Substance Abuse Due to Childhood Trauma

Past experiences can lead to drug & alcohol addiction

Julian’s parents’ marriage was a union of convenience. It was convenient to get married because they met at a party, got drunk and 9 months later there was a baby. They thought the right thing to do was get married and raise the kid the best they could. Unfortunately, the kid was the only that brought them together—everything else fell apart. Julian’s dad was an abusive alcoholic and his mom was a reclusive, depressive. This combination of abuse and neglect left scars on Julian, that would fester at different stages of his life.

Julian was a bit more sensitive to things. He was always on alert. His senses were hijacked by panic and paranoia, which made it hard for him to sit still in classrooms or relate to his peers. Since he didn’t have a safe space at home, he found a safe space in alcohol. Alcohol lifted him from his fears and shipped him away quieter, more stable place. Alcohol was his drug of convenience, his own marriage of comfort.

Long Lasting Effects of Trauma

Julian’s childhood was full of disruptions. His progression was marked by fights, arguments and neglect. This stress and trauma restructured Julian’s internal structure. According to research from the University of Minnesota, chronic exposure to stress can cause severe damage.

This consistent exposure to stress is known as toxic stress.
Julian’s house was only in name. He often locked the door in the bathroom to escape from the stress of the house. The tiles were a cool teal and he would stare at them for long periods of time, allowing the cool blue to wash over his uneasiness. It was like he was in an ocean of peace in that bathroom, the place where he could lock the door and unhinge from the reality of his life.

Childhood trauma results from caregivers exposing children to physical, emotional or sexual abuse. These experiences rewire the child so that they are more sensitive than kids who don’t experience trauma.

Trauma, Biology, and Addiction

When the body experiences trauma, it releases a host of chemicals as a result of its stress response. These chemicals are part of the major stress regulatory system. This system derived from the reptilian brain, which evolved from the need to fight off or flee from attackers. When this system is activated, the individual experiences increased heart rate, blood pressure, elevated stress hormones and increased energy flow to skeletal muscles.

As an individual continually faces exposure to trauma, the body has a difficult time shutting the down the stress response system even after the stress is gone. One of the principal chemicals suppressed when someone experience a great deal of trauma is cortisol. Cortisol is a chemical that helps the body deal with stress. When an individual’s cortisol levels are altered, it impacts their social skills. According to the National Institute of Health, the kids of trauma display more aggressive and withdrawn behaviors than their peers.

Julian often withdraws from his peers. At school, he hangs out near the fence away from the rest of the kids. He reads from his book and doesn’t speak much. A lot of the kids think that he is weird.

Quick Stats:

A lifetime history of sexual abuse among women in childhood or adulthood ranges from 15% to 25%

Co-occurring Disorders and Addiction

Mental illness is undoubtedly linked to trauma. One of the principal reasons why people who experience trauma is because of epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of how genes are modified due to the environment.

In Julian’s case, he had a predisposition for anxiety. His mom suffered from depression and a general anxiety disorder. Experiencing the trauma of his childhood engaged his genetic predisposition and sent him into himself. Negative experiences can get programmed into a child’s biology with epigenetics. Specifically, individuals who have faced a lot of trauma have increased activity on genes involved in the stress response.

Julian’s triggers were numerous and he often had to remove himself from situations that made him feel anxious. Anxiety was the norm, not the exception in his life. Around 14, he tried beer at a wedding. He had a couple and before you know it, his anxiety had lifted. His dad had a liquor cabinet in his office and Julian would often make visits to the office to unwind. He stopped needing the bathroom to feel safe. He would just uncork a bottle of alcohol and every worry would fade away.

This became a habit. What started off as a couple drinks here and there turned into a couple drinks a day, which turned into several drinks a day as he entered adulthood. He eventually needed alcohol to function every day. He would wake up covered in sweat, aching and this feeling would only subside when he drank more.

It was a cycle of pain swallowing heartbreak and a bottle replacing therapy. Over time, he began to not even like the taste of alcohol. He began to resent it, but it became essential.

Quick Stats:

18.5% of returning veterans reported symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression

Coping with Trauma, Developing an Addiction

Julian was diagnosed by his therapist with a general anxiety disorder and instead of taking medications, he decided to self-medicate with alcohol. Unfortunately, this lead to him developing an addiction to alcohol. Combined with his anxiety disorder, Julian had a co-occurring disorder. He needed help. Unfortunately, his family wasn’t exactly there for him. For years, he toiled in the twofold condition that often immobilized and further isolated him from others.

Eventually, he just stopped leaving the house besides going to work at the local butcher shop. He would have his food and other essentials delivered to him.

Most people who have a drug addiction also have a mental disorder that they have to sort through. Often, the symptoms mimic and reinforce each other. People who go through childhood trauma are doubly exposed because they often develop mental disorders as the result of their upbringing and turn to drugs and alcohol to cope.

People who are most susceptible to developing an addiction to drugs and alcohol are those with pre-existing mental disabilities. This happens because drugs alter moods and people who have a mental disorder often wish to escape or numb their moods. For people who have a co-occurring disorder, the path can lead to dark places.

Quick Stats:

The prevalence of domestic violence among women in the United States ranges from 9% to 44%, depending on definitions

Drug Treatment and Finding Peace

Julian knew he needed help, but he didn’t know where to turn. He wasn’t seeing people. He was barely seeing himself. Eventually his behavior at work started to slip. He began showing up late and when he was working, he was often hostile
with the customers. His boss started noticing the behavior getting worse and worse. One day, Julian insulated a customer and that was it. He was fired.

Without income and a family to support his alcohol addiction, Julian didn’t have a lot of options. He needed to drink in order to function, so he began stealing liquor from the store. Until he got caught, that is. Getting caught shoplifting was a rock bottom moment for Julian. He decided to check himself into treatment for his addiction.

The good news for those who have experienced childhood trauma is that they can get help for their addiction problem. Treatment centers are around the world to help people with their addiction. Most treatment centers will incorporate integrated treatment to help people holistically heal from the pains of both childhood and addiction.

In treatment, clients will learn the various skills to live in recovery on a day-to-day basis. Two of the primary means of therapy in treatment centers are individual and group therapy. In individual therapy, a client will meet one-on-one with a therapist to go over the underlying issues that perpetuate addiction. In terms of child trauma, the client will get to heal from that.

In group therapy, the client will meet with other people who are in treatment who are trying to heal together. The sessions are both informative and therapeutic. They also help re-integrate people back into society as those who live in addiction isolate themselves.
One of the most important dimensions of treatment for those with child trauma is family therapy. Family therapy involves the family member(s), the therapist and the client. In these sessions, the client and family member will get the opportunity to heal from the past. Healing those wounds can provide a safe space for the client after they leave treatment.

Aftercare and Healing

Julian healed in treatment. He had to confront a lot of the stuff he escaped from. Part of the healing was having his dad come to the treatment center and go through some of the more traumatic stuff from his childhood. Healing from those past issues helped Julian move forward in a positive light. When he left the treatment center and began going to support groups (such as 12-step meetings) and outpatient counseling. He still deals with anxiety on a daily basis, but he’s confronting it. He’s not avoiding it. Living in sobriety for him is about living in truth, not delusion; living in light, not darkness.

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