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Addictive Disorders

The legacy of family trauma

Early in my early career I developed a framework for understanding the many long-term consequences for growing up in a family affected by addiction. This would be pivotal in the foundation of the adult child (ACA) movement. The body of knowledge that was created offered an understanding of the phenomena of delayed stress—when you live with continual stress, you take the vulnerability of who you are as a child, the pain, the losses, and then the defenses and faulty beliefs into your adult life.

In time, this information fused into an era where we addressed these issues as codependency. The codependency movement expanded this body of knowledge to include others from all types of impaired families. But the point of sharing this is what was learned about so many people who identified as adult children and codependents—that their early childhood experiences were traumatic, and many of the consequences were actually trauma responses.

When people think of trauma they most often think of natural disasters—fires, hurricanes and tornadoes, or public shootings, and certainly acts of terrorism. It may come with the experience of war, a rape, a car accident, or burning of a family home. These are very horrific situations that frequently lead to trauma responses. Yet the majority of people who experience trauma will experience a more subtle and more chronic form of trauma that most often occurs within their own family system. In families impacted by addiction, the traumas may be blatant physical or sexual abuse. They are often the result of emotional forms of abandonment. To live with fear on a chronic basis at the time in your life when you are developing your worth is traumatic to any child.

At times of trauma, the natural response is to run. With situational traumas, we picture people running toward home or family. The question here is, “Where do you go when the trauma is in your home?”

Trauma is defined as “stress that causes physical or emotional harm from which you cannot remove yourself.”

When it is not safe psychologically or physically to be who you are, to own your truth, what you see, and how you feel, then you move into various trauma responses—you fight, you flee, or you freeze.

It is the fight, flight, and freeze responses that people take with them into their adult lives, wreaking havoc for themselves and their relationships.

Exposure to extremely stressful situations at the vulnerable time of childhood compromises the ability to be resilient to other stressors in life. Substances such as alcohol, other drugs, and food, as well as behaviors, are often a part of an attempt to reduce stress, lower anxiety, or improve mood all in an effort to cope.

Ingestion addictions, such as alcohol, other drugs, and food, and process addictions such as gambling, sex, and love, and work are about erasing the pain; it’s the fight or flight.

Everyone raised in families or homes with addiction or other painful circumstances vows to themselves or someone else that they will never repeat their childhood experience; they aren’t going to repeat history. They genuinely believe they are going to be able to do it differently. They want to do it differently. But the legacy continues as family members act out spiritual and emotional bankruptcy, often running and seeking to medicate, not even realizing they are on the well-trodden path doing what comes most naturally to them.

If the legacy doesn’t continue with active addiction, it is perpetuated with repetitious relationships with an addict. Codependent traits of low expectations and high tolerance for inappropriate behavior, coupled with low self-esteem, are often a part of the freeze response that fuels trauma repetition.

The more trauma someone has had in his or her life, the more likely he or she will experience depression or anxiety, and often a combination of both. Activation of the flight, fight, and freeze responses is a protective, biological response when the stress is short term. But if one remains in stress-induced levels for long periods, the stress hormone called cortisol increases anxiety and depresses mood. Because the brain’s stress response system is also vulnerable to disruption by toxic stress during a child’s development, this means that exposure to toxic stress in early childhood can change the way the brain interprets and responds to stress, making an individual more sensitive to stress in general and, one more time, prone to mood disorders. Depression and anxiety are also consequences of a habitual pessimistic and disordered view of the world. Where better to learn such thinking than in an addicted, violent, emotionally abandoning household?

As overwhelming as this may sound, the possibility of recovery is readily available. Trauma-informed programs create a foundation of safety wherein the client can name that which has been traumatic and recognize the impact it is having on his or her life.

Realistic and important goals in early recovery for those with trauma histories are:

  • To lessen emotional reactivity; to calm the part of the brain that keeps one in a fight, flight, or freeze state when not needed.
  • To tolerate uncomfortable feelings without engaging in self-defeating behavior.
  • To stay in the present; to not live in the past or future, but the area in which one has the power to affect.
  • To define boundaries that offer safety.
  • To set appropriate limits that honor those boundaries.
  • To recognize and disrupt shame-based thinking and behavior.

For many years we have recognized how devastating addiction is for the individual and the family members, but too many people have been unable to garner or maintain recovery because the issues of trauma have been ignored. Looking at this vital component will make the possibilities of recovery that much more possible and successful.