Tja Ki: Trauma And Addiction

By Gilbert Shepard, LMFT

dirty teddy bear on the ground

Tja Ki was discovered by Catholic nuns in an empty Korean clinic early one morning. She had been left there by her mother the night before, apparently because her mother knew of their orphanage next door. The nuns estimated that she was one year old.

The orphanage where she was taken was very poor and food was obviously scarce because she weighed 15 pounds when she came to our home at three and a half years of age. In comparison my son weighed 35 pounds at one year old.

From the way this tiny girl behaved it was clear she had been sexually abused; she tried to please both my wife and myself by being sexual with us. She had been abandoned by her mother, suffered sexual abuse and was starving. And Tja Ki had learned to please others in order to survive.

All this abuse and neglect took their toll on Tja Ki and led to an addiction to meth when she was older. I have seen this repeatedly in my therapy practice. The pain of unresolved trauma is so great that survivors of that abuse attempt to escape it through various addictions, especially alcohol, drugs and sex.

The abandonment by Tja Ki’s mother probably traumatized her as much or more than the sexual abuse. Any infant is totally dependent upon others for survival and this includes emotional dependence. During World War II some babies in war orphanages that were emotionally neglected died – with food and blankets.

When an infant cries in that heart wrenching cry it is expressing fear of survival. If it stops crying that cry, it has perhaps given up. When we got Tja Ki she didn’t cry.

What happens if the child learns to give up her own needs as a lifelong response because she can’t get help? That learning may last a lifetime yielding loneliness and excruciating emotional agony. Using alcohol and/or drugs is an attempt to alleviate the agony.

The pain of abandonment was too much for Tja Ki to bear. How do I know that? Because when she was in the throes of addiction in a relapse after one year of inpatient treatment, she screamed into the phone to me, “Why didn’t my mother want me?” She was forty years old and the original trauma remained as if it just happened!

Tja Ki was expressing shame. She felt the reason she was abandoned was that something was wrong with her. Shame is a feeling that you are lacking value or worth in the very depth of your being. YOU are ‘shame-full’ and therefore no good.

Rooted in shame you ‘know’ that you are inadequate, insufficient and just plain bad to the depth of your being. You have a hollow emptiness within you that is pure agony. Reasoning cannot cure this result of neglect and abuse. It is emotional learning, not mental. You just ‘get’ that it was your fault or you would have been loved.

Tja Ki’s feeling was “I am no good so I was thrown away. Something was wrong with me or my mother would have kept me.” Adding to this was the overwhelming, emotionally destabilizing and traumatic effect of sexual stimulation at an early age. Her history of traumatic shocks left its imprint on her brain and made her emotionally unstable. This shame can remain for a lifetime. To a young child a moment is forever. Have you noticed how sometimes when a baby cries as if he is being tortured, distraction will stop the crying instantly? Jiggle keys and he stops! The panic has changed to curiosity.

There were many ‘moments’ in that dark room for Tja Ki. Just surviving in that dark empty room alone all night was enough to leave Tja Ki with a set up of a lifetime of terror. But in addition, she was starved. When she came to our home her skin was puffy due to malnutrition and she stared wide eyed at the pot that we took food from for her. Silent, she was obviously amazed there was so much food.

This very small child had been trained to please others sexually; to meet the needs of others. She should have experienced being protected and having her needs met. What happens if a child doesn’t get basic needs met? She becomes hyper sensitive to fear of abandonment, abuse or hunger and any hint of these yields instant panic. Many years later it still does.

Angry and defensive in her teens she was on drugs in her 20’s. After a yearlong in-patient treatment program where she was betrayed by a counselor she returned to drugs. Humiliated by her failure to stay clean she felt responsible and guilty. She knew it was her fault. However, once again the truth was that she was not protected and her betrayal – abandonment pain returned.

Trauma such as Tja Ki endured is common in people with all kinds of addictions. This trauma must be treated with the addiction or else anything that triggers a past painful memory can cause a person to flip back to the panic of an earlier trauma.

It is said that if you are using a substance therapy won’t work. But that puts a trauma based addicted person in a double bind. “I can’t tolerate my agony so I use to ease it. If I stop using, my agony returns. How can I survive sobriety?”

There are various treatments for this. One is a dual diagnosis treatment center that has therapists well trained in treating trauma. Detox removes the blanket of protection that had covered the original traumas so after detox any raw vulnerability you have is exposed.

This rawness can be a super sensitivity to any sense of rejection, which can cause panic and relapse. Skillful and supportive trauma therapy is needed to work through this next step. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) is an empirically demonstrated effective process to resolve trauma. It is endorsed by many agencies including the World Health Organization of the UN and the Veterans Administration.

While moving your eyes back and forth in a specific protocol you rapidly process your trauma and lose its effects. Then, remembering your past trauma has the neutrality of remembering eating breakfast. Best of all you realize you have always been OK and not shameful. EMDR also has protocols to remove your desire to drink or use that may yield dramatic results.

Gilbert Shepard is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Walnut Creek, California. He has worked with traumatized clients for many years and has used EMDR for about 10 years.