Trauma and addiction tend to go hand in hand. As a disease, substance dependency (addiction) finds it’s origin in past trauma. Understanding that people struggling with addiction as a disease and are most likely victims of trauma, maybe we can be compassionate towards them. Recovery is possible if we treat the root of the disease, not just the symptoms.
Through the decades of working with clients, who struggle with trauma and addiction for their freedom through recovery I have learned that more often than not, they are also running from past life memories of traumatic experiences. They lack strong coping skills, therefore turning to avoidance rather than dealing with life’s issues head-on.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) report that more than a third of adolescents with a report of abuse or neglect will have a substance use disorder before they reach their 18th birthday (Behavioural consequences of child abuse ). The reality of trauma is that it can come from anywhere and manifest in a variety of physical and psychological symptoms.
What do I mean when I write the word trauma? When a person fears for their safety, experiences intense pain, or witnesses a tragic or violent act, that person can be described as having experienced trauma. Levels of resiliency vary from person to person, so reactions to traumatic events are similarly varied. Although frightening experiences impact people at any age, adults will generally be more likely to manage through trauma than children will be, assuming they have learned healthy coping skills.
Too many in our society continue in their errant thinking that addiction is a choice or a moral failing, despite the medical and scientific evidence to the contrary. Since 1957 the American Medical Association classified alcoholism as a medical disease “not unlike any other medical disease.” Yet how often do we treat people diagnosed with addiction with the same care and compassion we do people diagnosed with cancer or heart failure?
Understanding and grasping the concept that addiction has it’s roots in trauma, that there’s a connection between trauma and addiction, takes away the judgment. Who would judge a child as guilty of causing their own physical or sexual abuse? Children raised in poverty and illness, not feeling safe or settled or loved; do we judge them as guilty and ask why they chose that lifestyle? Of course not!
So if we understand and accept the connection between the experiences of these children and their later adulthood addiction, why do we now judge them? Are not their adult thoughts and feelings shaped from their childhood? Are not yours? If we agree that a child’s condition is not their choice, then we need to understand that that same child, now an adult, is making choices in life based on their childhood experiences and learning. If they were never taught how to cope, or if they had to teach themselves how to cope, that influences their adult coping decisions. We don’t judge the child; therefore, we are not to judge the adult’s childhood influences.
The connection between trauma and addiction is one of the reasons I continue to advocate for treating the core root of one’s dependence rather than alleviating the symptoms. Using money in an attempt to fix the ills of our society may curb some of the drug and alcohol use, but if we don’t teach the person to cope with daily living, healthily, then regardless of how society changes, they’ll continue to suffer in their addiction. Societal change needs to happen, but what I’m saying is that we need to look beyond the apparent surface reasons of a person’s substance use to find the deeper rooted issues driving the person into escapism.
Sometimes, years of self-medicating through drugs and alcohol have effectively dulled the memory of trauma, so the only problem seems to be substance abuse and addiction. A person who has suppressed or ignored traumatic experiences may work very hard to get and stay sober, only to find other addictive behaviors eventually replacing the drugs and alcohol. Acknowledging that trauma exists, and so treating that trauma takes away the “need” for their addictive behaviors.
Substance abuse is often used as a coping mechanism to deal with painful memories associated with childhood. Using drugs and alcohol is also a way to deal with feelings of loneliness and isolation, improve a sense of self-worth, and to cope with untreated mental health issues such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety. When we view a person who is addicted from the perspective that they are victims with a medical illness, then we’ll treat them with the care and compassion necessary for the encouragement and hope of healing and recovery.