Gendered Lives of Drug Use in the Suburbs

by Miriam Boeri

Two women I met in the suburbs who used methamphetamine were a mother and daughter. The mother lived in a shack that belonged to her boyfriend. According to her story, the police evicted him from the house and told him never to come back because he beat her too often. Her daughter had just come out of jail, accused of selling meth. She denied it but with only an overworked public defender she would probably plead guilty. While in jail she also learned she had hepatitis C. She wanted to go to a support group but had no car to get there, and there was no public transportation in her suburban area.

I had just spent two years conducting research on methamphetamine users in the suburbs of a large southeastern city. I knew that suburban users would be a hard-to-find and hidden population. Even before Breaking Bad, methamphetamine was a very stigmatized drug. Everyone had seen the posters on the side of the highways showing the notorious before and after “faces of meth.”

The most critical finding from my first study was that women who used methamphetamine in suburban communities are hidden, ignored or forgotten due to the stigmatized behavior. They also are more vulnerable and have fewer resources than men. Their stories and their plight prompted me to begin a study exclusively on suburban women who use methamphetamine.

My final sample of 65 suburban women included both active and former users of methamphetamine so I could describe their trajectory from use to non-use. Some of the women were middle class and used methamphetamine to keep up with their reputation of being a super mom; others were working class women who used methamphetamine to stay awake and work two jobs. About a third of the sample were what I called “suburban youth”—young women from 18-25 who were typically unemployed and supported intermittently by their parents. Almost half of the women were living in poverty.

Although methamphetamine appears to be an equal opportunity drug in states where methamphetamine has been a prevalent drug of use for a long time (such as California), in many regions of the United States methamphetamine is known as a “white drug” meaning it is used primarily among white social networks. Based on the southeastern region where I collected this study data, I found female methamphetamine users to be overwhelmingly white. The study sample included two African American, one American Indian, four Latina, and 58 white women. The life stories revealed that a white person from a white drug-using network introduced them to meth. The social dynamics of race, especially regarding racism, was addressed by one of the African American women I interviewed. While she said there absolutely was racism among the all-white network of methamphetamine users she associated with, this changed when they used meth.

“It doesn’t matter that you’re black, if you’re doing the same thing that they’re doing…All that matters is that you’re one of them. You know you’re not black or white anymore; you’re a drug user. So your race is drugs.”

Reading their life histories it was evident that many factors impacted why they used drugs over time. For example, Mia came from a wealthy family but suffered when her father divorced her mother. Her drug use started at age 15. After leaving home, she found a good job and her drug use involved primarily alcohol. When she was introduced to crack, she started using daily and quickly lost her job, her home and her reputation. She spent years in and out of jail and homeless shelters, keeping her emotions subdued with a variety of drugs. When I first met her she was 50 years old, homeless and using methamphetamine. During the two years I knew her she used crack, heroin and methamphetamine. By her third interview she was again drug free and in a women’s shelter. With steady employment and social support networks, she remained drug free after leaving the shelter.

Mia’s trajectory provides an example of what I call “drug career phases.” As shown on the typology in figure 1, nine types of active use can categorize drug user phases. Mia was able to keep control of her drug use as long as she had conventional roles, such as a job. As she lost these roles her drug use increased, but she maintained enough control to keep her unconventional role as a sex worker. Eventually, she regained control and conventional roles.

Drug Career Typology

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At times, loss of control results in loss of roles, but at other times, loss of roles results in loss of control. Knowing what to focus on is key to establishing a phase as a former user. Unfortunately, most of the women did not have help focusing on specific areas of need, and social services were typically inadequate or scornful of addressing the needs of stigmatized women who use drugs.

The stories I collected are combined in a book I wrote called Women on Ice, Methamphetamine Use Among Suburban Women. This is the first book to study exclusively the lives of women who use methamphetamine. The chapters cover their lived reality in society as mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, and workers. For some this includes, sex work, drug dealing and time as a prisoner. Each chapter starts with a case study illustrating the life of a suburban woman. The themes in her life are intertwined with vignettes of other women and explained by social theories. I use the typology of drug career phases to show how the women move back and forth from conventional roles as mothers and employees to unconventional roles. The content of the book is composed of the women’s voices collected through ethnographic research and in-depth interviews.

I moved away from this area after conducting the research, but many of the women I met remain vividly in my mind. Sometimes when I have a good meal I wonder if they are eating. When I go to a doctor or dentist I wonder if they have had any luck accessing needed social and health care services. When I cannot sleep I remember how methamphetamine keep these women awake for days.

Miriam Boeri, Bentley University, on her book, Women on Ice: Methamphetamine Use among Suburban Women, reviewed in the February 2014 issue of Gender & Society. To read the review, click here

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