If you were to evaluate most of the individuals that seek treatment for addiction, you would find that most of them have experienced some type of childhood trauma, also known as adverse childhood experience (ACE). Common forms of this include physical and emotional abuse, sexual assault and the loss of a loved one. When things like that occur at a young age, there is no telling how the mind will cope with such experiences. And without the aid of therapy, the mechanisms that the mind relies on to cope with trauma are often not very effective and sometimes even self-destructive.
Many of those who experience trauma in childhood often turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with the post-traumatic stress. So, it stands to reason that a child who experiences trauma would do anything in their power to alleviate the pain by way of some type comfort seeking behavior. How this takes shape will vary from person to person. Some individuals may turn to food or sugar to alleviate the feelings of shame and guilt that are typical of oppressed people. Others may begin later on in their teenage years turning to substances for relief.
As teenagers, such behaviors often become ritualized and habitual. It feels good and provides relief from emotional pain, so why stop? Then one day these individuals have a realization, that they cannot stop even if they want to—at least not without help. Their use moves from something that provides them euphoria and relief from emotional pain to the problematic use of substances and in some cases, progressing to full blown addiction.
Ritualized Compulsive Comfort-Seeking
In the field of addiction treatment, we often say that drugs and alcohol are but symptoms of a much greater problem. Underlying most substance-use disorders are often layers of emotional pain, trauma and often, co-morbid psychiatric conditions. Take the substances out of the picture and you have a person with significant maladaptive behaviors that must be addressed if recovery is to be achieved. This is where treatment programs, and support groups like the 12-Step programs, can help a person to begin to recognize their self-destructive patterns and begin to develop new, healthier and more effective coping skills. Once the mind is clear of the chemical fog, the real work begins in treatment and into the recovery process. Through the treatment process and while working a recovery program, recovering individuals take apart the self that developed both before and after drugs and alcohol came into the equation. By understanding the driving forces behind what one man has dubbed “ritualized compulsive comfort-seeking behaviors,” you can work on the problem of a “self” that is not acting in your best interests.
Dr. Daniel Sumrok, director of the Center for Addiction Sciences at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s College of Medicine, seems to want to change the conversation and wording regarding unhealthy substance use and help us understand that adverse childhood experiences are at the core of it all. According to Dr. Sumrok:
“Addiction shouldn’t be called “addiction.” It should be called “ritualized compulsive comfort-seeking. Ritualized compulsive comfort-seeking (what traditionalists call addiction) is a normal response to the adversity experienced in childhood, just like bleeding is a normal response to being stabbed. The solution to changing the illegal or unhealthy ritualized compulsive comfort-seeking behavior of [opioid] addiction is to address a person’s adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) individually and in group therapy.”
Stigmatizing people that suffer with substance use disorders does not promote recovery, and can interfere with them getting help. The solution lies in compassion and giving people the opportunity to seek help without being made to believe that they are somehow weaker than the rest of society. In many ways, effective addiction treatment centers operating today share Dr. Sumrok’s sentiments, utilizing a method similar to his.
“Treat people with respect instead of blaming or shaming them. Listen intently to what they have to say. Integrate the healing traditions of the culture in which they live. Use prescription drugs, if necessary. And integrate adverse childhood experiences science: ACEs.”
How can you evaluate your level of risk because of ACEs?
This is the test for the occurrence and impact of ACEs.
Prior to your 18th birthday:
- Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? or Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
- Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? or Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
- Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever… Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? or Attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
- Did you often or very often feel that … No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? or Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
- Did you often or very often feel that … You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? or Your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
- Were your parents ever separated or divorced? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
- Was your mother or stepmother: Often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? or Sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? or Ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
- Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic, or who used street drugs? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
- Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
- Did a household member go to prison? No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Now add up your “Yes” answers: _ This is your ACE Score
Essentially, the higher your score, the higher your risk for chronic disease.
Intervention, Treatment and Addiction Recovery
It is important when we attempt to start a conversation with our loved ones about addiction that we have an understanding of the reasons why people seek relief through the use of substances or some other self-destructive behavior. Dr. Sumrok is suggesting that we start the conversation by understanding and acknowledging the role trauma plays in the life of someone who may be addicted. That is, be willing to open our minds to the idea that adverse childhood experiences (however, subtle) can play a major role in behavior and development, particularly as it relates to someone that is using substances in a very self-destructive way. At Family Recovery Specialists, our addiction professionals have received training in trauma-informed care and in the best approaches to intervention that take into consideration someone’s level of trauma and the presence of complex psychiatric conditions, which often accompany an individual’s use of substances. We work with both adolescents and adults who are diagnosed with addiction, substance abuse, and/or co-occurring mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, or mood disorders. We are uniquely qualified to help you with intervention or treatment services that also address the other complicating issues that are essential for long-term recovery.
We are available to help you or someone you may care about begin to take the steps toward a healthier, happier and more fulfilling life! Please call us if we can help.