Love shouldn’t hurt

by Teresia Smith

A home filled with violence causes issues for future generations. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) report that more than a third of adolescents with a report of abuse or neglect will have a substance use disorder before they reach their 18th birthday. Data from over 17,000 patients in Kaiser Permanente’s Adverse Childhood Experiences study indicate that a child who experiences four or more traumatic events is five times more likely to become an alcoholic, and up to 46 times more likely to become an injection-drug user than the general population. Most of these will become inmates at some point in their life due to drug use. What happens to these people when as adults they are incarcerated for drug use that is tied to their childhood trauma? Does anyone ask what happened to them or do we just assume they chose to use drugs and we punish them?

Effects of childhood trauma show up in various ways. Abused children’s brains were often doing the best they could, in their own way, to survive, and find relief from feelings they aren’t able to process. The trauma sustained as children forced them to unknowingly develop a moral compass that was often distorted and inaccurate. This means that their perception of events, their understanding of the world and personal relationships is shaped by their early childhood traumas. They see everything different… people, events, choices, themselves. No one showed them that people can be trusted or that they themselves have value. No one taught them to be honest and have integrity.

Addicts cling to a silent hope that someone will see a shred of worth in them and reach out to help pull them up. Many of these men and women were using illegal drugs before they were old enough to drive. Many had parents who gave them their first drugs or alcohol in their home. They were exposed to drugs during a time that the brain is developing and is most vulnerable. And each of them turned to drugs for a reason. They didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to become an addict. Addicts rarely question the effects of childhood trauma because they have lived it. It has shaped their childhood, followed them into adulthood and it continues to have a stranglehold on their lives.

They will tell you that their ability to control their behavior at times does not mean that they are emotionally and mentally well. They may put on an act for a short period of time and appear well. Most addicts I have worked with are very skilled at deception. The behavior is the indicator that something is wrong. Instead of pointing fingers and asking how they could make such choices, maybe we need to be asking what has happened in their life to lead them to seek relief through these choices. And then know what resources are out there that they can access to find a better path.
As a Sexual Assault Response Advocate, I teach about trauma and its effects and how it can be passed down through generations. And the best part of talking with addicts in recovery is that they are honest in their thoughts. They are the easiest adults to talk to about this as they understand on a personal level exactly what trauma does and how it affects your life. “A hurt or unmet need is at the center of all addictions. If you look at the human brain, it develops under the impact of the environment. The potentials are genetically set, but which genes are turned on and off depends very much on the environment. The behaviors of addiction are just symptoms, they are not the core.” Ransom for Israel.

The longer I work with trauma survivors, the more I see that all of us carry certain predispositions from our genetics and our childhood. But at the end of the day, these tendencies, whether good ones or not, are actually triggered by what we surround ourselves with. Healing and hope are found in positive relationships and a healthy environment. And just as trauma can be passed on from generation to generation; hope and healing may be passed on as well. We need to look for opportunities to pour these into hurting people, and fill them up with encouragement. Encouragement to deal with the lasting effects of their trauma and show them there is a better life. There are resources available to help.

If you are a survivor of intimate partner violence or sexual assault, Crisis Services of North Alabama is here to encourage you and offer you resources to overcome your trauma. You may reach our office at 256.574.5826. We also offer a 24/7 HELPline at 256.716.1000.


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