As a recovering addict, trauma played a big part in contributing to my addiction. I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, as well as rape and domestic violence in my adult years.
At the age of 13, I found the escape that is addiction. Initially, my release was in binging and purging. I found that it numbed my feelings completely. I could throw up my feelings and flush them away. A couple of years after, I discovered alcohol, illegal drugs and eventually prescriptions. They became my go-to for dealing with all the painful feelings and memories I carried inside.
I didn’t get clean and sober until I was in my early 30s, and by that time I had learned a few things about how trauma in childhood stays with a person into their adulthood. It was only in treatment and through the loss of my coping measures that I realized just how severe my trauma was. I was diagnosed with severe PTSD and placed in intensive therapy including Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and two individual sessions per week.
Trauma and Addiction
My therapist told me that in people who abuse substances nearly 80% have some type of trauma. This may be childhood abuse or neglect; it may also be a traumatic event or situation in adulthood. Other factors include combat during war, car accident, witnessing violence or even surviving a natural disaster.
Simply put, using substances is a prevalent coping mechanism for dealing with intense stressors and emotions for many people. This becomes a problem when the substance or behavior is your only tool. And is what separates the addict from other individuals.
Those who have suffered physical, emotional, sexual abuse or neglect may have never properly developed self-soothing and coping skills needed to get through life’s challenges and disappointments. Many addicts also have flashbacks and overwhelming feelings of guilt, shame, fear and anger that only seem to be soothed with drugs. In other words, substances help them numb the pain and escape the reality of their life.
Trauma and Relapse
Success rates after treatment are difficult to measure as there is no method for tracking real success. On top of that, trauma is not something that is treated in a 30 to 60 day stay in treatment. The length of time varies on the severity and willingness to face issues. Unfortunately, with the current length of treatment, relapse happens when the individual is overcome by not only the cravings but the symptoms that untreated trauma create.
Traditional addiction treatment focuses on breaking the cycle of craving, educating the addicted person, teaching them to be accountable and honest, giving them basic tools to deal with cravings and helping them learn some healthy life skills. This all sounds great but in reality treatment should be at least six months of inpatient care. This, at least, made a huge difference for me.
Many people leave treatment and are terrified to go back to using. No one wants to live in active addiction and, if they are honest, they know that 30, even 60 days, is just a bandaid and not the real solution. When the deep layers of trauma and pain surface, they can easily overwhelm a person as he or she is still learning how to cope with them. The addicted person may not realize what is happening or they may not have effective tools in dealing with it. Unfortunately, when they are overwhelmed by the pain, they may use again to take it away.
Trauma and Treatment
For many treatment centers, the concept of dredging up long-buried bad experiences and traumatic events just doesn’t make sense, especially in a short-term treatment program. There simply isn’t time to delve that deeply, and there is always the fear that they may do more harm than good. However, the real harm is in not addressing or acknowledging the pain and trauma. So how do we integrate trauma therapy into treatment?
The first step is to acknowledge it. That is, don’t gloss over it. Second, incorporate holistic treatments and therapies into your program. Art therapy and animal-assisted therapy are both widely accepted methods for helping people cope with trauma. EMDR therapy and neurofeedback are also useful and powerful tools. A multi-pronged approach is ideal. Topical groups for survivors can help addicts know they aren’t alone. Teaching self-care and activities that bolster self-esteem are also important. These things can be integrated into the treatment schedule and can go a long way in helping raise the success rates of rehabs.
When my trauma was addressed, things got better for me. I no longer needed to numb myself with drugs and alcohol. This didn’t happen until I got help and got my trauma addressed. I hope that all treatment centers start incorporating trauma therapy into their programs. I believe it will go a long way to improving recovery success rates. Hopefully in the future, insurance companies will require and cover longer stays for those diagnosed with PTSD or trauma of any type. It is necessary and, for me, made the difference between life and death.