I started using drugs and alcohol, or anything I could get my hands on, when I was 13. I found it was the only way that I could deal with my Mom’s temper, and it took the edge off of the anger and sadness, but now I’m really messed up, and find that the memories are still there and so are the feelings I had when I was 13, but I’m 42. I’ve never felt so stuck….              (Trauma survivor)

Substance abuse is very common amongst individuals who have experienced trauma because it is a quick way to numb feelings and avoid the profound emotional pain and suffering.  Substance use and trauma are so closely interwoven: If the person were not dealing with trauma, they would not feel the need to use substances to cope. One issue triggers the other. For example, sobriety often reveals unresolved memories and emotional pain which can flood the addicted individual who then uses substances, alcohol, and addicting behaviors to regulate and numb their emotions.

If and/or when the root cause of trauma is not addressed, people use substances to manage the pain and push down the memories and negative feelings associated with the trauma. This becomes a negative cycle that keeps the person stuck until both the trauma and the substance abuse issues are treated. There can also be a tremendous amount of shame associated with substance use and not being able to quit that is then layered upon the shame the individual may experience in association with the original trauma.

These issues can and should be treated at the same time so that the individual who experienced the trauma doesn’t work on one issue while the other is being neglected. The source of the psychological pain must be addressed to positively impact reduction of substance use. When this doesn’t happen, people who have experienced trauma often fall through the cracks of the social service and health systems and receive poor care. The attitude of “you must get clean before you can work on your trauma issues” keeps them stuck.

It is important to know that it’s normal to use substances to cope with the overwhelming emotions, and that help exists for reducing or stopping substance use and for addressing the traumatic issues. Learning how to soothe and regulate emotions in a way that creates tolerance and relief of the symptoms associated with trauma can be very effective in reducing the need to utilize substances as a way to cope.

It is possible to heal and recover from trauma and addiction. In looking for support for addiction it is important to consider how these two things are related and that that the support system is also able to recognize this connection so as to be able to adequately support the recovery process.                                                 

It’s like I can live without fear of being harmed again. Sometimes I still feel scared, but I know that I am stronger now and I’m a better person for having gone through it. I feel like my recovery is well on its way now.  (Trauma survivor)

"Everyone has a right to have a present and future that are not completely dominated and dictated by the past" - Karen Saakvitne