Childhood Trauma

By David Smallwood

Childhood Trauma

Over a hundred years ago Freud proposed that our future lives are mapped out by our first few years of experience.

Whilst I don’t necessarily agree with how he described the various states of ego, I can readily understand that our experiences as children will consciously and subconsciously affect how we go through life.

I very much believe that those of us who are in the addictive spectrum are different to others because we feel a greater amount of sensitivity when compared with the norm. I believe that we are born this way and that this is at the root of all addiction and co-dependency.

If I ask any addict the following question I know what the response will be:
“Were you more sensitive as a child than siblings and peers?”
The only answer I ever get is: “Of course I was.”

So how does this work? Well, let’s start at the level of the brain. (I’m not a doctor or a scientist but this is so obvious that I think it’s easy to understand.) We essentially have two different parts of the brain that are involved with addiction.

The first part is the cortex. This is the crinkly grey bit that most people identify as ‘The Brain’. This part has only been around in its present form for 70,000 years or so.

It has developed as our need to process and think logically has increased in order to use tools, communicate and to process complex information. On the other hand, we have another part of our brain that is much older. The first recognizable human was Homo Erectus about 1.5 million years ago, and this early human possessed a ‘mid-brain,’ or ‘limbic system’ that we still also have today.

It exists in the centre of our skull and is connected to our senses. This part of the brain has the ability to completely override our cognitive brain because it has a ‘Fight, Flight, or Freeze’ response as part of its action.

So when we are in mortal danger (or it perceives we are) the limbic system takes over and gets us to a point of safety.

If you are a very small child and you are frightened (let’s say by a dog biting you), your limbic brain takes over and acts. In the case of a child, that usually means the reaction is to freeze.

What’s more, having acted like this, the limbic system stores the information to be used again if the threat reoccurs. So if you see a dog another day, you will automatically freeze because the response is locked into your limbic memory.

Now, if you add into the mix the extra sensitivity we spoke about, you can see that many things have the potential to cause us trauma – and for that trauma to be repeatedly triggered.

Picture then a child, who is more sensitive, and he or she sees, hears and feels things that cause them distress. What can they do to feel ok?

The child will look for comfort primarily from its caregivers (mum and dad etc.). But if this comfort is not forthcoming (or if parents or caregivers are the source of distress) the child will try to find coping mechanisms to fix the distress.

The most common source of childhood distress, which is nearly always present in addicts, is a feeling of shame.

If a child is made to feel shame because of how it looks, feels or acts, this is captured by the limbic system and stored. (The ‘thinking’ cortex is quite often not yet on line in early childhood, so we are unable to rationalize and resolve this emotional trauma).

I am sure that most addicts know about shame. What we may not know however is that there are two distinct types. There is shame that is healthy (resulting from doing something socially embarrassing for instance), but there is also what Pia Mellody calls ‘carried shame.’

This is shame that usually belongs to a parent or caregiver but is picked up by the child as if it were responsible.

For example, if one parent is having an affair and asks the child to keep a secret then the child will immediately become traumatized. And he or she will feel their parent’s shame.

Whilst it is easy to see how extreme abuse (physical, sexual, verbal) would traumatize a child, it is very often not the case. However, because of the sensitivity felt by those of us in the addictive spectrum, even relatively trivial stimuli can cause distress.

I can to this day remember as a very small child holding onto the upright bars in a cot and crying as my parents left the hospital ward I was in. I was not physically hurt, but the feeling of utter abandonment is still with me. I felt ashamed of not being ‘perfect’ and being defective.

We cope with this distress by altering ourselves to a state that we think is ok. So early on we often try to be ‘mummy or daddy’s perfect child’, or we try to get good grades, or be good at sports. By doing this, we can constantly look for attention or affirmation.

On the other hand being very bad also gets us the attention we need, or we can go on to find a role in the family as a ‘hero’, or a ‘lost child’ or a ‘scapegoat.’

When eventually we find a process or a substance (starting with sugar, caffeine or nicotine), that helps us cope with the distress, then the stage is set for a full-blown addiction.

If we are lucky, we eventually get to a point when we realize that our lives are a mess and we ask for some help to get us back to a place of recovery and contentment.

In the view of many people in recovery this is nirvana. It matters not which recovery path that people take – the point is that it’s much better than anything they’ve experienced so far and they can start to get a real life. However I believe that this can be a dangerous place.

It’s true that life might now seem manageable, relationships might reestablish and blossom, jobs can materialize and the rollercoaster can get to a level track … but despite all this we still remain vulnerable.

This is because all of the shame and guilt locked into our limbic system is still sitting there just waiting to be triggered.

In my humble opinion it will not matter one iota how many times the programme or the steps are worked through – the minefield of unresolved trauma it still waiting to be triggered.

It may never happen, but if it does (sometimes after many years as an ‘old timer’) the result can be that we resume doing what we always did when it was triggered before, i.e.: we start to USE.

If you have good recovery, but there is a nagging feeling of not being ‘quite right’, don’t ignore it, get help.

It can get fixed and it just might save your life.

David Smallwood is the author of “Who says I’m an addict?” He holds a Master’s degree in addiction counseling and a post graduate diploma in therapeutic counselling. He trained as a therapist at the Promis Recovery Centre in Kent under Dr Robert Lefever. He is currently the National Treatment Director for One40 Ltd. He helped to pioneer Mellody model trauma reduction workshops alongside non- cognitive therapeutic treatment.