Did you know that in the United States, one in six women and one in thirty-three men has been the victim of a rape attempt? Did you know that one in four girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18? Did you know that an estimated 63,000 children are sexually abused each year?
While instances of sexual violence have significantly decreased in the last 20 years, this violence is still a very real problem today. Not only that, but the implications of past abuses live on well past that 20-year mark, and that continues to be a problem.
Sexual abuse of any kind is considered a trauma. In fact, many survivors of sexual abuse are suffering from PTSD. The problem is that many of them either don’t realize it, or they try to hide it scared to admit what happened. So, they look for other ways to cover up what they’re feeling. Enter drugs and alcohol.
When a person experiences the level of trauma associated with sexual violence or misconduct, they often choose to cope with their feelings and emotions about the event by self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. Over time, their dependence on these substances can turn from occasional use into more frequent use and eventually into an addiction. However, when the true source of their addiction — their past trauma — is not identified, they often find that traditional treatment for substance abuse is not sufficient.
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The Link Between Trauma and Addiction
In order to understand why traditional substance abuse treatment doesn’t always work with trauma victims, it’s first important to understand the link between sexual trauma and addiction.
Alcohol, drugs and sexual abuse are locked in a cycle that can sometimes have a vague starting and stopping point. Children are at especially high risk of physical or sexual abuse if they live in a home with a parent addicted to drugs or alcohol. After all, these substances impair judgment and a parent’s ability to provide daily care and support in the same way they would if they were sober. Even if the addicted parent doesn’t abuse the child, they leave the child vulnerable to abuse by other adults through lack of supervision.
We aren’t saying that an eight-year-old will become an alcoholic. It may not happen right away or even at all. Addiction is also not unique to someone who experienced childhood sexual trauma. What we’re saying is that when a person experiences the level of trauma typically associated with sexual misconduct or violent sexual behavior, there’s a tendency to turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain and avoid dealing with the trauma they’ve experienced. If their parents abused drugs or alcohol, they may be more likely to continue the cycle later.
For some people, this tendency can turn into a full-blown addiction. Why? Because when a person becomes addicted to drugs and alcohol, their body and brain adapt to the presence of these chemical substances, and it gradually takes more and more of the substance to achieve the same effects they sought in the first place.
Why Do They Turn to Drugs or Alcohol?
One of the hardest parts of this issue is that the addiction presents itself as the more prevalent symptom. Even if a person is willing to admit that they’re addicted to drugs or alcohol, they may not be able to admit — or even realize themselves — that their addiction is a direct result of a traumatic event experienced in the past.
When a person is treated for addiction, but the root of their addiction isn’t managed, it can create significant barriers to recovery, failing to address what has motivated them to turn to drugs or alcohol in the first place.
Someone might turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with the pain of sexual abuse for a number of reasons, including:
- To reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation
- To escape or cope with traumatic memories and the resulting feelings of sadness and depression
- To improve self-esteem
- To engage in self-destructive behavior that they actually have control over
- As a form of self-medication instead of turning to a doctor or mental health professional to work through their traumatic memories
Gender, Abuse and Addiction
Typically, when we talk about sexual trauma, we talk about women — and with good reason. As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, women are significantly more likely to experience sexual trauma during their lifetime.
As a result, you’ll also notice that more of the research surrounding sexual trauma and its long-term effects — including substance abuse — focus on women. In fact, based on these studies, women are at a higher risk of relying on substance abuse to deal with sexual trauma. Why?
1. Statistics Show That Sexual Abuse Happens to Women More Frequently Than Men
Ninety-one percent of sexual assault and rape victims are women. In the United States, one in four girls will be victims of sexual abuse before the age of 18, while one in six boys will be victims of sexual abuse. Consequently, the female population has a higher risk of addiction in response to trauma.
These facts do not mean that men cannot fall victim to addiction and turn to drugs and alcohol to deal with sexual abuse. The fact that their statistics are not as high as women’s doesn’t mean they’re not significant. Even one sexual abuse victim is too many. If you suspect that someone you love has experienced sexual abuse — whether they’re male or female — it’s crucial that you encourage them to seek help immediately.
2. Research Shows That Women Are More Likely to Use and Abuse Drugs and Alcohol in Response to a Childhood Trauma
There is a much stronger link between alcohol abuse and women who have been the victim of sexual abuse than for men in the same situation. One of the theories for why is that women tend to internalize trauma more than men and therefore may be more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors like abusing alcohol as opposed to acting out. Of course, that’s not always the case, so it’s important to remember that each person is unique and may have a different story, regardless of their gender.
We need to say it again: Sexual trauma is NOT gender specific. Ten percent of reported rape victims are male, and that does not account for those that go unreported. Over the years, there have been many people who have been skeptical of the idea that men can be sexually assaulted. They falsely believe that men should be strong enough to fight off an attacker or refuse to be coerced into a bad situation. Some theorize that it’s related to sexual orientation. None of these ideas are true.
Just like women, men can be intimidated or scared into submitting to unwelcome sexual acts. Just like women, men can be attacked or injured in the process. If you or someone you love has been the victim of sexual trauma — regardless of gender — it’s important that you ask for help.
What to Do If You Suspect Abuse
While substance abuse is typically linked with sexual trauma that happened in the past, we need to pause to say this: If you suspect that someone is currently being abused, it’s critical that you urge them to seek help. You can do so by providing them with resources, such as the number to the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-4673) or encouraging them to seek medical help or report the crime to their local police. If a child is involved, they may require help from child protective services or the local authorities.
It’s never okay to sit back and watch someone being hurt. We know it can be painful and sometimes awkward, but the alternative is way worse. If you find yourself in this situation and are not sure how to help someone you care about, you’re also encouraged to reach out to the National Sexual Assault Hotline or another, more local group that can provide resources for you and help you know the best way to act.
How to Talk About Abuse With a Loved One
Whether the abuse occurred 10 months ago or 10 years ago, it can be difficult to know how to talk with someone who has experienced the trauma of sexual abuse. Besides encouraging a victim of abuse to seek out help from medical and mental health professionals, allowing them to talk and share their feelings with you can be a valuable process as they begin to work through the trauma they’ve experienced.
When it comes to showing support to a loved one, there are three primary ways you can let them know you’re there for them.
1. Know What Resources Are Available
Whether it’s having the number for a sexual abuse hotline or communicating with substance abuse treatment facilities and mental health professionals, it’s important to do your research. You won’t necessarily want to share all of your research with your loved one, but by taking the time to know and understand more about what they’re going through, you can be better prepared to walk through the healing process with them.
2. Remember That Recovery Is a Process
Working through trauma, as well as confronting an addiction, is a process. Your loved one will not be healed overnight. Their memories will not disappear, nor will their urges to cover up their feelings and emotions. Avoid talking to them in a way that implies they’re on a timeline or taking too long to work through their issues.
3. Check in Regularly
This step can look different for everyone. For some, it may be a daily note of encouragement. For others, it might mean a weekly phone call, text or visit. Make sure your loved one knows you still love them and support them as they work through the process of becoming sober and confronting their past.
If they’re in a treatment program, there may be limitations on your communication, so make sure you ask about the program’s guidelines in order to make sure you don’t create a problem for your loved one or their treatment team.
When you’re talking with your family member or friend, consider the following phrases:
- I’m sorry this happened: By acknowledging that their trauma has had a huge impact on their life, you communicate empathy and that you are truly glad they feel comfortable enough to share with you.
- It’s not your fault: Since victims of sexual abuse tend to blame themselves, it can be comforting to them to hear you remind them that they did nothing to deserve what happened to them.
- You are not alone: Talking with you will likely be an encouraging step in working through their memories. Having the support of a friend or family member can be a valuable tool in the healing process. However, it’s important to encourage them to seek out professional services designed to help them work through their experiences and reclaim their lives.
- I believe you: When someone feels comfortable enough to share their story with you, affirming them without questioning their memories or pressing for details is important to help them feel secure and comfortable.
When a person is addicted to drugs or alcohol, it’s very likely that they may need the assistance of a substance abuse treatment facility. Commonly referred to as “rehab,” a high-quality treatment facility is designed to help addicted individuals through their initial period of withdrawal — which can often be very intense — as well as provide them with a new set of coping strategies and skills that will allow them to move forward and reclaim their life.
If you suspect that your loved one’s addiction stems from past trauma, it’s especially crucial that you look for a treatment facility that specifically digs beyond the symptoms of addiction to identify its mental and emotional causes. Some refer to this type of treatment as “Trauma-Informed Care,” or care that’s specifically designed to address the individual’s history and not just their addiction.
At Tranquil Shores, our dedicated professional staff is committed to providing you with a calm, understanding environment where the detoxification process can begin. Not only that, but we consider our program to be a critical step for individuals who have suffered a past trauma and chosen to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Through a combination of counseling and medication, our goal is to ease you through the detoxification period and then work together to help you begin your journey to healing and wholeness.
If you or someone you love is struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, remember that there’s help and hope for you and them. Contact us today for more information and assistance.
*Updated: November 7, 2018