I’m 51 years old and it occurred to me today that no one gets to 51 years old without having experienced trauma. No one. We all have one very important thing in common; we’re all going to die. I’m not saying that to be negative or shocking, I’m saying it because it’s true, and it’s completely relevant to this discussion. Everyone dies, so everyone experiences trauma.
On my birthday this year, my husband took me out to dinner. We were still mourning the loss of my husband’s father 10 days earlier. It was our first night out since his funeral and our moods had finally lightened a bit. As we left for dinner we patted our 10 year old beloved dog, Patches, on the head and told her to be a good girl while we’re gone. All seemed well, but when we got home a few hours later, she didn’t bark and she didn’t greet us at the door. We found her lying in our bathroom, conscious and happy to see us, but not herself. She was trying to get up and couldn’t. We thought maybe she had been chasing the cats around and hurt her hips. She was a big dog and like all big dogs, she had developed arthritis in the last few years.
We helped her make her way into our living room and she dragged herself into her crate. Typically she would only go in there when she was frightened or when we weren’t home, so this was highly unusual. Very quickly we realized something had happened to her, and it was very bad. Over the next few grueling, traumatic hours, we watched as our once happy, vibrant fur baby took her last breaths.
For us, holding our girl and comforting her while she died was one of the most traumatic events we’ve ever experienced. And having this happen so soon after losing our father amplified it tenfold. And having it happen on my birthday added salt into what felt like a gaping wound. When compared to what others are experiencing, such as the sudden death of a child, a diagnosis of a terminal illness, or waking up every day in a war-torn country, our trauma seems very small, but for us it was massive.
I spent a few days walking around in a haze of deep sadness and shock, grieving another sudden loss, wishing that I could snap my fingers and stop feeling so utterly broken. Like many 50 something women, I had been working through some other serious difficulties over the past few years, so this became just another tragic event to endure in my life. When you’re already struggling, and then something truly tragic happens, it can either help you by putting things in perspective, or it can become another heavy burden weighing you down. For me, it felt like I was suffocating under the weight of a million rocks. This is exactly the place where people become desperate to find relief and turn to substances.
The thing about finding yourself in this deep, dark place, is there is no quick fix, but that doesn’t stop people from seeking one. Some choose heavy substance use because they believe it can provide some relief or an escape. And for some, it seems to do just that, but it’s fleeting at best. More than anything it turns out to be just a temporary distraction that in some cases adds new problems to the mix.
In the quest to help reduce the supposed stigma associated with heavy substance use, better known as addiction, the addiction treatment community have come up with a multitude of “causes” for addiction with trauma now being the most popular. Other than the fact that is it is completely false, the most serious problem with saying that trauma causes addiction is that trauma is an integral part of life…for literally everyone.
Life is simultaneously full of beauty and tragedy. It is meeting the love of your life and then after 30 years of marriage holding his hand as he takes his last breath. It is spending every minute with your very best friend in third grade only to have her move 2000 miles away at the end of the school year. It is making the varsity football team after working your ass off for 8 years, then breaking your hand a week before the first game and missing the entire season. It is giving birth to a beautiful baby boy and quickly learning that he has a serious heart defect that gives him a 50% chance of survival. Beauty and tragedy. Love and pain. Life and death.
If trauma “causes” addiction then why isn’t everyone hopelessly addicted? Why doesn’t every single person on the planet stay drunk 24/7? Why isn’t everyone taking fistfuls of valium, smoking copious amounts of crystal meth, or shooting up bag after bag of heroin? Why in countries where warfare is a daily part of life do they have the fewest problems with heavy substance use and addiction? Do we honestly think that trauma is greater here, in one of the most affluent countries in the world, where opportunities are boundless?
No, trauma definitely does not cause addiction, but by now telling people it does, you are adding gasoline to a raging fire. You are creating a belief system of powerlessness and helplessness. Certainly, trauma can be a reason that someone chooses heavy substance use — but a reason is much different than a cause. People reason their way to all sorts of behaviors — to marrying someone and then divorcing them; to getting a job and leaving one; to running a marathon and binge watching Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix. And the primary reason for our behaviors is the pursuit of happiness. People reason their way to heavy substance use because they think it will make them happier than not using.
And while this may sound overly simplistic, it turns out to be the absolute truth that ultimately sets people free. Put simply, if trauma actually causes addiction then we’re all doomed. But…if we actually reason our way to heavy substance use because on some level we see it as a happier option, then we have the power to change it.