I don’t know a lot of people with addiction whose stories don’t include the kind of experiences that would raise the hair on your neck. Broken homes, toxic relationships, abuse, neglect, poverty—there are so many factors that contribute to people self-medicating through drugs of alcohol. Drugs and alcohol allow us, people with addiction, to check out—even if for a moment. The chaos, the pain, the screaming thoughts fade away as we use—or at least that’s what happened before we go off the rails completely. Addiction is a progressive condition, so eventually, a person with substance use disorder uses just to survive, to not feel the shakes or avoid seizures.
Trust me, there is not a single person with addiction who set out to be that way—becoming a person with addiction is not exactly an aspiration like that of becoming a doctor or an engineer. There’s an indisputable link between trauma and addiction. It’s unusual to meet a person with addiction who has not had some kind of trauma—often in childhood.
In my profession, negative incidents that have occurred during one’s childhood are referred to as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), and an ACE score measures different types of abuse or neglect. According to ACE studies, the more troubled your childhood, the higher your score and in turn, the higher your risk for later health problems, including addiction. ACE is divided into three sections. 1, Emotional, which includes Physical, Emotional and Sexual, 2, Neglect, which includes Physical and Emotional and 3, Household Dysfunction, which includes Mental Illness, Incarcerated Relative, Mother Treated Violently, Divorce, and Substance Abuse.
We’re currently experiencing an opioid crisis in America. According to CNN, “Experts say the United States is in the throes of an opioid epidemic, as more than two million Americans have become dependent on or abused prescription pain pills and street drugs (…) During 2016, there were more than 63,600 overdose deaths in the United States, including 42,249 that involved an opioid (66.4%). That’s an average of 115 opioid overdose deaths each day.”
Those are scary numbers. They are not the kinds of numbers that we, as a society, should ignore. This is why I believe that we need to raise more awareness about the link between trauma and addiction and educate professionals and paraprofessionals and those providing recovery-support services (including volunteers and persons in mutual aid support groups and families). We simply cannot talk about ACEs, and trauma in our community, and traumatic subjugation of huge populations, without concurrently discussing the intersection of trauma and addiction. We cannot talk about the opioid crisis and solutions to it without simultaneously discussing the relationships between trauma and addiction.
Labels, scores, stats, and abbreviations aside, what we also need to remember is that we’re talking about people. We are all born into this world deserving to live the best lives. For some of us it doesn’t work out right from the beginning—I was relinquished shortly after being born—but that doesn’t mean that we don’t merit love and respect and care: especially if our adversities caused us to use to be able to cope. My hope is that going forward, people in my profession will continue to improve how we offer our services, taking into account all that characterizes those with addictions, pain and heartbreak included. That’s the only way to heal.
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