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When Trauma leads to Addiction and How to Find the Road to Wellness.

8 Heart it! Cortland Mathers-Suter 311
August 6, 2018
Cortland Mathers-Suter
8 Heart it! 311

“Before you pass judgment on one who is self-destructing, it’s important to remember they usually aren’t trying to destroy themselves. They’re trying to destroy something inside that doesn’t belong.” – Author J.M. Storm

 

Natalie grew up in a tumultuous household, with a with misogynistic father and a mother suffering from various untreated mental health disorders. As a young girl, Natalie excelled at sports and did well in school. Her father was well-loved by friends and neighbors; no one suspected that he was verbally, physically, and sexually abusing her beginning at a very young age. For years, Natalie hid the truth and privately shared her anger and suicidal thoughts within the pages of her diary. Most days she wished she wouldn’t wake up in the morning to relive the same daily nightmare.  

 

Unfortunately, traumatic experiences like Natalie’s are all too common. As someone who works with addicts on their road to wellness, I meet people whose past traumas have led to addiction almost every day. As a recovering addict myself, I know the long road that they have ahead to find wellness.

 

A traumatic experience is defined as a deeply distressing and emotional experience for the individual. Almost everyone has experienced a traumatic event, unfortunately they happen within our communities almost every day. As trauma expert Pia Mellody put it, “trauma is anything less than nurturing.” Some traumas are played out on a very public stage – consider the footage we see of victims of school shootings, migrant children who have been separated from their families, and those speaking out against sexual violence via the #metoo movement. Others occur within the privacy of our own homes such as physical or sexual abuse, job loss, or isolation.

 

For many of us, we can move through the traumatic event by utilizing our support network, some therapy, and giving it time. For others, like Natalie, unresolved traumas can lead to substance abuse, and addiction. Unfortunately with the latter, individuals are often drawn to drugs and alcohol to mitigate the mental and emotional distress correlated with the original trauma. By the time Natalie turned 14, she began to rebel and stopped going home in an effort to avoid her father. When a friend’s older sibling offered her drugs for the first time, she felt a huge sense of relief.  She had finally found a way to escape the terror of her home life, the pain from the beatings, and the emotional abuse. For the first time in her life, Natalie felt happiness and relief.

 

Experiencing trauma does not guarantee that an individual will develop a mental health disorder or addiction, but it does greatly increase the odds. According to the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Department of Veterans Affairs, between 25% and 75% of people who experience abuse or violent trauma develop issues related to alcohol abuse. According to the The Kaiser Permanente and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, individuals who scored high on the Adverse Childhood Experiences Questionnaire are five times more likely to become alcoholics, and up to 46 times more likely to inject drugs. Further, about ⅔ of all addicts experienced a sexual or emotional trauma as a child.  This figure is quite scary to think about when applied to the 2,000 migrant children who have been separated from their families since April, or the thousands of school-age children who attend one of the 23 schools across the United States that experienced a school shooting in 2018 alone, or the children who endure abuse within their own homes. For Natalie, her childhood trauma led to 10 years of severe drug addiction before she finally began working towards sobriety.

 

What causes a person to turn to substances after experiencing a trauma? Modern neuroscience helps us understand the links between trauma and addiction on a new level. When a person experiences a traumatic event, their brain chemistry changes in a measurable way. According to Michele Rosenthal, Chief Hope Officer (CHO) of Your Life After Trauma:

The amygdala (your brain’s threat detection center) can become overactive, engaging in a constant program of looking for, seeing and assessing threat. This will cause the person to feel intensely anxious, vulnerable and fearful.
The hippocampus (your brain’s center for processing memories) can become underactive. Rather than consolidating and then placing memories in the outer layer of the brain for long-term storage, memories get hung up in a present-day loop. The result: the person will experience and re-experience intrusive, disturbing and uncomfortable recollections.
The cortex (your brain’s center for executive control) becomes interrupted by survival-oriented instincts from deep inside your inner brain. These instincts overrule logical thinking, diminish cognitive processing and decrease your ability to inhibit behavior. Even when the person tries to refrain from addictive behavior they will experience an unstoppable urge to engage in it.

 

For an individual who has experienced a trauma and the anxiety, fear, painful memories, and stress caused by such an event, it is only natural to try and find some sort of solace and reprieve, which easily comes in the form of alcohol or drugs. This coping mechanism is not unique to addicts; many adults will tell you they have, at least on occasion, enjoyed an alcoholic beverage or perhaps a recreational drug to help them relax after a long day. It helps quiet our overactive brains and gives us peace. The difference is that for those who have experienced a trauma, substances can become a requirement to keep the anxiety, fear, or painful recollections at bay, and thus easily lead to an addiction.

 

“The incidence of trauma history among addicts is so high that we assume anyone coming in for addiction treatment has experienced some sort of trauma,” stated Jeff Burt, clinical Director for AspenRidge Recovery. “As clinicians, we’ve collectively learned over the past 10 years that our past confrontational approach of trying to ‘fix the addiction” first is just not effective.  We now use a ‘trauma-informed’ approach and provide various slow and gentle therapies and individualized care to find the root of the addiction problem which is most often a past traumatic experience.”

 

Though we can’t change the past of a loved one who has experienced a trauma, we can help redirect the future. Understanding the strong links between trauma and addiction can help both family members and therapists support individuals on their road to recovery, or even prevent someone from turning to drugs or alcohol in the first place. If we know that a child has suffered from a traumatic experience, we can provide proactive counseling, therapy, and age-appropriate support groups. For those who are already suffering from substance abuse disorders, we can use the knowledge that their current addiction may be stemming from a past unresolved traumatic experience and begin to treat the roots of the problem. In Natalie’s case, ongoing mental health, trauma, and addiction therapy has helped her regain and maintain her sobriety. She now enjoys a successful career and in her words, a ‘pretty sweet life.”

 

Though the trauma that has led to an individual’s addiction may vary, the road to recovery always begins with compassion and empathy. Understanding the reason behind an individual’s self-destructive behavior is the first step towards finding them the help they need. Once the trauma has been identified, individuals can begin the real work through a variety of therapies to make themselves whole again. Healing comes first, treating the addiction will follow.

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8 Heart it! Cortland Mathers-Suter 311
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