This Is How Childhood Trauma Can Lead To Struggles With Addiction

Macro view of a brown dare devil beer bottle in silhouette with blurry city lights behind it
Eeshan Garg / Unsplash

“Of all the stories I’ve done in my life, and all the experiences I’ve ever had, and the people I have interviewed,” Oprah later told CBS News, “this story has had more impact on me than practically anything I’ve ever done. It’s changed the way I see everyone.”

I watched and listened intently to the broadcast of Oprah’s game-changing program about childhood trauma on 60 Minutes. I was so excited that she was bringing this to the forefront; no one listens more closely than when Oprah speaks. And it is about time, as our loved ones are struggling, many are even dying. There is a cure, yet often we are looking in the wrong direction.

We all know, or most of us know anyway, about Oprah’s childhood background of physical and sexual abuse. One of the things I most admire about her is her ability to be completely honest, without shame. She came out of these experiences a better person; everything she does makes others want to be better people too. Her microphone is loud and uplifting. When she speaks, people listen.

I, too, know about the effects of childhood trauma as it is what I have been trying to describe, not for the last few weeks, but for more than a year.

Like Oprah, this knowledge of childhood trauma has changed the way I see everyone. Everyone.

You see, I am the real-life example of what Oprah is bravely and fiercely bringing to light—an example of the impact our adverse childhood experiences have on who and what we will become.

This new knowledge and approach aren’t new at all. Dr. Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who spoke with Oprah on the program, has been teaching this approach for trauma-informed care for decades. But we are only hearing of it now. That is the power of Oprah.

But while I listened and agreed with everything said by Dr. Perry, Oprah, and others, what was missing was any mention of childhood trauma also causing alcohol and drug addiction later in life.

Sadly, I realized the impact of our early childhood far too late. My own brother became another one of the many alcoholic branches on our family tree. I spent years desperately and obsessively trying to save him. I sacrificed my own young children, my marriage, my career, and my personal health on a quest, not because I was a hero but because I too was broken, lost, and affected, having been raised in an alcoholic home with violence, fighting, uncertainty, and constant chaos.

As a child, I became strong, stoic, loud, and able to take on the world. I also became my little brother’s protector, from the time I was six years old, and I took that job seriously, like a soldier protecting her country. My sweet, kind, soft-spoken brother would become scared, fearful, insecure, and riddled with anxiety. Alcohol took all that away. Well, for a while.

Sadly, my brother lost his brave battle with alcohol addiction and mental illness in March of 2012 by taking his own life. He was 39. His name was Brett.

The last thing I ever want to do is rewrite history or to tell a story that isn’t one hundred percent true. My deep desire for truth led me to a greater understanding of alcohol, drug addiction, and mental illness, which has left me shattered and at times rocked to my core. I believed when my brother was still alive that he was drinking based on simply being “addicted” and for a variety of reasons he wasn’t willing or able to change. It seems preposterous to me that, during his twelve-year struggle seeing therapists and doctors, making several suicide attempts, and enduring more than seven rehab stays, no one realized that they were looking in the wrong direction. Which in turn caused us, and him, to look in the wrong direction.

We heard the same answer over and over—“Stop drinking. You must stop drinking.”

Definitely no “trauma-informed care.”

I see now my brother’s struggle began long before he ever took that first sip of alcohol. I do believe that my brother’s problems began with feelings he didn’t understand, childhood trauma that—since he didn’t remember them because he was only two- and three-years-old at the time—confused him. I believe he “felt” the effects of our early childhood which transitioned into mental health issues that continued to go undiagnosed.

Dr. Gabor Maté, a Canadian physician who is a renowned speaker, best selling author, and highly sought-after expert on a range of topics including addiction, stress, and childhood development, is another wonderful doctor like Dr. Perry. He brings attention to the impact these challenging experiences have on the most severely addicted, claiming that at the core of all addictions is trauma, and that adverse childhood experiences have been shown to exponentially increase the risk of addiction later in life.

I would have never even known who Dr. Maté is except for the fact that one of his books was sitting on my brother’s Bible in his living room when I cleaned out his apartment after his suicide more than six years ago.

I read my brother’s book by Dr. Maté—In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction—so my brother continued to help me on this journey long after he was gone. Was he on the edge of finally getting the help he needed? I will never know.

What I do know is that I was always of the mindset that our childhood hadn’t affected our brother. I felt it certainly had nothing to do with his drinking. I was protecting him and my parents, too. I never wanted him to think less of them. After all, our mom and dad are not perfect and they loved us very much. So, I remained silent. And in the end, I wasn’t protecting him at all.

As Oprah and Dr. Perry talk about in the 60 Minute broadcast, unresolved childhood trauma can cause a variety of problems including doing poorly in school, anger issues, juvenile delinquency, anxiety, depression, and more severe mental health issues such as PTSD. But what she didn’t talk about was that it can also lead to drug, alcohol addiction, and even suicidal ideation later in life. I was saddened that they missed that “game-changing” connection.

But it seems that we sometimes aren’t ready to hear what doctors, therapists, psychiatrists, and psychologists have to say. Even Oprah admits she had to convince the producer of 60 Minutes, about the importance of this topic. I get it and I guess I shouldn’t continue to beat myself up and feel like a failure when no one wants to hear what I have to say. After all, if the amazing Oprah still has to persuade others, maybe the world isn’t ready to hear from a sister.

My parents didn’t beat my brother or me, but the scars remained and I believe with all my heart those scars set the stage for what was to come. Just because trauma doesn’t always leave broken bones or black eyes doesn’t make it less impactful. The same goes for abuse. But so many, like me, stay silent; we are so scared of hurting the ones we love. We’re terrified of the judgment of the world that tells us to “get over it” or “you can’t blame your parents.” We need to remove the word “blame” from these conversations. This is not about blame; this about some of the reasons why these things happen. It takes bravery and courage, not only for those who speak out, but for the family surrounding them, to hug, support, and love them as each individual experience matters.

I remember one of the biggest lessons I have ever learned from Oprah Winfrey: that telling our stories can change the lives of others. I hope in some small way, I can be a part of that.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. What a beautiful and important time to bring people together to talk about this often hidden and controversial topic-and that must include addiction.

Sometimes it is not the clinical version, the doctors, the Ph.D.s, the textbook statistics or even the world’s most beloved celebrity that will help someone else, but the experiences of every day, average people that bring us together. To give knowledge, strength and make us feel less alone.

Alone. It is what I felt for so long. It is how I believe my brother felt. TC mark

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