Prescription Drug Abuse: Superwoman Syndrome Fuels Concern

Part I

By Barbara Ficarra, RN, BSN, MPA

There’s no doubt that prescription drug abuse is a major problem in America, and it’s escalating in epic proportions.  Prescription drug abuse affects men, women and teens.  Concerning trends include older adults, adolescents and women.

On MSNBC’s website, Karen Asp writes, Superwoman syndrome fuels pill-pop culture, and it’s about how “Overwhelmed overachievers turn to prescription drugs for an edge.”

This article is a little misleading since there are many women who are hardworking “superwomen” who do not indulge in illicit drug use.

There are many of us women who try to do it all.  Women, in general are master multi-taskers.

Think about what women go through in a day, especially if they’re a mom.  Just trying to juggle work, family and friends and it can be overwhelming.  As women we try to be the best friend, the best wife, the best partner, the best mother; we try to succeed at work and we’re always giving.

How do you balance it all?

The first step is to figure out your work-life balance.  It’s important to realize many of us have stressors and it’s up to us to figure out how to channel our energies to help us stay balanced without abusing drugs.   Take time for yourself each day, take a “selfish” moment and learn to prioritize.

(There are many healthful ways to stay balanced, find out how to be “selfishly healthy” and tips on prioritizing plus more in a future blog, Part II).

It’s important to realize that if you’re a woman who is trying to do it all, it doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be popping pills.  While there are women who do, it’s possible to have a balanced life without even thinking about abusing drugs.

Popping Pills

Turning to prescription drugs isn’t a fix for life stressors; it’ll only wreak havoc on your life and health.

Does  Asp’s article mean that any woman trying to achieve it all, trying to be the best, trying to be “superwoman” will end up popping prescription pills?  Of course not.

The important message

It’s really important to understand the prescription drug abuse is a brain disease.

Most drug abusers have an underlying genetic predisposition, says Carl R. Sullivan, MD, FACP, professor and vice-chair of the Department of Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry at West Virginia School of Medicine, Medical Director of Substance Abuse Programs for West Virginia and director of the largest office-base opioid treatment clinic in West Virginia.  “The strongest predictor of who will develop addiction is whether the addiction is in the immediate family, especially parents and siblings,” he says.

Asp writes:

“To blame may be what some are calling the superwoman syndrome. Overworked, overwhelmed and overscheduled women juggling families, friends and careers are turning to stimulants, painkillers and anti-anxiety meds to help launch them through endless to-do lists.”

The question

Does it mean the woman that gets a prescription from her doctor or nurse practitioner to help relieve the symptoms of anxiety will become addicted to her meds?

“It’s a complicated question.  There are predisposing factors; family history, and personal addiction to other drugs or alcohol.   And while many women will not become addicted to these drugs, it’s possible.  How can you tell?  First, ask whether the woman takes the drugs as prescribed and is she truthful about her usage.  Second, if a woman is getting drugs from more than one doctor, from friends or family, then that is not normal.  Also, if she finds herself making excuses or minimizing/lying about her usage, then that is a red flag,” says Dr. Sullivan.

Prescription drug abuse doesn’t discriminate

Who is the face behind drug addiction?

The fact is, your best friend could be addicted to prescription drugs and you may not even know it.   Your boss, your brother, your sister, aunt, uncle, your neighbor can be drug addicts and they can be employed in any job.

The Facts

[Source:  Results from the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH):  National Findings National Survey on Drug Use and Health:  U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Office of Applied Studies]

Illicit Drug Use (Illicit drugs include:  marijuana, cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens, and inhalants; and the nonmedical use of prescription-type pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and sedatives).

  • In 2008, an estimated 20.1 million Americans aged 12 or older were current illicit drug users.
  • In 2008, the rate of current illicit drug use among persons aged 12 or older was higher for males than for females (9.9 vs. 6.3 percent, respectively).
  • Males and females had similar rates of nonmedical use of psychotherapeutic drugs –(prescription pain pills, sleeping pills and anti-anxiety pills (2.6 and 2.4 percent, respectively).

Substance Dependence or Abuse

  • For males in 2008, the rate was 11.5 percent, which was down from the 12.5 percent in 2007, while for females, it was 6.4 percent, which was higher than the 5.7 percent in 2007.
  • In 2008, an estimated 22.2 million persons aged 12 or older were classified with substance dependence or abuse in the past year.
  • Approximately 52 million Americans aged 12 or older reported non-medical use of any psychotherapeutic at some point in their lifetimes, representing 20.8% of the population aged 12 or older.

The most commonly abused drugs  (Generics are in parentheses)

Opioid Painkillers –

  • OxyContin (oxycodone hydrochloride)
  • Vicodin , Lorcet, Lortab, Norco, (acetaminophen and hydrocodone)
  • (Codeine)-generic only
  • MS Contin, Roxanol (morphine)
  • Duragesic (fentanyl)
  • Dilaudid (hydromorphone)

Stimulants –

  • Ritalin, Concerta, Metadate, Methylin (methylphenidate)
  • Adderall (amphetamine and dextroamphetamine)

CNS depressants –

  • Valium (diazepam)
  • Librium (chlordiazepoxide)
  • Xanax (alprazolam)
  • Klonopin (clonazepam)
  • Restoril (temazepam)
  • Serax (oxazepam)
  • Ativan (lorazepam)
  • Soma (carisoprodol)
  • Barbiturates including Fiorinal, and non-benzo sleeping pills in excess such as Ambien (zolpidem), Sonata (zaleplon), Lunesta (eszopiclone)


The good news is, is that there is treatment for addiction.

For more info, please visit The Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT) of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Future Post- Part II

The next blog on addiction will focus on prevention.  We’ll give you information to help keep your work-life balanced and intact.
For further info:

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES – Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration – Results from the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings

American Psychiatric Association – Healthy Minds.  Healthy Lives.

American Psychological Association

Drug Info


Medline Plus

Source:  Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2009). Results from the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health:National Findings (Office of Applied Studies, NSDUH Series H-36, HHS Publication No. SMA 09-4434). Rockville, MD.

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