“My drinking only got really bad after [blank] happened.”
“I only started shooting heroin after [blank].”
“It was [blank] that really messed me up.”
You can fill in the blanks at least broadly, right? While everyone’s story is different, instinctively you know that these are what we call traumatic events.
Research shows that there’s a strong connection between trauma and addiction. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, approximately 59% of young people with PTSD subsequently develop substance abuse problems.
In other words, more than half of the teens who have been through traumatic events severe enough to precipitate PTSD will start abusing drugs and alcohol afterward. That’s an astonishing number, and definite cause for concern.
What are Traumatic Events?
Generally speaking, traumatic events are the kind of things that divide your life into before and after. They’re the deaths, the divorces, the car crashes, and the tough diagnoses.
Not sure if you’ve been through a potentially traumatic event? Here’s a list of life events with widely-recognized traumatic potential.
- Loss of a loved one, be it through death, divorce, or distance
- Serious illness
- Abuse or assault of any kind, be it physical, verbal, emotional, or spiritual
- Financial or job loss
- Major accidents, surgeries, or other medical events
- Significant disappointments, such as loss of a dream
This is not an exhaustive list. Traumatic events don’t have to be blatant and obvious. More subtle experiences such as ongoing verbal bullying can be traumatic too.
The true trauma definition is simply this: it’s an event that was shocking to you, personally. Traumatic events are the ones that shake you on a deep level.
How Traumatic Events Lead to Addiction
Understanding trauma and addiction is key to recovering from substance abuse. On the most basic level, addiction represents an attempt to cope with the serious mental and emotional pain that arises from the traumatic events in our lives.
As British journalist and author Johann Hari noted in his TED talk Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong:
“Human beings have a natural and innate need to bond, and when we’re happy and healthy, we’ll bond and connect with each other, but if you can’t do that, because you’re traumatized or isolated or beaten down by life, you will bond with something that will give you some sense of relief.”
Hari goes on to list the possibilities for addictive bonding, from gambling to pornography, to cocaine. His point is that when we’re blocked from human connection, we turn to addictive behaviors and substances in an attempt to ease our pain.
How to Heal from Addiction and Traumatic Events
Give yourself time and patience.
First, it’s important to understand that recovery from loss of loved ones, divorce, accidents, and other traumatic events takes time.
Not only must you deal with the physical ramifications of trauma – everything from broken bones to emptied bank accounts – but you must also address the psychological impact.
Often the most difficult traumas from which to recover are the ones that take us completely by surprise and are entirely out of our control. In her bestselling book Finding Your Own North Star, Dr. Martha Beck calls these “catalytic shocks”. Beck notes:
“…people who experience [catalytic] shocks are usually more dazed and confused than those whose lives are changed by opportunity or inward transition. It may take several weeks or even months before they finally really understand that their lives will never be the same.”
In the wake of catalytic shocks, Beck advises giving yourself plenty of time to recalibrate and postponing major life decisions until you’re feeling more grounded and stable.
Find real, professional support.
Next, if you have a dual diagnosis of substance addiction and trauma (or addiction and depression, or addiction and anxiety) it’s imperative to find a compassionate mental health professional to help you with your healing.
While you have all the tools that you need to heal within yourself already, you also need other people in order to guide, facilitate, and support your recovery. Healing from traumatic events is emphatically not a solo endeavor!
A trained therapist or counselor can empower you to hold your past traumas differently in your consciousness. Together with your support team, you can transform trauma by changing the stories you tell yourself and comforting the hurting parts of your psyche.
And if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s this: When we apply love to the parts of ourselves that hurt, we heal.