Does Childhood Trauma Cause Addiction?

I recently read a Huffington Post article entitled: “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think.” The author states “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.” This piqued my interest in reading the book, “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs” by Johann Hari, who is also the author of the news article. I highly recommend the book as an interesting account of the history and progress of the war on drugs.

The author cites trauma as a likely culprit of addiction. But the concept of connection as an antidote to addiction is easily misunderstood. A quick reading of the article might cause some parents to blame themselves for a child’s addiction because they didn’t love them enough. Although relational trauma has been documented to be a potential underlying factor in predisposing one toward addiction, unconditional love as an antidote is over-simplifying a very complex issue.

A more accurate description of social connection is found in the book. It is referred, not simply to a bond with one’s circle of friends and family, but rather connection that includes jobs, housing, a sense of worth and dignity. Many of these things are lost to people who have been incarcerated for drug use. Upon release from prison, felons are denied access to public housing and have difficulty securing jobs. They lack many resources to rebuilding a stable life, thereby increasing the odds of return to addictive behavior.

I did my own amateur research on the role of social support in the lives of eleven people who are in treatment for opiate (heroin and/or pain killers) dependency. Ten of the eleven perceived themselves to have had family support prior to their dependency. And ten of the eleven perceive themselves to have family support for their recovery. Therefore, the vast majority of these people feel positively connected to their families and developed a dependency in spite of it. For them, family support didn’t cause their addiction. And family support isn’t sufficient to cure it.

I asked them to complete ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) questionnaire to assess child abuse, neglect and household dysfunction. This study was referenced in the book as an indicator of trauma, leading to negative consequences such as substance abuse. The majority (8) of the eleven people in my sample had low scores which could indicate that there are other factors that contributed to their addiction besides trauma. Granted, this is not a scientific study and should not be taken as such. It was my way to satisfy my curiosity on a small scale.

The author ends with advice to unconditionally love people with substance dependencies, rather than isolate them from their community or incarcerate them. Those who promote “tough love” demand that the addict cease all use of their substance or suffer the consequence of isolation, loss of resources and loss of freedom.

It seems to me that early childhood trauma may or may not have caused substance dependence. But I agree with the author that the consequence of social isolation will only deepen their addiction.


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