The Secret Epidemic of Complex Trauma

  • By Aaron Mills
  • 19 Dec, 2017

"Our brains are sculpted by early experience. Maltreatment is a chisel that shapes the brain to contend with strife, but at the cost of deep, enduring wounds. Childhood abuse isn’t something you 'get over.' It is an evil that we must acknowledge and confront if we aim to do anything about the unchecked cycle of violence in this country."   – Martin Teicher, M.D., PhD, Scientific American

Childhood plays a role in addiction, just as it plays a role in all future adult behavior. For good or ill, what happens to us when we are small will have a lasting impact. One in ten people reported to having been sworn at, insulted, or put down on a regular basis by a parent or another adult in their home. One in four people in the same adverse childhood experiences study said that they were regularly pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at them. 

One third of women and nearly one fifth of men reported an adult tried to sexually abuse them at some point during their childhood. 

Only one third of those in the study reported not having adverse experiences as a child. That is a staggering number. That implies two out of three of us had some form of abuse when we were very small. 

Complex trauma destroys the self-image

Abused children seem to be disconnected from a sense of self, almost as thought hey could not recognize their own image in a mirror. Our sense of self develops out of thousands of small interactions with our caregivers when we are small. John Bowlby discovered the captivation children have to faces, tone of voice, expressions, meter and tempo of movement. 

In many ways we gain our sense of self by the way we are treated by those who love us when we are young children. We know we have value, worth, and dignity because someone else communicates that we do through their words and actions. 
"Our brains constantly form maps of the world. Maps of what is safe, what is dangerous." – Dr. Bessel var der Kolk
Perceptions are an interesting window into abuse. An abused boy looks at a picture of a family and tells a story about how he crushed his father under a car by kicking out the jack. An abused little girl explains that the child in the picture is about to smash her father's head with a hammer. 

Little kids tell sexual tales from a photo of a pregnant woman. Images that are simple and innocent bring up emotions of anger, fear, aggression, sexual arousal, and absolute terror. 

In this study of children, many were diagnosed with ADHD because of their disorganization, wrongly placed excitement, or in ability to focus. 

The effect of a mother's touch

The way our mothers hold us as children helps our developing minds understand that the body is the place where they psyche lives. It is what makes a foundation for us to understand what is and what is not real. 

When a mother is not capable of understanding the baby's physical reality, the child will discount their own responses and this makes them vulnerable to shutting down feedback from their bodies. This in turn affects their perception of pleasure, purpose, and direction. 

Improper attachment to mom can lead to disorganized attachment. This means the child does not know if they should run to their mother or away from her. They are in a state of fear, but without a solution. 

I think in our minds we can all imagine a television show where the police officers find an abused child in a closet. The child stares with a blank face, unsure if he should run to their new protector or run away from them. They do not know what safety looks like. 

By kindergarten many disorganized children are either aggressive, checked out, or entirely disengaged. They go on to develop a range of psychiatric problems. 

It is not only abuse that can cause disorganized attachment in babies. For instance the mothers from 9/11 with PTSD were six times more likely to have emotional problems. Sometimes after a trauma or death the parents of babies are incapable of offering emotional stability, comfort, and protection to their babies. 

We still need attachment, even as adults

Human beings need attachment. This does not lessen or go away after our childhood. In fact people who are disconnected may even find other way to connect like lawsuits, illness, or feuds. Anything is better that being disconnected and not mattering. We need to be needed. We want to be wanted. Even being hated is better than being forgotten. 

This is why emotional detachment as parents is so damaging in the long term. 
Childhood sexual and physical abuse can predict self-inflicted harmful behavior. Abused people are far more likely to commit suicide, or to engage in cutting. 

Loving a home where there is no love

Children exposed to torture and brutal abuse will almost always prefer to stay in that home rather than be placed into a foster care system. Wanting to cling to an abusive situation or relationship is not limited to children, though. 

This loyalty to an abusive environment creates the rage of helplessness, despair, and endless feelings of loneliness. Whatever we suppress in one place will boil over into another. These feelings of anger and rage become self-directed. Self-hate and self-harm can follow. 

Abuse can create physical changes in children

Events in our lives can trigger a process called methylation where extra information is added to the outside of one's genes. This allows genes to be turned on or off. These triggers can also be passed down to children through something called epigenetics.

In studied rats, a good mother rat who licks and cleans her pups will turn on and off over 1,000 different genes. This will have the effect of creating lower stress hormones and more intelligent rats.  

Monkeys who were raised without parents would cling to their peers. They had short serotonin allels. In humans this condition is associated with sensation-seeking suicide attempts, severe depression and aggression. Those same monkeys also had increased cortisol levels, which is the hormone that causes stress. 

How do we approach healing complex trauma?

The first approach is to re-connect with other people, to become aware of what is happening, and to process the memories of the trauma. The second approach is to use medication to shut down improper reactions and alarms. We can also use technology to affect the way the brain organizes information. 

This can be coupled with experiences that contradict the message of the trauma. When we experience having value, being competent, and having success, it helps us establish a new better and more accurate sense of self. 

Lastly, we must practice the social and emotional skills that trauma prevented us from developing. It is never to late to work on these skills and learn to be a more complete and fully developed person. 

"Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o’er wrought heart and bids it break."   – William Shakespeare

Choose not to be a victim for the rest of your life

None of us chose to be a victim of abuse in our childhood or at any point in life. But we can choose to remain victims. 

Addiction and trauma are closely related for many dealing with sobriety . We can point back to trauma and say ____ happened to me and thus that is why I am the way I am, it is not enough. 

Simply pointing to the cause and effect of our broken self-image and under-developed social perceptions is not going to heal us until we decide we do not want that trauma to rule over the rest of our lives. 

At some point we have to decide to decide. We must make an effort to correct the damage that has been done, so we can escape our victimized perception and grow into the complete, healed human beings we are capable of becoming. 

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By Jenny Hunt 22 Jan, 2018
So often I talk about the big blessings of sobriety – great job, great life, great friends, great relationship with my family, and that feeling of inner peace and contentment. Sometimes I forget about the little things. Little things that were so out of my reach in addiction, I didn’t even believe they were possible. So here are some of those things, in no particular order:
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Two days after the 1986 NBA draft, No. 2 pick Len Bias was dead of cardiac arrest after of a cocaine overdose.

Len Bias: Best player Maryland had ever seen (maybe the best Maryland player ever, depending on how you feel about Juan Dixon). The future of the Celtics. About to sign an endorsement deal with Reebok. Life was perfect.

Cocaine killed that. He was 22.

Bias hadn’t left home to play college ball; he was a home-grown talent who came up just outside D.C. and played ball in Maryland so he wouldn’t have to leave his family. He had a future as wide-open and promising as any kid, ever. Already a star, a freak of athletic power and poise, he might have changed the world of professional basketball. He’d fueled the dreams of a thousand city kids who wanted to play like him, be him. He swaggered, Len Bias did. His opponents couldn’t fathom him: “He’d jump and his knees would be in my teeth.” He dunked on guys, whether he needed to or not, just because he could. Len Bias could fly.

And then cocaine ended him.

Here’s how it went down: Bias and three buddies were snorting coke in a dorm room, suite 1103 in Washington Hall. Bias did a line, tried to get up, fell back on the bad and lapsed into seizure. One guy held his legs. Another one put the handle of a pair of scissors in Bias’s mouth, to keep him from biting his own tongue. The third somehow called 911 and mumbled, over and over, that his friend was in trouble. Kept saying his friend’s name, even when the emergency operator told him it didn’t matter. “This is Len Bias. You have to get him back to life. There’s no way he can die.”

But drugs don’t differentiate. Substance use, abuse and addiction have attacked athletes across the spectrum of sport.

By Emily Johanson 18 Jan, 2018
If a stranger in a gas station parking lot asks this question, it’s easy to assume what’s going on.

“Nope. I’m fine.”

“You sure?”

“Yep, thanks.”

After working a full day, then sitting through a 4-hour class, the last thing I was in the mood for was to be pestered by a drug dealer at 11 p.m. All I wanted was to get my Marlboro Smooths and go home.

As I got into my car, annoyed by the fact that I had to start it with pliers (broken car keys aren’t worth the $200 replacement), something told me to stop.

I reversed, and rolled down my window next to the mysterious black Toyota.

“What are you selling?”

He told me that he had whatever I needed: Weed, percs, Xanax, heroin, flakka, oxies, you name it.

Addiction was too close to home to keep from speaking up.

“Do you realize what you’re doing? Do you realize what you’re selling?”

He was silent for a minute, staring at me. After what felt like eternity looking into this man’s eyes, I decided that I had the freedom to continue. What else do I say? I began to tell some of my story. I served him my heart on a silver platter.

“You don’t have to do this. There are other ways to make money.”

He looked down in shame. I encouraged him to take a few of my Desert Rose company cards in case he knew someone who needed help. He got out of his car, took the cards from my hand and stood there, shaking his head. With tears in his eyes, he said, “They’re for me.”

I sat there with this guy for 45 minutes while he poured out his heart and story.

Gary told me he’s 49 years old, works on classic cars by day, and sells drugs by night for extra money. He has a beautiful son who he loves with all of his heart. When he removed his hat and pulled his shirt collar aside, his bald head and IV port revealed his personal nightmare: Gary was also fighting stage four colon cancer. He made it clear that his cancer was not an excuse for his behavior, or for his personal drug use.

I was caught off guard when Gary squeezed my hands and began to pray. He prayed against forces of the enemy. He prayed for blessing over my life. He prayed protection and favor over his son. For himself, he prayed for wisdom and strength to do the next right thing.

As he walked back to his car, he turned around and said, “It’s time for me to go home and kiss my son good night. Thank you for reminding me of what’s important.”

Every day, we pass people by, like they’re just part of the scenery. We have absolutely no clue what kind of story, beauty, and pain lie beneath the surface.

If you're in pain, please know we understand and we're ready to help. Call us today at (844) 338-5587. 
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How do you carry your recovery into the world? Do you pin it on daily, like a badge of honor? Do you bring it out just for special occasions, or do you keep it well and truly hidden?

Last month, a longtime acquaintance told me (in slightly hushed tones) that he’s in recovery. 

I was glad that I didn't hear any traces of shame or guilt in his voice. His long-ago drinking and drug use? It’s just the life he was living at the time. He’s not afraid of being judged, or of any stigma attached to substance abuse and recovery.

It’s just that he’s moved on. He’s private about being in recovery and it’s not particularly relevant to the life he's achieved – husband, father, business owner, artist, athlete. He sponsors people, even quietly mentions that he’s a former addict when he thinks it might help somebody. He probably won’t bring it up with his kids unless they ask him point-blank, once they’re old enough to understand. It’s a crazy-healthy way to be.

For some people, declaring their recovery to the world is a part of staying clean. It gives them a sense of identity and a tribe – their own #MeToo community. They’re vocal, active, engaged. These are the folks going into the prisons, leading the meetings, talking to groups of high school students and their parents. Walking though recovery means talking about recovery. They have no secrets.

Then there are others who’ve closed and locked the door. The subject is not open for discussion, and if you happen to touch upon it, everybody’s going to feel a little uncomfortable for a while. This happened to me not long ago, with a pastor friend. Trying to find a way to refuse a glass of prosecco I offered, he made a joke about being an overachiever in everything – including, at one time, drinking. He made his point in a way that made it clear that was all he was planning to say on the matter. His right, and I respect that.

It seems to me that there are a million ways to navigate long-term recovery. What’s your way?
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