“When I was a kid, something traumatic happened to me and kept happening for quite a few years.”
There is an unspoken rule when you hear words like these shared by a survivor in the recovery community. You wait. You don’t ask questions. You shut up and let the person tell you. If they don’t expand or elaborate, you let it go. You respect the uncomfortable, private silence of a trauma victim, a big space full of painful downward glances. You let them have their moment and quickly pivot into a changed conversation topic.
These were the words of Stephanie K., who was 70 days sober when we first met and spoke for an episode of my podcast. I told her that this phrase of slowly spoken syllables stayed with me and kept resonating and repeating, like notes of a sad, familiar melody. A nerve was struck, and it triggered a scene from my youth, and “that person” that used to take me on walks when I was a small child. The lure was to “go see the dog tracks,” a place I suppose was on the trek around the block or wherever, and would eventually end up in the bushes or under the grove of pine trees. I don’t remember where, but I remember. I was probably about 4 or 5.
Immediately I knew that Stephanie and I belonged in the same clubhouse. Same buttons on our jean jackets, like medals from a trauma-filled battleground in some barely-known early childhood development skirmish.
The term “trauma” is frequently used to describe an adverse or malignant reaction to a singular or repetitive event that caused severe or psychological harm. It is characterized by the inability to move past and process an experience without reliving it repeatedly. In a 12-step program, the term “resentments” get substituted here, but it hardly seems strong enough in this case.
Trauma victims may develop severe mental illnesses for which they turn to drugs and alcohol. Data published in the JAMA Psychiatry suggest that more than 30% of all people living with PTSD will develop a major depressive disorder, and the Department of Veterans Affairs reports that 10% of all Americans suffer from trauma-related depression each year. The National Institutes of Health reports a clear and distinct correlation between childhood trauma and drug and alcohol addiction.
These types of incidents that we experience in our formative and vulnerable years can often result in behavior that shapes our long-term development. The facts show that more than a third of adolescents with a description of abuse or neglect will have a substance abuse disorder before they reach their 18th birthday.
For Stephanie K., it manifested itself into self-medication, food addiction, excessive behavior and drug abuse.
“When I was 12, to cope with what was happening to me, I would steal from my mother’s medicine cabinet. I didn’t know what I was stealing, but I was taking her Darvocet. I would get so sick, but I kept doing it to forget.” (Darvocet was recalled in 2010 when the FDA announced that the painkillers might increase the risk of heart problems, suicide and overdose)
At first, Stephanie’s substance use was just on the weekends. She was a self-described “popular girl” who hung out with older guys. She didn’t think there was a problem. No consequences showed up, and no red lights were flashing. She was having fun.
In 2013, things changed. A failed marriage sent her spinning. As she tried to regain control, she found herself turning to mind-numbing, heart-protecting behavior. Adderall. Cocaine. Sex. Starvation with no food for days. Everything, then nothing, and then more of that. Repeat and repeat.
Trauma is like rust. It just keeps corroding you.
At Christmas 2015, Stephanie was hugging a beloved nephew goodbye and realized at that moment she didn’t care if she saw them again. The thought of not living in pain became an option, and she found herself 24 years old and wishing life away. She was drinking and taking a lot of drugs and taking the frustration out in other ways. She had been to rehab and detox twice.
“I spent a lot of time focusing on my eating disorder, and I just kind of decided I was done. I needed help. I did not want to keep living the way I was living. It was exhausting,” Stephanie says.
She knew that it was time to get some help, so she researched and started eating disorder recovery. As it does for many of us, it would take a few stops and starts to get to where she is today.
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Shame is the root of the addiction tree, the cement in the foundation. To an alcoholic, addict, or trauma survivor, Shame is the heavy woolen coat that we can’t take off even on the warmest summer day. “I feel like what happened to me as a child, as a teenager, with what happened to me in my marriage, all stripped away my self-worth,” Stephanie says. “I forgot who I was and felt like nothing.”
During treatment, she found a way to start working through the pain of her shame. Each day without substance use or eating binges or starvation was a deposit in the savings account of self-esteem, building the confidence that comes with a period of abstinence and wellness. These were the first steps in the long walk back into the freedom of recovery.
When asked how she is doing at 228 days, job searching during a pandemic, Stephanie says that the drugs and alcohol have been tempting, but she does not want to throw it all away. “I have come so close — but then I think, will it really help anything?”
“I have trouble sitting with myself alone,” Stephanie says. “It all comes down to self-worth. What happened to me, what I was, is not who I am. I am better than I was. Now I surround myself with people with my best interests in mind, which is the most important thing. I remember the people who have fixed my heart or helped me stand on my own. I am the one that does the work, but I truly could not be who I am without their hands to hold along the way.”
Acceptance. Letting go.
When we finished our call, I felt the sympatico of another overcoming their illness. That ability to look at who we were, see what we did, and realize we have come so very far is the ultimate reward for those on the recovery road. To tell on ourselves when we feel less than fine and to hear ourselves speak the secrets that are the whispers in our minds. To know that all that happened, but to know it is not happening any longer.
In our world, that is the moment of self-validation that brings the bow of the head, the tears to the eyes, and the private smile no one sees. When we know we are going to make it. When we know.