Trauma and substance use disorders are intricately linked.
Whether it’s using illicit substances to ignore the memories long enough just to fall asleep or even getting high simply to function in the world, many sufferers of trauma turn to drugs to numb the pain of the past.
And I should know – because I did the same thing.
Turning a Blind Eye to Psychological Trauma: My Story
I was fourteen when my parents were killed in front of me. I’ll never forget it.
In fact, sometimes I’d wake up in a cold sweat as my mind replayed the memories in my sleep. The social worker called it “psychological trauma,” but what did she know.
I didn’t need a shoulder to cry on, or counseling, or any help at all. I could make the memories go away by myself.
At first all I needed was a drink or two but, as the years dragged on, the same amount of booze just wasn’t cutting it anymore. So I drank more. And I got into prescription pills which eventually turned into heroin.
Getting The Help I Needed (Whether I Liked It Or Not)
After my third overdose, my family held an intervention. Brothers, sister, aunts and uncles, the whole shebang. Even the people I used to get high with told me I needed to get help.
But like most addicts, I was deep in denial. No matter how many occasions they pointed to where I’d lied to them, hurt them, or even made them fear for my life, I always thought I was in control. Because if I wasn’t, what did I have left to hold onto?
They finally convinced me to go to rehab which I did, begrudgingly. It was either that or be cut off from them entirely. And what I learned there about me and my psychological trauma ended up saving my life.
Psychological Trauma: I Wasn’t Alone
While I was in recovery, I learned a lot about what it was that drove me to the bottle and other drugs. In fact, one of the biggest factors that spurred my willingness to stay in treatment was when my counselor told me just how common trauma really was.
She told me that around 70% of American adults will have experienced trauma in their lives AND that around one fifth of them will develop PTSD as a result.
And while my traumatic incident, she said, was probably more impactful than most people’s, knowing that there are others out there just like me who have learned how to cope with their PTSD symptoms was incredibly comforting.
Learning How to Define Trauma
I also learned a lot about trauma’s definition, as well as its long-term effects. For most experts, trauma can be broken down into a number of distinct (but sometimes overlapping) types.
- War Trauma – This type usually involves traumatic events experienced during wartime combat. While many soldiers are traumatized by the physical violence they experience, travesties like war-related rape also fall into this category.
- Terrorism Trauma – Individuals who have been affected by a terrorist attack may experience this kind of trauma. It can jeopardize your feelings of safety for the rest of your life.
- Violence and Abuse Trauma – Believed to be the most common type of trauma, it can include child abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, and even witnessing a violent incident that you aren’t directly a part of.
- Disaster Trauma – The psychological distress caused by disaster trauma can be both long-lasting and incredibly damaging to the psyche. What’s more, the relentless coverage of such events by the media can further exacerbate the situation as well.
Of course, I knew right away which category my experience fell into – violence and abuse trauma. But what I didn’t know was that my traumatic experience was actually far worse than I’d originally thought.
Lurking Beneath the Surface: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
In fact, after only a few visits with my therapist, we found out that I was actually suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD.
In my mind, PTSD was for army veterans that had really seen the worst of the worst during combat. And while I’d been deeply scarred by my parent’s death, it was in no way as gruesome and terrifying as what I’d thought war must be.
But as my therapist explained to me, being a soldier isn’t a prerequisite for having PTSD.
What’s more, she said, everyone reacts differently to trauma – one person simply may not feel an experience as intensely as someone else. That doesn’t mean that someone is necessarily stronger than another, just that they’re different.
Recognizing the Signs of PTSD
What is important in diagnosing PTSD are the symptoms, which come directly from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM V. They are as follows:
- Person was exposed to or threatened by death, sexual violence, or serious injury.
- They have intrusive memories, flashbacks, recurring dreams or other physical reactions to certain related cues.
- They avoid such cues associated with the event like a particular location or person.
- The event caused a negative change in their mood or thoughts.
- Heightened arousal (being jumpy or on edge) resulted from the event.
As we ran down the list, I checked off each of the criteria one by one. It was me down to a T.
And now that we realized the true extent of my psychological trauma, we were better able to cope with the substance use disorder it had caused.
Trauma and Substance Abuse: A Dangerous Cocktail
The first step in getting and keeping me clean was detox. I’d built up a pretty meticulously crafted regimen of drugs to keep my hands from shaking and to slow down my thoughts enough to let me interact with the world.
I hated being on edge – and drugs and booze kept me calm. And in the end, they almost killed me too.
So when I had to flush all of those substances out of my system, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to handle it, that the staff wasn’t qualified enough to keep me from withdrawal conditions like delirium tremens.
But they turned out to be pros, and while it was tough to be sure, it ended up being a lot easier than I thought.
Holistic Healing: A Real Lifesaver
Then began the real work – counseling, group therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and other holistic addiction treatments were all a part of the program.
Where I had alcohol to calm my nerves before, now I used breathing exercises. The sedative effects of heroin that I’d grown to depend on were exchanged for exercise and mindful meditation.
But most importantly, my rehabilitation helped me to come to terms with my psychological trauma so I could begin to heal.
Without it, I doubt I’d even be alive today to tell the story.
Recovery: Coping with My Trauma and Substance Use Disorder
I’d gone into rehab kicking and screaming, professing to the world that I didn’t have a problem, that I didn’t need help, and that I was in complete control. It only took a few days to realize I was wrong on all three accounts.
My treatment experience showed me that I was traumatized by the death of my parents. And that trauma was directly related to my substance use disorder and, once I learned how to handle that, I simply didn’t need the drugs anymore.
National Institute of Mental Health (n.d.). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtml
The Sidran Institute (n.d.). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Fact Sheet. Retrieved from https://www.sidran.org/resources/for-survivors-and-loved-ones/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-fact-sheet-2/
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2015, Sep.). Trauma and Violence. Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/trauma-violence
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (2017, March). PTSD: National Center for PTSD. Retrieved from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/index.asp