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More Trauma and Addiction

More Trauma and Addiction

Following the huge success of my last blog post, I felt it would be helpful to dive into trauma and addiction in a bit more detail. I was inundated with comments, points of recognition and questions. I am so grateful that my words helped and inspired you.

One of the interesting hallmarks of a traumatised person is their inability to access the sphere of their brain, which translates an experience into language. This means it becomes impossible for the person who has experienced a traumatic event to make any meaning out of what is happening to them or to put it into any context.

The part of the brain that is available to someone who has experienced a traumatic event is the part of the brain that evaluates the emotional significance of incoming information and regulates hormonal responses. The challenge here is that trauma means that dealing with large emotional responses can be too much and lead to overwhelm, thus the trauma victim continues to dissociate as the only means of dealing with the emotions they are feeling. Triggers are commonplace in the world of the person who has experienced trauma as they overreact, shut down or freeze. People who have experienced trauma find themselves unable to fully process experiences and put them into context because they can no longer access that part of their brain that tells them how they feel about what is going on around them. Thus, they feel confused and overwhelmed, which very soon becomes uncomfortable, and the emotional circuit breaker “trips” so as to avoid the system from completely blowing.

This brings up the question of the most appropriate healing for people who have experienced trauma, either from childhood experiences or resulting from abuse and/or addiction in adulthood. Given that trauma means it is very difficult for a person to access the part of their brain that translates experience to language; talking therapy alone does not seem the most appropriate. The best therapy will be one that accesses the emotional processing part of the brain and helps to re-contextualise the past experience and to time stamp it clearly as an event in the past, and not one that needs to be relived in the context of a present experience. This is precisely the approach I take in my combined healing and therapy practice.

Trauma experienced because of addiction leads to ruptures in the relationship bond. This is a highly isolating experience, as we have to find ways to stay in the relationship with the people who are hurting us, particularly if you are a minor and the person hurting you is your adult carer. Our brain has two purposes: it does not care if you are happy, fulfilled and prosperous. It cares that you are alive and living in the least pain option possible, which certainly does not mean no pain. In order to stay safe, according to the brain, we learn that putting a brave face on a situation and hiding our true feelings can be the safest way to survive, so we learn that disconnection helps us to stay safe and before you know it, this becomes a relationship strategy. It is no surprise, therefore, that when a child who grows up in this environment becomes an adult and looks to form their own close, intimate relationships, that problems occur. That adult has learned through childhood that disconnection is a part of the “formula” of relationship and so the strategies we learnt to keep ourselves safe as children continue to play out in adult relationships. Children who experience trauma in childhood develop the need for intensely close and supportive relationships alongside their continued fear of being hurt or abandoned. No wonder then that it becomes very difficult to form mutually satisfying and authentic relationships. As people, and especially women, experience a number of pain-filled relationships, subsequent connections become harder as the natural reaction to dissociate further becomes stronger and the need for intense closeness and support becomes greater. This can be suffocating for those people, who have not suffered from trauma, and are looking for mutually supportive and authentic relationships.

Women do often struggle more so than men in this downward spiral as, according to research from the Stone Center in Boston, USA, most women will gain part of their sense of self-esteem through connection. Women need to be able to form mutual relationships in order to develop the feminine personality. Non-mutual relationships increase the woman’s sense of disconnection and isolation, which has a direct impact on the woman’s sense of well-being. When you couple this with living in a household where addictive behaviours are present, it all comes together to create the “perfect storm” which will often result in the child growing up with a huge sense of shame and guilt, such that they later then drop into the wheel of trauma and addiction shown below.

 

I remember being told that addiction is hereditary, as though there is a gene that predisposes you to addiction. This itself is not strictly true; however, there is much research in the subject of epigenetics, which shows that trauma absolutely can be passed through generations, and for up to seven generations. Therefore, for me, the trauma being passed through the generations is what predisposes a person to addiction, not genetic make-up.

Growing up in a family with addiction usually presents three factors, to a greater or lesser extent, which further perpetuate the issues mentioned above. The first of these is secrecy. This is a really isolating situation, which degenerates the child’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem, as they will blame themselves for the situations created as a result of keeping secrets. When various family members deny elements of the family’s reality, they are denying that reality from the child’s perspective. In this environment, the child can end up feeling they need to walk on eggshells and always be acutely aware of whom they can tell what, who knows and who does not. This is a very stressful way to live. The concept of family begins to feel highly inauthentic and the fear of people “finding out the truth” further isolates the child from the rest of the world. Here you see trauma and addiction building on each other to become an increasingly intense ongoing cycle. 

The second element is inaccessibility of parents. This is highly confusing for children as they physically see their parents, yet they are not emotionally present and may often not remember previously made promises if they are abusing substances such as drugs or alcohol. This the child learns to not trust adults with what they say, which can cause further problems as that child grows up and attempts to form their own relationships, believing that other people are untrustworthy, unreliable, will always let them down and lose interest. Ouch! As the parent is using their addiction so as to not feel, they can become hardly present at all and risk being highly angry or guilty and overindulgent. Often an addiction will lead to depression and children growing up with depressed parents carry a lot of guilt about not being able to help their parent feel happy. These shut down and self-medicated parents are unable to show their children how to relate well to their own emotions and how to conduct intimate relationships. Without these role models, navigating adult life becomes a battlefield.  

The final factor is the parentification of children. I remember on my 6th birthday that my mum was taken away from me as she was admitted to the local mental health facility, suffering with post-natal depression, for the treatment of the time: electric shock therapy. I vividly remember what my birthday cake looked like that year (it was a shape of a 6 made into a horse racing course with jumps and all sorts). Incidentally, I do not remember a cake from any other of the 44 birthdays I have celebrated in this lifetime. As she was taken away, she pulled me to the side (in the middle of my birthday party) and said to me “I may not be coming back so please make sure to look after your brother and sister”. They were 1 and 4 at the time. I remember feeling really torn – my friends were at my house, my cake was AMAZING, I wanted to have fun, but I also now had a job to do. My mum did subsequently return, some weeks later. We had stayed with my mum’s friend who had also been running my birthday party. I was so happy to see my mum again, although my mum’s friend was lovely, she just was not my mum. Even at that age, I knew that I must now be really, really good so my mum did not have to go away again. I knew she had also given me a job to do and I must do that so Mummy did not get sad again and go away again. So by the age of 7, I was tasked with getting my brother and sister ready in the morning, giving them breakfast and washing everything up whilst my mum went for a walk with her dog. In parentification, the parent casts the child in the expected role. There is no recognition of the efforts of the child and the child is not assuming their role from a place of love (as much as I loved my mum) but out of fear of the parent’s reaction if they do not, or in my case, to prevent them leaving again. A 7 year old child is not equipped to be caring for a 2 year old and a 5 year old – this is how you learn that relationship = burden and you carry that forward to your own adult relationships which themselves become a matter of duty more than love. Need I spell it out, but growing up in addictive families is a toxic environment from which no good can come.

However, that sounds somewhat fatalistic. However, it is not all bad. 

As the adult now, you have the choice. I hope that after reading this article you are armed with the information about the impact of your addictions on your children (substance, emotional and behavioural – it is all the same). You can choose to heal your trauma and your addictions so the impact is not passed on to your children, your grandchildren and so on. It takes commitment from you but I am the living, walking proof that it is absolutely do-able. And my goodness, it is worth it.

Please join my private Facebook group if you feel any of the discussion in this article has touched you and you would appreciate support.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/3010605849263365

More Trauma and Addiction – Helen Anne Norbury