Woman of Substances: A Journey into Addiction and Treatment

Jenny Valentish

Woman of Substances: A Journey into Addiction and Treatment
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Woman of Substances: A Journey into Addiction and Treatment

Jenny Valentish

Journalist Jenny Valentish investigates the female experience of drugs and alcohol, using her own story to light the way. Her travels around Australia take her to treatment facilities and AA groups. Mining the expertise of leading researchers, she explores the early predictors of addiction, such as childhood trauma and temperament, and teenage impulsivity.

Drawing on neuroscience, she explains why other self-destructive behaviours - such as eating disorders, compulsive buying and high-risk sex - are interchangeable with problematic substance use. Valentish follows the pathways that women, in particular, take into addiction - and out again. Woman of Substances is an insightful, rigorous and brutally honest read.


Jenny Valentish presents a raw, but relatable, account of her encounter with addiction. Woman of Substances is eminently readable, honest and revealing, not just about Valentish’s personal life and traumatic events in it, but also about the politics of addiction and its treatment.

Full of interesting facts and analysis, Woman of Substances looks through a gendered lens at how alcohol and drug treatment – and even the science of it – is skewed towards the male body, even though there is extensive evidence that women are affected in quite different biological and neurological ways. Taking a fresh look at the effects of substances on the female body, both through her own experience and through interviews and research into the topic, Valentish examines the appalling lack of medical trial data on female subjects (even male rats are preferred because they don’t have the hormonal fluctuations of a female rat).

Well-researched and nuanced, it acknowledges the deep underlying triggers that can precipitate risk-taking or self-destructive behaviours, without becoming maudlin. Valentish describes the book as a research/memoir hybrid and it certainly does blend these two genres, in a way alleviating the intensity of its personal revelations by examining the scientific, social and cultural levers that also play a part in addiction. That said, there are some quite troubling and traumatic events in early childhood that characterise Valentish’s (and others’) descent into addiction; but she also articulates a clear path out of habitual use and the range of mechanisms she relied on to support that journey.

It certainly transcends mere memoir to weave an intricate and thought-provoking look at our society and its use of substances.

Anaya Latter works as a bookseller at Readings St Kilda.

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