Abuse and Trauma – The Connection to Addiction

When the subject of addiction is discussed, many people have an immediate stereotypical image of an addict in their mind. Many people view addicts as those from deprived neighbourhoods, perhaps with a history of criminal activity, unable to hold down a job and potentially homeless, spend most of their time taking drugs or alcohol and have very few prospects in life.
The truth, however, can be very different and far more complicated. The fact is that almost anyone can become addicted to drugs or alcohol. There are many addicts who are known as ‘highly functioning’ and therefore do not show any signs of their problem. Functioning addicts are usually employed, maintain social lives and hide their addictions from even the closest members of their families. The danger of stereotyping addicts is that those affected may not see themselves as an addict and will not seek the help that they require.

Is addiction a choice?
Unfortunately, there is a perception that addiction is a choice, but this is not true. Addiction is an illness, just as the flu or diabetes would be. We have to consider, why would anyone choose to destroy their life, career or relationships and continue taking a substance that they know is not good for them? The point is that they wouldn’t, therefore addiction is something we cannot control. Even if an addict wants to stop taking a substance, the chemical changes in their brain that have been caused by substance abuse compels them to continue.

Addiction is often the result of trauma, either at an early age or due to a later event. Trauma can include a number of events including physical or emotional abuse, rape, child abuse, domestic violence, witnessing violence, grief, a near death experience or even a natural disaster. There are common themes to all these events:
• The event was not anticipated.
• The person felt unprepared for the experience.
• The person felt powerless to prevent the event.
• The person was not at fault.

These events can all leave scars, which can be on the surface or far below it. Mental trauma can change someone’s perspectives and alter the way that they live their lives. It is categorised as the inability to process or move past the experience without constantly reliving it. Trauma victims often develop serious mental health issues and without specialist help, many turn to a variety of coping mechanisms that can include rage, self-harm and drug or alcohol addiction. Studies have shown a connection between trauma and addiction, stating that 25% of people who have survived traumatic experiences and 40% pf PTSD sufferers develop problems with substance addiction.

Childhood trauma and addiction
The majority of clients we help at Hebron Trust have suffered one or more forms of childhood trauma or abuse.
There are differing forms of child abuse:
• Physical – this can be anything from hitting or spanking to being thrown, cut with knives, hit with sticks or injured in other ways.
• Neglect – if someone was left alone at home, ignored, or had basic needs denied, this is neglect. Neglect is very difficult for children to cope with, as parents can often demonstrate positive reinforcement and love when the neglect isn’t happening.
• Psychological – words can be very hurtful, especially coming from those we love or look up to. Even without physical abuse, psychological abuse can be just as damaging. Physical abuse and neglect can also create symptoms of psychological abuse.
• Sexual – this is perhaps the worst form of abuse, as it includes psychological, physical and sometimes neglectful abuse. Children are not always abused by their parents, bur their parents may have been neglectful and allowed a situation where the abuse has occurred, ignored the child’s complaints, or looked the other way when the abuse happened.

Child abuse has a proven connection to adult substance abuse and addiction and is a problem that impacts millions of people. Whilst trauma is difficult enough for adults to survive, for children it is far worse.

Whilst it is impossible to understand fully how childhood abuse later affects addiction, it is true that abuse causes a severe and unique version of post-traumatic stress disorder in children. There is also some evidence that abused children not only suffer from PTSD but can also be changed on a chemical and genetic level. These changes cause a negative impact to a child’s cognitive development and trigger problems such as anxiety, depression and even schizophrenia.
The worst thing is that in children, these changes are often permanent, which explains why so many abused children fall victim to drug and alcohol addiction in later life.
In the study ‘The Role of Uncontrollable Trauma in the Development of PTSD and Alcohol Addiction’ by Dr. Joseph Volpicelli, Dr. Donald Bux, and others, it was found that PTSD raised the chance of substance abuse by 20%. The study also found that women with PTSD were much more likely to abuse drugs, with 30-57% suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder alongside addiction.

Children suffering with feelings related to abuse don’t have the same coping mechanisms that an adult would. They do not realise the ability to change their own lives and therefore many turn to drugs and alcohol to alleviate the painful symptoms. Drugs and alcohol will temporarily relieve this pain and put you in a mental state where you don’t worry about your problems, but it is not a long-term solution. Addiction will only serve to further disrupt your life and will eventually worsen the symptoms of trauma.

This is also the reason why addiction is commonly passed through generations; if a parent hasn’t dealt with their own childhood trauma they self-medicate with drugs and/or alcohol. This has the potential to cause two problems, one, that it provides an example for children and two, that the substance addition can also lead to developing abusive behaviours that cause trauma for their own children. If you are a parent or caregiver and feel that you could be neglecting your child due to drug or alcohol addiction, it is important to seek treatment and stop this cycle.

In 2016, it was estimated that 28 million people around the globe are battling with substance abuse, however only around 10% were getting treatment. There are a number of reasons why someone would put off treatment, including the perceived stigma that surrounds addiction, or not wanting to leave family and a career for a period of time. However, without treatment an addiction can worsen and cause long-term consequences, such as:
• Damage to personal relationships with loved ones.
• Financial difficulty due to funding the substance abuse.
• Deterioration, both physically and mentally.
• Legal problems, for example arrest for drink driving.
• Loss of career.

Confronting an addiction and the childhood trauma that caused it can be the most difficult thing that someone has done, but we ensure that this is not a lone process. At Hebron House, we provide a trauma focused addiction treatment that is tailored to each individual client. We help our clients explore their past, understand whether they suffered abuse and how it has affected them in adulthood. We then work together to develop other coping mechanisms and find healthy, long-lasting ways to move past the trauma and manage the addiction.

Addiction and trauma issues are not resolved overnight, therefore women come to live at Hebron House for 3-6 months and follow a 12-step programme. During this time, they leave their everyday lives behind and live with other recovering addicts. Being away from home means that our clients have no other distractions, temptations or triggers and can concentrate fully on their recovery. At the end of the treatment period, we help clients integrate back into society and independent living. An informal aftercare service is provided for life to all clients, with a more formal service provided to those who decide to relocate.