Addiction and Trauma- A Deeper Look at Origins and Roots.

What is addiction, really? It is a sign, a signal, a symptom of distress. It is a language that tells us about a plight that must be understood.

Alice Miller- Breaking Down the Wall of Silence

The shame, guilt, and confusion

Addiction- whether it be to a substance, material, person, or behavior, can have a devastating impact on a person’s life. Even before the undesired activity, use, or relationship is identified as “addictive”, a person begins to feel the bottom slipping out from under them, a sinking realization that this “thing”- whatever it may be, has more control over them than any amount of will, self restraint, or coping skill can overcome.

I am addict. The reality is that most of us can think of a time in our lives when someone or something had almost complete control over us. My addiction manifested in the form of an eating disorder at 12- and while I am constantly on a healing journey from addictive behavior- I have had many moments in life where I recognize those insidious patterns and have had to back away slowly….

What sometimes makes an addiction so insidious is how slowly it can manifest. The addiction- in whatever form it takes- may have at one point in time been completely harmless. Perhaps it’s an addiction that was enforced by the environment in which the individual grew up in. Most people tend to feel a sense of guilt or shame when it comes to naming and admitting an addiction, and subsequently that they need help. These feelings of shame, guilt,confusion, and denial are a natural occurrence in human psychology when something goes wrong- or not as planned. Simply put, not many people intentionally become addicts. Coming to terms with addiction is arguably the most painful part, and this makes sense in light of recent research that indicates the ultimate step in addiction remission requires tracing addictive behaviors to their source- which often means examining complex childhood trauma.

Complex Developmental Trauma

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The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies task force’s definition of Complex Trauma (CT ) in adults includes the core symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder and disruptions in self-regulatory capacities grouped into five domains: (a) emotion regulation, (b) self/relational capacities, (c) alterations in attention and consciousness, (d) belief systems, and (e) somatic symptoms and/or medical problems. These symptoms most often result from prolonged exposure to multiple forms of interpersonal trauma, typically during childhood, by caregivers who are expected to provide a safe, predictable, and secure environment (Courtois & Ford, 2013).

So how does this complex trauma have anything to do with addiction? ……

I mean…so what? So you had a few things happen to you in childhood that weren’t ideal.


Maybe you did have a childhood that ticked off every category on the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) inventory. What does that really have to do with your issues as a 40-something year old?…..anyone who has read the Glass Castle knows that writer Jeanette Walls somehow ended up okay.

….shouldn’t your adult brain be evolved enough to avoid becoming an addict based off of things that shouldn’t or should have happened in childhood?

The answer is simply NO.

Of course, every child is different, and every child for whatever reason has a different level of resiliency and reaction to the trauma of their childhood. It is also important to remember that trauma is not a simple formula, and that what may be internalized and experienced as traumatic to one individual is not to another. It is also imperative to recognize and accept that trauma still happens even when we are the products of parents or caregivers who did try their best.

I personally believe that 99.9% of caregivers love and adore their children, and that any trauma that they might impart is due to circumstances or personal limitations (probably stemming from their childhood trauma) that get in the way of effective care-giving. Caregivers love their children, but trauma still happens.

The social scientist in me says that there must be something bigger happening here…. and many researchers would agree.

While the incidence of trauma has been recognized as an important factor in drug-dependent people since at least the 1970’s, it’s only been in the past decade that addiction research is beginning to show not only is developmental trauma often part of the history of an addicts profile- it is often the most significant root of the addiction itself and the precursor to all of the behaviors and decisions that lead an individual to becoming dependent (Hammersley et al., 2016).

Not only is the research finding complex trauma to be linked to substance abuse/drug addiction, but that complex trauma/developmental trauma is also linked to many other conditions that are at their core mal-adaptive, and tend to ultimately make life hard- damaging relationships, getting in the way of work and hobbies, and sabotaging a persons ability to live their best life (Carpenter, 2018).

Gabor Mate describes addiction in his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts as a place “where we constantly seek something outside ourselves to curb an insatiable yearning for relief or fulfillment. The aching emptiness is perpetual because the substances, objects, or pursuits we hope will soothe it are not what we really need. We don’t know what we need” (Mate Md, Gabor).

So how do we help ourselves? How do we help others who we suspect may be struggling with addiction?

  1. The first answer is compassion. Whether it be compassion for yourself or compassion for someone else, it is the first step in healing. Addiction doesn’t happen overnight (even though it may appear that way), and it isn’t intentional. I have attached links below to some of the best resources available today for finding treatment for addiction, preventing complex trauma in your own care giving and building resiliency and attachment, understanding your own trauma better, and ultimately moving towards a healthier future.

2. Often the second step is finding the appropriate rehab. That is where the service of Elite Rehab Placement is ideal. Elite Rehab works to make sure that the individual who needs treatment is in the BEST program and center for their addiction. Their team does the work of speaking with providers to verify what your insurance covers and explain the out of pocket costs (if any). Elite Rehab Placement even will help with travel plans if that is needed.

3. Finally….this blog post is meant to be an introduction to this topic and a jump-board for further reading and research if you are so inclined. You can also reach out to me with any questions, or check out the Mindfulness/HeartMath coaching services that I offer.


CARPENTER, Z. (2018). Lessons from the Opioid Epidemic. Nation307(3), 12

Courtois, C. A., & Ford, J. D. (2013). Treating complex trauma. New York, NY: Guilford Press

Mate Md, Gabor. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction (Kindle Locations 247-249). North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition.

Hammersley, R., Dalgarno, P., McCollum, S., Reid, M., Strike, Y., Smith, A., & ... Liddell, D. (2016). Trauma in the childhood stories of people who have injected drugs. Addiction Research & Theory24(2), 135-151. doi:10.3109/16066359.2015.1093120

Kaitlin Wheeler