The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Becoming a New Creature Amidst the Permanence of the “Addict Identity”: Examining An Intersection of Stigmas in the Lives of Women With Experiences of Substance Use, Incarceration and Impaired Mothering

Thursday, January 16, 2014: 3:30 PM
HBG Convention Center, Room 008A River Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Alana Gunn, MA, MPP, Doctoral Student, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background: This study examines the lives of formerly incarcerated women participating in residential substance abuse treatment. Specifically, this study seeks to understand the various stigmas women perceive as they transition back into their communities and re-envision their personhood. Previous research efforts indicate that individuals with experiences of substance use or incarceration anticipate stigma upon returning to their communities and seeking supports. However, very little research focuses on individuals perceiving several intersecting stigmas from different domains in their life. Moreover, of the research exploring the lives of individuals with these discredited experiences, very little explores the lives of women who fall at the intersection of many gendered and racialized constructions of norm behavior. This study addresses these substantive gaps in research on stigma and recovery by examining the myriad stigmas that shape women’s ability to navigate social relationships and reclaim a healthy moral identity.

Method: In depth semi- structured interviews were conducted over a 7 month period with 34 formerly incarcerated women and 5 staff members. The data was analyzed using a constructivist grounded theory approach which allowed the researcher to constantly compare emergent themes and “theories” related to stigma and coping throughout the data collection to the writing stage. Further to organize the data, the researcher used NVivo to conduct the open coding, focused and lastly theoretical coding processes. It’s these cumulative coding stages that build upon each other to develop conceptual frameworks that explain women’s perceptions of stigma and how they navigate recovery amidst threats to their personhood.

Results: Overall women perceived stigmas from familial members and intimate partners based on views of the permanence of their “addict identity”. Moreover, these stigmas were undergirded by social constructions of proper womanhood that scripted them as “spoiled” due to their experiences of not just substance use but survival sex, impaired mothering and incarceration.  Additionally, the sample’s Latina and European population reported perceptions of stigma embedded in racialized constructions of proper behavior. Specifically, these women’s experiences with substance abuse scripted them as violating cultural norms and adopting behaviors of criminality attributed to the reference group of the African American community.  Moreover findings revealed that women not only perceived stigma within their intimate relationships, but within the therapeutic community context from their peers who were also managing marginalization, self-shame and stigma.

Implications: This study increases knowledge available to social workers and social justice advocates working with women managing multiple “spoiled” identities. Specifically, it gives insights into how stigmas can play significant roles in how they seek support and transition back into their families and communities. Also, this study provides understanding that informs interventions geared towards not just the “tarnished” women, but their families who are also managing anger, loss and indirect stigma. This study gives a critical look at the complexities that threaten women’s abilities to heal from past traumas and forge new healthier identities.  This study has significant implications for both trauma and stigma informed initiatives which seek to respond to the needs of women with complex and competing struggles.