A renowned addiction doctor believes trauma is the underlying cause of drug abuse. Dr. Daniel Sumrok doesn’t consider reliance on drugs or alcohol as addiction. He says it’s ritualized compulsive comfort-seeking. It’s an attempt to relieve the pain of Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACE. You can read more about his findings here on Aces Too High.
An early traumatic experience changes the composition of a child’s developing brain. The child suffers damaging toxic stress as a result. Unless taught healthy methods to deal with it, the pain is constant until he or she finds a solution. Without a safe means of finding relief, the method to ease the trauma may become drugs. The individual seeks to self-medicate to relieve the pain of that experience. Drugs bring the individual relief and pleasure. The sensation masks the enduring pain of the ACE.
The Hidden ACE
Dr. Sumrok believes the traditional drug abuse treatment is wrong. It subjects patients to shame and pain instead of healing. To end drug usage as a form of self-medication, there is a need to find a safe and healthy alternative.
The first step in this process is to address the ACE. In some cases, the patient is aware of the traumatic experience. But, in others, it is unknown and the patient may not have been aware an experience was traumatic. There are several reasons why the ACE is unknown:
- The child may have viewed an abusive situation as normal. He or she didn’t register the situation as traumatic.
- Other siblings who experienced the same situation did not react to it in the same way as the patient. This can cause him or her to believe their reaction, rather than the actual event, was the problem.
- Other siblings may deny the trauma took place. There is sometimes an effort to protect the dysfunctional home environment or abuser. This causes the individual to believe he or she is the problem.
- The patient didn’t identify an event as traumatic. He or she was unaware of how devastating an effect it had
- All trauma doesn’t arise from a single, standalone event. It may have been consistent and hidden under a shroud of normalcy.
An event for health care professionals on addressing trauma took place at The Center for Integrated Health Solutions.It highlighted the importance of including ACEs in any treatment plan. The discussion included reasons why identifying the ACE may be difficult.
Dr. Sumrok begins the search for ACE with tests. These tests identify the type of trauma the patient went through. He administers the test twice. The first before he has met with and spoken with the patient about trauma and again after they have talked. There is a marked difference in the responses given before and after the meeting. He explains various types of situations and events the patient may not realize are traumatic. The patient may be oblivious that what happened to them was traumatic. NPR shared a test used to identify ACEs.
Types of Adverse Childhood Experiences
Many events can cause childhood trauma. Some of these are:
The incarceration of a family member
Parental divorce or separation
The death of a loved one.
Physical and emotional neglect
There are many studies addressing the impact of ACE in treatment. Several are online at The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
Untreated trauma has dire consequences according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Unless a child has therapy following the trauma, the pain from the trauma can last a lifetime. If he or she doesn’t find a way to cope with the experience, it creates a painful and damaging aftermath. Enduring trauma at an early age changes the chemical makeup of the brain and can stunt the child’s emotional growth. The mind urges the individual to find comfort for their pain. It doesn’t matter whether if the method used is healthy or self-destructive.
Some people suffering from trauma begin to abuse substances at an early age. The drug becomes the only coping mechanism the individual knows. The more drugs ingested, the more damage to the brain and body. Once the self-medication brings them pleasure by numbing their pain, dependence begins. The individual rejoices at something that feels good and brings comfort. In response, the brain releases dopamine. This pleasure giving chemical prompts the user to continue using the source of this feeling.
Drugs alter the chemical functions of the brain. The drug causes an overproduction of dopamine. This produces a prolonged and more intense pleasurable experience beyond what is the norm. The body increasingly becomes more dependent on the substance for the relief of pain. The choice to end the activity disappears as it’s now painful not to have it. This is not an addiction. It is a normal response to pain caused by trauma from negative childhood experiences.
The Dangers of Untreated ACE
Coupled with the untreated ACE, dependency on drugs can be difficult or impossible to end. It’s important to note, drugs are an attempt by an individual to self-medicate. The drugs are not the cause of the problem. Drugs are only a poor coping mechanism. Their use should be viewed as a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. The root cause of the problem is the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). Using shame to stop drug use is useless. Unless an effective way to address and help the patient understand and face the trauma they are dealing with is discovered, long-term recovery efforts are bleak.
Successful Treatment of Substance Abuse
An article on Train.org agrees with Dr. Sumrok and calls for changes in drug treatment methodology. It’s important to understand drugs are not the individual’s main problem. Drugs are his or her misguided attempt to relieve the pain of the underlying ACE. The drugs only provide a weak band-aid to numb the pain of the trauma. Without healthy methods to deal with the ACE, they only know how to cope using negative solutions. To end drug dependence, it is necessary to find the underlying trauma. One perfect way to do that is through dual diagnosis treatment at rehab. Once this happens, the door to recovery opens.