The years that Erika Bramscher spent abusing alcohol felt bleak and lonely. By 2015, when she had been a daily drinker for nearly three years, her life was coming apart at the seams.
“From the outside, it looked like I was doing OK,” Bramscher recalled. But on the inside, things were much different: “I was separated from my partner because of my drinking. I’d moved out of our home and into a one-bedroom apartment. I spent a dark six months there while I ran it all into the ground.”
The worst part of her situation, Bramscher said, was the isolation. Because she didn’t want to admit the depth of her addiction, she never told anyone that she needed a drink first thing in the morning, or that she often ended her workday by binge drinking with her co-workers. She told herself that her drinking was her problem and she didn’t need to involve anyone else.
“Because of that response I was so utterly alone,” Bramscher said. “I felt like there was nobody who could truly understand my situation.”
Now sober, Bramscher looks back on that dark time and realizes that her self-isolation was actually fairly typical for a woman struggling with addiction.
“For females with addiction, shame is paramount,” she explained. “Like many women, I had such a deep need to figure out how to fix this problem by myself and not further disturb the family unit.” But going it alone wasn’t working, she realized: “I was only making things worse.”
When Bramscher finally decided to seek help, she eventually found her way to The Retreat, a nonclinical recovery program in Wayzata that relies on a team of professionals and volunteers to guide guests through a supportive-education recovery program based on the 12-Step “Minnesota Model.”
At The Retreat, Bramscher enrolled in the residential women’s program.
At first, she wondered if a program aimed at the needs of women was a good match for her. After spending so many years going it alone, she wasn’t sure that being around other women would encourage her recovery.
But after a few false starts, Bramscher began to appreciate the healing power of a woman-focused recovery program.
A network of recovery
The years leading up to her time at the Retreat, Bramscher said, “had been a really lonely time before I finally asked for help. For me, the biggest part of a program is building on this network of recovery. Because I was in the women’s program, my network consisted of sober women friends that had the same history of recovery as I do.”
After years of loneliness, Bramscher realized that being in a women’s recovery program “helped me finally build strong, lasting relationships with other women, and that’s what gave me the strength I needed to finally achieve lasting sobriety.”
Woman to woman
Andrea Bruner, women’s program coordinator at The Retreat, is, by her own description, “first and foremost a woman in recovery.” Just like Bramscher, she remembers the years she spent abusing alcohol as a lonely time. Her friendships with other women were being stressed by her disease.
Bruner, who was practicing law and was trained as a spiritual director, joined the staff of The Retreat in 2007, to open the women’s program. She now understands that her natural impulse toward isolation was actually part of her disease.
“Women who have the disease of alcoholism haven’t always formed a lot of trusting, close, deep relationships with other women,” she said. “Oftentimes our comfort level might be greater with going it alone. It’s not unusual for us to have women come in to our program who say they are more comfortable with men than they are with women.”
The program works to help participants develop close relationships with other women in recovery, through single-gender support groups and mentoring relationships with female volunteers. “One of the things we’ve done here is really help women understand that power of connecting with other women for the purpose of recovery,” Bruner said. “We believe it is a central part of finding sobriety.”
Bramscher began to understand the power of that emphasis early on in her 30-day stay at The Retreat.
“When I was a guest there, one of the first things we did is we share our stories,” she said. “This was in an all-female group. It was the first time in my life that I had sat down with 10 other women.”
Willing to be vulnerable
In this accepting all-female space, Bramscher said, “I laid myself out there in a way that I would never had done if I had been in a coed environment. Being part of a tight-knit, all-female group helped me to feel safe to voice the things that I didn’t always want to talk about. I said things in that group that I wasn’t able to admit to myself.”
Being in an all-female environment helped Bramscher feel free to speak her truth. “I know that I wouldn’t have been able to be that vulnerable in a program with men,” she said.
These days, Bramscher attends a range of AA meetings, including coed groups, but she’s still much more open in her all-women’s groups. “The women’s meetings are the ones where I can truly feel comfortable with the vulnerability piece,” she said. “I’m able to dig in a bit more with other women than I’m able to with men.”
A central focus of programming at The Retreat is working with volunteer mentors, people in recovery who share their story of addiction so that guests can see what a sober life can be like. Bruner is a serious advocate for this approach, because it worked well for her.
Years ago, when she was mired in her own addiction, part of the reason Bruner, a high-functioning alcoholic with a successful legal career and a family, was unwilling to seek help was because she didn’t see herself as a stereotypical alcoholic.
Then, one Sunday, a member of Bruner’s church talked about her struggle with alcoholism during an event called “Chemical Dependency Sunday.”
“This woman broke all of the stereotypes I had about what a female alcoholic looks and acts like,” Bruner recalled. “She was a woman with real dignity, real poise. She broke all of my rules, and that made such a difference to me.”
This realization could only come from another woman speaking up and admitting her addiction, Bruner said. That’s a unique strength that The Retreat’s women’s program offers to participants.
“Seeing that woman, hearing her tell her story, was a critical moment. When I saw her, I thought, ‘If she was an alcoholic, maybe I could be one, too.’”
Addiction now impacts men and women equally, but a survey of the number of available recovery beds for women nationwide implies that the disease is still mostly a men’s issue.
“Of the 25 million addicted Americans, nearly half of those are women and yet just 25 percent of the beds in America are allocated for women,” said John Curtiss, president and CEO of The Retreat. “Women are being underserved.”
Curtiss believes that some of that care shortage can be chalked up to internal and external bias; women are still less likely to seek help for addiction, and outsiders are also less likely to acknowledge addictive behaviors in women.
“It is still more socially acceptable in our society for a man to be an alcoholic than a woman,” Curtiss said. “Women, mostly, are taking care of their children. They are the mother, and they don’t want to admit a problem because of that. They tend to be more secretive about their using.”
And when women do seek help, Curtiss said, they are more likely to be diagnosed with mental-health-related issues than addiction: “They’ll hear, ‘That is just stress and anxiety. Take an anti-anxiety medication and see if that helps.’”
‘The wine movement’
And the addiction problem for women appears to be becoming more serious. Curtiss blames some of that change on something he calls “the wine movement,” or the popular acceptance and even encouragement of women’s consumption of large amounts of wine, at book clubs and at girls’ nights out. It’s becoming a serious problem.
“For the first time in American history, white, college-educated women ages 26-50 have a shorter lifespan,” Curtiss said. He and other experts chalk much of that life-expectancy shift up to the impact of addiction and mental illness, and to our attitude about how substance use impacts women.
Though women face serious hurdles in moving to sobriety, Curtiss said that once they admit their addiction, most tend to excel in long-term recovery.
“Women have a more difficult time getting to the first step of accepting their powerlessness,” Curtiss said. “That’s primarily because of all these social reasons. But once they find recovery, women tend to hold to it longer than men.”
A new home for women
The Retreat has had a program dedicated to women since 2007. The program’s Wayzata campus is at the Cenacle, a former Catholic retreat center, and for many years, the beds for women were located in a dormitory once designed for the nuns who ran it.
Though female participants appreciated the quiet, separate space the dormitory offered, they sometimes complained that it felt austere and small, and the number of beds were limited, to just 21.
In May, The Retreat addressed those problems in a big way when it opened the new National Center for Women’s Recovery. The building, which provides 32 single and double rooms for women on four floors, was designed in close collaboration with female employees and program participants.
“Before this building, we had very few spaces in the original women’s center for guests to simply connect in an informal way,” Bruner said. “Although the space was really dear to us because so many powerful things were happening, the downside was that we weren’t able to provide the spaces we felt women needed for informal connection and healthy intimacy. These elements are central to the model of The Retreat.”
Because the women’s program has such an emphasis on building connection, it seemed essential that the new building have plenty of spaces where participants can gather.
“The women at The Retreat were telling us, ‘We need more space to socialize. We want our own fitness center, our own yoga and meditation room,’” Curtiss said.
The building also has its own unique look and feel.
“The original men’s center has lots of dark woods,” Curtiss explained. “I like that feel, so when we started the design for the Women’s Center, we had dark wood in there, too. But when they heard that, the women pulled me aside and said, ‘We want light woods. We want it to feel airy and open.’ Because of that, the whole space is very different. It is a very warm, nurturing environment. It’s brighter, with more inviting open spaces.”
Bramscher said that she feels the new building goes a long way toward acknowledging and addressing the serious issue of women’s addiction. She’s doing her part in that effort, too. She works part time at The Retreat as a retreat assistant, and she’s back in school, enrolled at Minneapolis College in the licensed alcohol and drug counselor program.
“So many women, myself included, try to tackle addiction alone,” Bramscher said. “I think with this new center, The Retreat is addressing that problem and saying, ‘You don’t have to do this alone. This is what we do and how we do it. If you want a life like this you can have it.’ Thanks to The Retreat, that’s the kind of life I’ve been able to create for myself.”