How Trauma, Victimization and Addiction Are All Connected

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How Trauma, Victimization and Addiction Are All Connected

By Jennifer Storm 07/20/17

What is that thing that takes us so far out of our comfort zone that not even ten meetings and a great sponsor can help us not pick up?

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Full recovery requires addressing the underlying traumatic reasons for developing and sustaining the addiction.

As a victim advocate and a person in long term recovery from drug and alcohol addiction it is an exciting time to be on the front lines of the work to address the impact of sexual violence and addiction. At a national fever pitch level, we are having these amazingly informative conversations about sexual violence in our society and its impact at the same time we are talking more than ever about the devastation of addiction. Where we are missing the mark yet still, is that we are not pulling these two conversations together yet and recognizing the inherent connections.

According to the Rape Abuse Incest National Network, rainn.org, those who have been sexually assaulted are more likely to use drugs than the general public, they are:

  • 3.4 times more likely to use marijuana
  • 6 times more likely to use cocaine
  • 10 times more likely to use other major drug

I had no idea how susceptible I was to this destructive path when I was younger. No one educated me on rape prevention or substance abuse. We are finally creating space for these conversations; however, they are still happening in vacuums.

Next year marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of my first memoir, Blackout Girl, my memoir of surviving an addiction stemming from a childhood rape. I have been in total awe of the number of people who my story has touched in some way. I have received thousands of emails from people thanking me and expressing gratitude for how my story has touched their lives and shaped their future in some way. There is no greater gift than to receive such accolades. Often during these exchanges people lament about how brutally honest I was in not only in the depiction of my addiction but in the process of my recovery. During my own recovery journey, it became abundantly clear to me that I was going to require more tools and resources than a traditional twelve-step model had to offer. I had experienced through the course of my life a tremendous amount of trauma and victimization, and spent my addiction running from those very experiences. I had never dealt with anything. Never truly felt feelings associated with the various violations I had endured. It was easier to run into a razor blade, a bottle or a drug. What I realized very early on in recovery, these demons I held so tightly were the very reasons for my drug and alcohol use.

When I went to rehab after a brutal suicide attempt that was a direct result of my addiction spiraling out of control, I knew I needed serious help. The rehab I went to was amazing but at the time was not trauma informed in any way. When they asked during my intake if I had ever been sexually assaulted and I answered yes, that only meant I was immediately assigned to the women’s unit--nothing more and nothing less. I guess back then if you were a survivor of sexual violence it just meant you couldn’t be around anyone of the opposite gender. That felt odd to me but at the time I had bigger issues to contend with and did not have the wherewithal to really question the decision. I just wanted to stay alive another day. It wasn’t until I spent a night listening to a speaker who had successfully completed the program that it really hit me the degree of work I was going to have to do if I wanted to really recover and never feel the way I felt that night that I wanted to die. The speaker mentioned in her share that her secrets kept her sick. That slogan hit me like a ton of bricks. I walked into rehab packed internally with secrets. Things that had happened to me, truths I had known but couldn’t share, feelings that were so dark that I would never express them outwardly. Every time something bad happened, I would compartmentalize it inside my mind, body and spirit. I became a master packer within my own space, and each secret, each dark and painful experience had its own proper place and I placed a lock and key over each. I kept them all hidden to the best of my dysfunctional ability but over time they all began to spill out all over the place; there is only so much room in one person to contain the amount of suffering I had endured. In 1997, on a brisk November morning just three short months after my mother had died in my arms, I could not find a place inside myself for that degree of anguish. There were no more internal compartments to contain the pain and a volcanic eruption began to spew from me all over the place in the form of self-loathing, despair and utter insanity--hence my brutal suicide attempt.

When I heard that woman say her secrets kept her sick, I intuitively realized that if I was going to be successful and really live a full and happy life free from my addictions and free from the desire to constantly harm myself, I was going to have to dive deep into these secrets and unlock the doors inside of me that had been sealed off for a very long time. Which meant releasing and exposing my past traumas and victimizations. There wasn’t a process for this work within the walls of the rehab I was at, the program did not consider in a real therapeutic way past traumas and victimizations. There were exercises to help process the wrongs I had committed in my addiction, we talked a lot of making amends and being accountable and the fourth step is certainly designed to be a mirror for ourselves during a brutally honest inventory of our past.

But the twelve step rooms are not designed to address victimization and trauma—they are designed to keep a person sober. I used drugs and alcohol to escape a pain greater than my body, mind and spirit could process and that use lead me to more pain and more trauma. As those layers of trauma and pain began to build inside of me, my need to escape increased and this cycle began to form in my life. Something bad happens. I feel pain. I cannot deal so I use drugs and alcohol to escape. But then sometimes when I used, something bad would happen again, compounding my pain and increasing my tolerance; this required more drugs and alcohol. This vicious cycle arose in my life of trauma-victimization-addiction and it just kept spinning out of control. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy of consistent pains and failures. I was running away from my past but continuously smacking myself into walls while doing so. By layering my traumas and victimizations with drugs and alcohol, I was just fueling a major fire inside of me, one that eventually could not be contained as evident in my suicide attempt.

In recovery, I have come to understand that you cannot just treat the addiction. You cannot layer twelve-step programs, meetings and sponsorship over that degree of pain and not systematically and simultaneously deal with the underlying pain, trauma or affliction that is boiling underneath. As addicts, there is usually a reason we use, a starting point where things went off the rails. Sometimes is as obvious as X happened and I started to drink or drug. Sometimes it’s more insidious than that, it is a slow buildup of this or that over time that led to an emotional wound that became the kindling for our addictions. Twelve-step programs are amazing and lifesaving, they help us manage the fire and keep it at bay. However, if you do not get rid of the kindling, the reason, the core for the continuous cycle of addiction-then a twelve-step program only becomes a band-aid over a bullet hole. Sure, the band-aid can be strong and may hold for a while, it may get you through many days of picking up sobriety coins and celebrating a newfound life in recovery but if the kindling is still slowly burning underneath it all with your past traumas and untreated victimizations that band-aid will eventually fly off and lead to a relapse that can and will kill you.

Therefore, many people find themselves relapsing after years and years of solid recovery in a program and scratch their heads in wonder as to how it all happened. I remember listening to Mackenzie Phillips, the actress well-known for her struggles with addiction. She was keynoting a conference in my area about how she had been struggling for years and years with her own addiction and finally managed to get some solid clean time under her belt, she became a pillar of her recovering community for over a decade and then her father died. If you know about her history you know her father sexually abused her for a large portion of her life. His death, a huge gaping spiritual, emotional, psychological and physical wound had been festering beneath the band-aide of her recovery. She had never dealt in a real therapeutic way with the pain of that wound and it was still slowly burning beneath what she felt at the time was a very strong foundation she had built in recovery. A foundation that was well constructed but had this serious underlying flaw that she wasn’t aware of and when the news of her father’s death hit her-that kindling roared inside of her and created an uncontainable fire. She relapsed-hard. It wasn’t until she found a treatment facility that identified that issue for her as being a core factor in her recovery that she really found true and sustainable recovery. She now lives a life of dedication to recovery, speaks out, wrote a book and travels the world sharing her experience strength and hope. She is the perfect illustration of how untreated wounds in recovery can led to devastating relapses. She was lucky, she survived, but so many out there struggling with these demons are not and one relapse all too often can lead to a life lost.

I firmly believe that to obtain long term sustainable recovery, we must get to the bottom of what motivates us to use. Why do we feel the need to punish ourselves? What are we running away from? What is the feeling? Is it one event? Is it numerous events? What is that thing that takes us so far out of our comfort zone that not even ten meetings and a great sponsor can help us not pick up? That thing that could destroy everything if left untreated.

For me, it all started when I was raped at age twelve and never dealt with it, so I covered it up with as many escape routes as I could find; cutting myself to release the pain, drowning my feelings in alcohol, and numbing my pain with whatever drugs I could find. These became the solutions to my problems. I never realized they were fueling the problem. When I finally got a glimpse of some real clean and sober time, all my wounds where there waiting for me like old movies playing repeatedly in my head. I could process some of them through a twelve-step program but in many instances my pains were so dark and deep that I needed additional therapeutic intervention. These were things that I could not speak of in my traditional meetings because it wouldn’t have been appropriate and quite frankly could have injured myself or others if I did. Twelve-step meetings are a safe and amazing place to help release the desire to use and to find collective support to not turn to the things that harm us but they are not the place for deep rooted therapeutic discovery. Dealing with trauma and victimization is best left in the hands of professionals who can walk us safely through our past experiences so that we can get to the very root of the why. If we know the why, then we can fully treat it and be free from the core reasons we use.

For me, once I realized that not only the rape but then every other trauma and victimization that came before and after it were my why, it was clear to me what I had to do to extinguish the kindling for good. I had to start unpacking myself, my feelings, the events and facts that happened in my life in as brutally honest of a way that I could. I could only do this with the help of a trained therapist. She knew when to push me and when to allow me to be gentle on myself. She had years of experience dealing with trauma and was trained specifically on how to assist me in this journey as to not do more harm or force me to close to the edge that I would fail and use. It has taken me years to do this but the very understanding that I needed to do it, was enough to keep me moving down a path that led to freedom from addiction as opposed to one step closer to relapse.

Working on strengthening my coping mechanisms and releasing all those demons tightly stored inside my heart, mind and soul began to allow a new freedom in my life that I could have never imagined. As I opened one door inside of me and let the darkness out-it allowed room for the light, for the freedom of new explorations and stronger understanding of how I process and the healthy tools I could reach for during struggles. That self-awareness has been one of my strongest tools in recovery. I don’t do this recovery thing perfect every day, trust me, I am human and I make mistakes. What is different today is that there is not a kindling burning underneath my foundation anymore, my foundation is rock solid and strong. I built it myself and know every inch of it so now when something happens in my life that is traumatizing--because let’s face it, life on life’s terms brings hardships and joys--I am not struggling to extinguish an old trauma layered on top of a new one, I am solely able to focus on the issue before me and I have the tools in recovery to deal in a healthy way.

I spend countless hours training others on the vital need to begin making these vital lifesaving connections about trauma, victimization and addiction. I watch as light bulbs go off in the minds of victim advocates, drug and alcohol professionals and others working in both disciplines, unfortunately, they are rarely if ever in the same room receiving the same training. As a society, we need to take the next step to ensure that while we are spending millions of dollars on addiction services and we are elevating the voices and experiences of survivors of sexual violence that in both disciplines we are acknowledging the correlations between addiction, trauma and victimization. I truly believe that if we can do this, we will save lives.

Jennifer Storm was appointed in 2013 by the Governor of Pennsylvania to serve a six-year term as the Victim Advocate of Pennsylvania advocating daily for crime victims throughout the criminal justice system. She is the author of several books on addiction, victimization and trauma, including Blackout Girl, Leave the Light On and Picking Up the Pieces Without Picking Up.

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In 2013, Jennifer Storm was appointed to serve a six-year term as the Victim Advocate of Pennsylvania by the Governor of Pennsylvania, advocating daily for crime victims throughout the criminal justice system. She is the author of several books on addiction, victimization and trauma, including Blackout Girl, Leave the Light On and Picking Up the Pieces Without Picking Up.

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