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Trauma and Addiction

Updated: Mar 9, 2022

"In the same way that addiction is a family disease, so is the trauma it brings."

When we spin through our history with our child, we often find ourselves looking for what addiction professionals often refer to as the inciting incident--THE TRAUMA. In other words--what was the thing that made our child seek refuge in drugs and alcohol? This way of looking at the onset of the illness in our children oversimplifies addiction. It suggests that if we can just narrow down this one specific thing and make our child look it squarely in the face (or, in some cases, make them accept our apology) they can be "cured."

We are looking for answers in the hopes that they lead to solutions and so we blame our child's addiction on divorce, a death in the family, abuse, mental illness or—in some cases—a huge secret past that we must get to the bottom of. Sometimes we can put our finger on these things and sometimes we can't but in almost all cases we circle back to ourselves as being in some way responsible for our child's illness.

Exactly what is trauma?

Recently, the LITT team attended a Trauma, Addiction, Traumatic Grief and Resilience workshop where we learned about different types of trauma, the different ways in which people respond to trauma, and the best ways to help someone who is dealing with trauma and its effects.

Trauma is a response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes fear/terror, and produces feelings of helplessness. In the short-term trauma causes an intense, biological "alarm state," including a rush of adrenaline, cortisol and other hormones as well as intense fear. Going forward, situations that trigger the original incident(s) bring us back into the same state of fear and panic.

In its most extreme form trauma manifests itself as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which is classified as an anxiety disorder. This classification is significant when we discuss addiction because almost all parents of those with a substance abuse disorder report that their child struggled with anxiety as a child. Having a predisposition to anxiety means that such a person might be more vulnerable to trauma than someone whose nature is more resilient. Two people may experience the same event and one person moves through it while another becomes traumatized. In other words, trauma is personal and has much to do with an individual’s perception of an event.

Why is this important to us as parents of someone with a substance use disorder?

As a parent, our inclination is to assume that we--because we are responsible for the safety of our young children--surely inflicted the trauma that led to our child's illness or that we allowed it to be inflicted upon our child. But again, this oversimplifies our interpretation of trauma. While some people will succumb to the trauma they experience, most people will not because they have innate resilience. The incident or series of incidences that may have caused a child’s trauma and made them susceptible to addiction may be something that most people won’t struggle with in an ongoing way. Adversity in all its manifestations (a divorce, a death, a change of schools, a move, a family illness) is a part of life and we all experience adversity and engage in personal struggles throughout our life, but our addicted children may be wired to react more strongly to these life experiences than others. Unfortunately, living an addicted life creates its own ongoing set of chronic traumatic experiences that continue to trigger our addicted children and draw them back to their drug use.

It’s also important to acknowledge that we, as the parents of a suffering child, begin to accumulate our own trauma in response to the addict’s lifestyle. The drama inherent in addiction—recurring legal run-ins, overdoses, leaving recovery facilities, disappearing for days on end, erratic communication, fights with our child or other family members, relapses, etc. all work to create a trauma response in us as parents. We are filled with fear and panic when we don’t hear from our child, when they walk out of doors, when they call us from recovery and beg us to pick them up, when they ask for money, when they say hurtful things to us. All this is not to say that our fear is unfounded. These moments can be critical, but what we have done is morphed into an individual with our own trauma disorder, primed for panic and triggered by something as simple as an incoming phone call. We experience a racing heart, crying jags, lost sleep, and remain in a heightened state of alarm—all of which doesn’t serve us and instead destroys our health and our relationships with others. All this is to say that in the same way addiction is a family disease, so is the trauma it brings with it — and that for family members, it is equally important to acknowledge the trauma they are experiencing and to get support.

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