Women, Addiction and Trauma: Some Sobering Facts

When I set out to write this article, I thought I’d provide some statistics to give readers a sense of just how prevalent traumatic experiences are for women—whether the trauma comes from being the victim of a violent crime, sexual abuse or a different source, I knew the statistics would be terribly high. I started researching and came across an article about walking alone at night, written by a woman who was sick and tired of the harassment—the catcalls, whistling and worse. Upon discussing this article with friends, I realized that I could share something much more powerful than percentages and numbers. I can share my personal experience: I don’t know an adult woman who has never experienced some sort of personal sexual violence. I’m going to repeat that because it bears repeating: of all the women I’ve spoken to in my life—friends, acquaintances, family members—100 percent have had at least one personal experience with trauma. Official estimates specifically regarding sexual abuse are lower. About 15 years ago, I attended a conference on treating women survivors of sexual abuse. One of the speakers opened his presentation by recognizing that if we looked around the room, given the official statistics, we could assume that at least 75 percent of the therapists sitting there seeking advanced training in treating survivors were survivors themselves. Many of us in the audience broke down in tears—being recognized for all we had been through and continue to go through as survivors was intensely emotional.

Coping With Trauma: The Substance Abuse Connection

I can’t resist sharing at least one statistic. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that as many as 80 percent of women seeking treatment for an addiction have a trauma history; and that’s only those seeking treatment, and only those who report that history. Think about all the women who can’t quite manage to ask for help. Add in the women who do seek treatment but feel too ashamed to report that part of their history includes incest or rape, and the numbers are staggering. Research has shown that traumatic experiences change your brain. Maybe more importantly, therapists and survivors can tell you that experiencing trauma changes your life: your behavior, your outlook on the future, your attitude and beliefs about people … all are impacted by experiencing trauma. While not all people who have a traumatic experience develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), those who do struggle with truly horrifying symptoms. Intrusive memories, flashbacks, hypervigilance and crippling anxiety are common symptoms of PTSD. The simple experiences of daily life can be terrifying trials for people struggling with these symptoms. There are a few medications to try to ease those symptoms, and some work better than others. Certain types of psychotherapy, including a specific type of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) specifically designed to use with people struggling with PTSD can be very helpful. However, being able to take advantage of medications and therapy assumes that you can get to the clinic or doctor’s office—for some people struggling with severe PTSD, just sitting in the waiting room triggers symptoms. For others, the bus ride or walk may be overwhelming. And using CBT requires focus, energy and commitment—all difficult to muster when half of your energy is taken up with trying to deal with the anxiety just leaving your house has caused. The truth is that alcohol and other drugs provide much faster relief. These substances are insidious as they work to calm the anxiety and stop the flashbacks, but create a host of other physical and emotional problems. Many women develop addictions because we have to function—our kids need us to get up each morning and be mom. Our partners need us to keep going. Our bosses need us to show up. And we find ways to make that happen. For many, many women struggling with addictions, it all started as a way to cope.

Beating Addiction, Healing From Trauma: A Two-Pronged Approach

The good news is that healing can happen. Treatment for addiction can also help address PTSD symptoms and other issues that both trauma and addiction create. Using therapy and medications as directed by your prescriber, you can get clean and live well, not tormented by the anxiety, depression and misery that trauma causes. It takes time, and it is a journey that can take you through many feelings (anger, sadness, fear and more anger are all common along the way) before you arrive at a level of peace and acceptance that pave the way for enjoying a sober and healthy life; the truth is, there are no shortcuts. There are no ways around those feelings. The only way to get past the dark and difficult places is to move through them. Lean on your sponsor, your therapist, your partner and your faith, and you’ll get through.    

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