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Is there a connection between addiction and childhood trauma?

Rick’s first memory of his father hitting him was from when he was five years old.

“It probably started before that,” Rick admits, “but this is the earliest memory I have of it. It was the day after my fifth birthday, and I took one of the candles that was laying on the counter and thought, ‘Oh this looks like candy. I wonder what it would be like to eat it.’ And I took a bite out of it, and my father was in the room and watched me do it, and I remember this giant of a man hurling himself at me. He swiped the candle out of my hand and then hit me across the face so hard I flew at the wall.”

Rick’s father was an alcoholic.

Today, at the age of 56, Rick is an alcoholic too.

There is most certainly a correlation between addiction and childhood trauma; we’re told that the traumatic incidents that occur in childhood don’t get left behind. They come with us to our adulthood. Many people who were traumatized as children turn to self-medication, drowning in drink or partaking in illegal substances. As a matter of fact, it’s said that more than a third of adolescents with a background of abuse (and often, neglect) will have a substance abuse disorder even before they turn 18.

Trauma defined is an emotional reaction to a repetitive or singular event that caused an individual extreme psychological distress or severe physical harm. A person is considered traumatized when they can’t move beyond the experience, and when they develop serious mental illness as a result. Many traumatized people turn to alcohol and drugs.

Trauma can result from numerous circumstances, including sex assault, physical assault, domestic violence, terminal illness, natural disasters or accidents, extreme emotional/verbal/psychological abuse, bullying, harassment and parental neglect. Trauma can come from anywhere, and can last for a long time.

Short-term symptoms can arise as a result of trauma, but so too can long-term symptoms. A person who has experienced (and is experiencing) trauma might avoid things that remind them of what happened, partake in irrational or erratic behavior, exhibit timidity and low self-esteem, display emotions often and inappropriately, look and behave nervously or fearfully, and may be irritable or frustrated easily.

As a result of childhood trauma, adults may see it manifest at work, at home, in their relationships, even in how they eat.

At work, people who are suffering from childhood trauma may process adversity in an unhealthy way; they may have a tough time trusting and relating to other people. Heavy responsibility may become too much to bear, or in other circumstances, they may take too much on, all in an effort to bury pain.

In relationships, childhood trauma survivors may find that they have developed serious or severe intimacy issues. They may not know how to create healthy relationships or friendships. They may be confused about their sexual identity, not know how to trust, feel a sense of worthlessness, and lack confidence. In some circumstances, they may self-sabotage or unknowingly participate in destructive, unhealthy, toxic relationships.

Because childhood trauma survivors often develop a need to be accepted, because they are so often trying to deny their pain, they may partake in alcohol or drugs to escape. Drugs or alcohol blur the need for health, stability and acceptance. Some who have experienced childhood trauma are not even aware that they aren’t recognizing what they’ve gone through, and that failure to recognize their trauma manifests in dangerous behavior, like self-loathing or self-harm.

There is certainly treatment for childhood trauma-related addiction, but it’s necessary for the individual to be provided very targeted, in-depth treatment for the triggers and for the substance abuse itself. Medically supervised detox is best, coupled with a comprehensive and therapeutic treatment program. In severe cases, long-term, in-patient treatment is required.

Unfortunately, childhood trauma-related addiction is far too common – but the trauma you have lived through does not mean you are doomed forever. You can get help. And you can get your life back on track, exactly where you deserve to be.  

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