Trauma, Addiction, Success in Recovery, Recovery, Society, Stigma
"Hello, my name is Jessica, and I'm an addict." I say this sentence multiple times a week at NA meetings, and have for the past few years. Last year I went to prison as a result of crimes I committed when I was using, which was no fun at all. I had originally gotten probation, but since I did not stop using/drinking, I eventually got enough violations to land me in Muncy State Prison as part of the State Intermediate Punishment program. This consequence resulted in me getting to know a LOT of addicts very personally. In the SIP program, we have to spend four months in state prison, at least four months in Quehanna Boot Camp/Cambridge Springs (TC programs), and then two months in a DOC rehab, followed by a home plan or a halfway house if you have nowhere to go. I am currently in a halfway house called TLC in Williamsport, PA, waiting for my home plan to get approved. I've already had two denied. Anyway, my point is that while getting to know everyone, I got to know their stories too, and it occurred to me somewhere along the way that the vast majority of addicts had or have had something brutally traumatic happen to them, and when I use the term, "addict," I am referring to alcoholics too. We're all addicted to something, and sometimes several things.
For me, I'm an alcoholic at heart (that's where it always starts), and then I'm what's called a "garbage can," which means that I'll basically put anything into my body. I've shot up stuff that no one even told me what it was-that's how bad it was. I have been clean and sober now for a year for the first time in my adult life-my anniversary date is 9/17/2018. I am very proud of myself, and a few other people are too. The very abbreviated version of my story is that I was sexually abused as a small child for a long time by a step-sibling, my mother hated me since I was born and was verbally and physically abusive (what I like to call, "Teenage Mom Hatred Syndrome"), and by the time I was 26, my first two children had died from a horrible skin disorder called Epidermolysis Bullosa (Junctional-Herlitz subtype, if you must know, which is universally fatal). They didn't die nicely in their sleep either-they died violent, horrific deaths from half of their skin falling off, and I had to watch it. My son Ethan was dead by the time he was seven months old, and my daughter Kaylee only lived to be three months old.
So, at 26, I had PTSD and some other various psychiatric conditions related to Major Depressive Disorder. I was a wreck. So, I self-medicated in the form of alcoholism. Every day, all day, even when I had three more healthy children and married the man of my dreams. It was too late by then-I was addicted, and it was my only friend and solace-the only way I knew how to cope. I had flashbacks and nightmares, panic attacks and depressive episodes. I couldn't be around baby clothes, baby things, baby sections in stores, or ESPECIALLY babies crying-even my own.
So, that's how I ended up here. While I was doing the past year of therapy and rehabilitation, I attended over a thousand meetings, and learned the stories of hundreds of addicts, and they all had a common theme: trauma. I became intrigued about this, and looked it up, and it turns out to be true, so I wanted to share some insights here. It turns out that there are actual abnormalities in the brains of people who are a victim of childhood trauma, and this can predispose them to addiction. The growth of the brain and even the physical composition of the brain is affected by a person's experiences, both good and bad. In short, if a child is mistreated, they are subject to developmental deficits because of experiencing extremely high stress levels. These defects are even visible on neurological scans, and are caused by "structural disruptions" in the brain. It's no wonder that the vast majority of addicts have co-occurring psychological disorders. While child abuse comes to mind when talking about this issue, other things can cause the same disruptions, such as the loss of a parent, witnessing violence, neglect, and having a family member with a mental illness. Children lack the ability to process these events, especially if the people that are supposed to be supporting them are, in fact, abusing them. About two-thirds of addicts have experienced physical or sexual trauma statistically, and in my experience, an even higher number.
So what can we do? The answer in my mind is to destigmatize addiction, and to stop blaming addicts for a character flaw or weak morals, and to treat the underlying cause, which lies in trauma therapy. When I underwent EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy as a treatment for PTSD, my life improved dramatically. I haven't had a panic attack or a flashback in about six years, and my nightmares about my children dying are now treated effectively with medication. I wasn't able to cope with reality before EMDR treatments, and now I can-WITHOUT the use of drugs or alcohol.
The other answer to this problem is as simple as this: empathy and support. Because without it, addicts are not able to recover. Addiction is a disease, and addicts need to be treated with compassion and respect as a sick individual that needs treatment, instead of a bad individual that needs punishment.