drinking at the age of 20 and be a wreck by the age of 50,” Emanuel said. “For women, it’s by 25.”

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Addicted women also face problems in their relationships and in society not experienced by most male addicts, Lucy said. More than 60% of addicted women have been physically or sexually abused--as opposed to 30% of women in the general population and an even lower percentage for men, Lucy said.

Women addicts, who have a slightly higher birth rate than non-addicts, may also have to face the problems of raising children while they are under the influence of chemicals, Lucy said.

“They have tremendous practical issues,” Lucy said. “‘How do I provide for child care? How do I get clean and sober and take care of my kids.?’ They have a tremendous sense of shame and guilt about what they have done.”

Facing shame and guilt can be a lonely process for female drug addicts, she said, because women often enter treatment without any outside support systems.

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While women often stay with drug-abusing husbands and boyfriends, she explained, men frequently desert addicted wives and girlfriends. And many women, she said, lack the contact with others that allows men to build a support system outside the home.

“Women are traditionally very isolated, especially with our patterns of suburban living, you know, with the woman alone if she doesn’t happen to be working,” Lucy said. “And fewer chemically dependent women than women in the general population are in the work force. So a lot of them are at home, they’re very isolated. They have no idea of the kind of validation they can get from other members of their own sex.”

Also, women’s drug addiction carries a moral stigma that isn’t as strong for men, Lucy said.

“We talk about ‘exploits’ when we talk about a drunken man,” she said. “But it’s not exploits when you’re dealing with women.”

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Because women are cast as “the bearers of virtue” in our society, the Pelusos wrote in their book, society looks harshly on their uncontrolled behavior when they take drugs. And women who internalize society’s view of their behavior may, in turn, look harshly on themselves.

One patient, who had in desperation turned to prostitution to get drugs, told Emanuel, “I was a slut.”

“I’ve never heard a man say something like that,” he said. The stigma associated with female drug addiction adds to the already difficult task of acknowledging one’s dependence on drugs and seeking help, Lucy said.

“With chemical dependency, there’s so much denial that, unless there’s someone who can tell you things that you’ve been doing and you can recognize yourself, it’s often very hard to see yourself as having a drug problem,” Lucy said. “I thought, Oh, my marriage is a mess. It’s New York (where the couple once lived). Everything else is the problem,” Lucy recalled. “It’s very hard to see the drugs.”

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Once a woman does recognize herself as drug-dependent, there are a number of recovery programs available: 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous; inpatient therapy programs in hospitals or drug treatment centers; and outpatient individual, family or group therapy.

But even professionals trained to help addicts may be unaware of women’s unique situations, Lucy said. As a result, therapy may fail to raise the issues behind women’s addictions.

“If you have a group therapy setting where the men are sort of jockeying in the traditional competitive way and the women are being cute and flirting with the men, (do) you think the women are going to bring out the fact that they were abused by a stepfather or that they were beaten by their husband or that they sold their bodies to get cocaine?” Lucy said.

Therefore, the couple recommends greater separation between the sexes in therapy.

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“We have to have a joining of the sexes, too, but women have their own issues that can only be dealt with with other women, just as men have their own issues,” Emanuel said.


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