2017 was athe most difficult year of my life. I had a health crisis, had to go away to Arizona and leave my 10 year old son for 45 days, had to surrender my 20 year pharmaceutical career and income, lost my mother and lost my mind for a while. Ironically or maybe not, it all began with a heartfelt prayer. I recognized I was unhappy, angry, depleted and questioning whether life had more than what I was experiencing. My chase after money as God supreme and the answer to all my woes was never-ending. No matter how much money was in the bank, I never felt fulfilled, joyful or grateful. Thankfully, after years of doing recovery work and going to meetings and meditating and seeking, I did realize I was off course. I went to see an energy healer and everything changed-quickly. I set an intention with her to remove any negativity or fear that was standing in the way of my connecting with my inner joy.
It all began with a crazy rash and a crazy GI effect. I went to the OB/GYN seeking answers and thinking it might be a hormonal imbalance. I was 48. I was perimenopausal. The GYN sent me to a nutritionist. The nutritionist too quickly labeled me "Leaky Gut", put me on a drastic elimination diet (no dairy, no gluten, no sugar, no caffeine, no processed foods). I was already thin at 5'7" and weighed 125. I couldn't afford to lose more weight. My work addicted mind which now had no work to focus on turned from studying Pharma world to studying leaky gut world. The internet is a miraculous and awful tool depending on how you utilize it. It is filled with any and all stories-pro and con. You can find what you are looking for, even if it is wrong. In my case, I was looking for the solution to Leaky Gut and all I found were tales of horror about how I would never eat normally again, special diets, autoimmune issues, etc. After months of researching this diagnosis and despite all the medical professionals telling me my physical exams showed me in perfect health, I lost my ability to reason and fell into deep despair.
After being on the diet for a few months, I now weighed 109 pounds. My doctor told me my condition was psychological. That angered me. I was not a mental case. I was someone who was given a diagnosis who had symptoms similar to what was reported for leaky gut online and I was following the nutritionists guidance on what foods to avoid. He said he thought my former eating disorder had been triggered. I was never anorexic. I wanted to eat. I loved food. I had no urge to throw up. What was he talking about. I couldn't see how my addiction was triggered, yet it was. I was insane. I was convinced I was sick when I was not. I could not tell the true from the false. Apparently, just being on the diet and going back to the idea that some foods are good and others are bad was enough to trigger my disease. My brain recalled the pattern of my old eating disorder and ignited panic in me.
I was baker acted because I told the doctor I was having dark thoughts that I couldn't go on living in this state of despair, frightening low weight, and loss of control. I couldn't properly parent my child, I couldn't eat out at restaurants, I thought I had to eat special Gluten Free foods, I thought I had to have fresh chicken or meat and never left overs, in following her elimination diet, plus an IBS diet from my Gastroenterologist and a low histamine diet from online, I was left with 20 foods to eat over and over and I was a mess. I thought God had abandoned me. I prayed hard and constantly and thought my prayers were unheard. Until finally, the doctor in the hospital where I was Baker Acted told me I needed to go to treatment for my eating disorder. I couldn't believe my ears. I had never been to treatment. I didn't have an eating disorder. What the heck was going on.
A voice within me said this is for you. Follow this path. You need to go. Don't question anything anymore. Look at you. You are stuck in a hospital bed because you started to think life wasn't worth living. You have made your family scared. You need to go.
I agreed to pack my bags and get on a plane two days later and go to treatment in Arizona. I had no idea what treatment was like or what was in store for me. I was about to embark on the most difficult 45 days of my life. The lessons I would learn and the experiences I would have the people I would meet would impact me forever. Sometimes the greatest gifts in life come in the most awful wrapping paper. This gift was such a gift. It would never be my first choice and yet I am so grateful today for the experience. It taught me I am not in control, the importance of accepting and feeling all my feelings, the power of excellent therapeutic help, the gift of self care, the horror of ED in girls and women of all ages, the amazing gift of horses and much more. I highly recommend Remuda Ranch in Arizona if anyone is in need of therapeutic help. Tell them Cate Stevens, author of Addictionland, sent you!
To say three is only one rock bottom in the recovery process is like saying there is only one awakening. Thankfully, there have been many more moments of enligtenment than moments of complete despair and hopelessless. However, I came into the 12 step program full of ism's and sickness and defects and it has taken years to uncover the many layers and their impact on my life and the lives of those around me.
First came my rock bottom with alcohol and cocaine. It happened in November of 1999, nearly two years after consistant alcohol and drug poisoning and darkness, and landed me in an emergency room with a Cardiologist who sternly suggested I get my rear end to the nearest 12 step meeting. Almost four years later, I hit another bottom with my bulimia. Sliding down a bathroom wall staring myself in the face full of anguish, hopelessness and pain, I cried out to G-d asking how I had failed? Wasn't I working my 12 step program diligently enough? Wasn't I doing everything a good little girl should do? I had to become willing to let other girls know I suffered from bulimia and help them in order to find my way out. Up unti lthat time, I wanted G-d to help me but I wasn't interested in what he needed from me in exchange. Small oversight but big impact once I became entirely ready to have that defect removed.
And still other bottoms in areas like sex and co-dependency. Like the one I face now-parents with failing health. Mom with stage 4 lung cancer. Father with internal abscess and unresolved illness. "Worries" about their comfort, their support, their feelings on mortality and G-d, their passing all contribute to my defect of overwhelming loss of control and fear. The rapacious creditor, alcohol, must have a brother called fear who, left unattended will eat at the walls of the lining of your stomach like h. pylori, like is happening to me. I have worried myself sick or, in taking short cuts with green powder drinks that can do more harm than good and are not regulated by the FDA, altered my reality by taking short cuts to nutrition.
I like to be in the drivers seat but somehow that always leads me into dark sections of town where my car is being surrounded by threatening characters. I intend to find a beautiful waterfall next to a serene lake with lilys floating on top but that never happens. When I let go, ask G-d and my sponsor for direction, get quiet, take my inventory, ask for direction and help and sincerely become ready to have G-d remove whatever defect stands in the way of my peace, G-d can restore me to sanity and transport me to the exact spot/peace of mind I seek. I can't control what is happening to my parents just like I couldn't control many things as a child or in early recovery. What I can control is my understanding of the Power in my life that can solve all my problems and if I am clear on how unlimited, loving, intelligent, interested, knowing all Power truly is, I can allow myself to be where I am, feel what I feel, take positiive action and expect Good orderly results.
As I approach 17 years of sobriety, I am careful to take stock of my daily plan of recovery. I attended a meeting last night where four people with 12-21 years of recovery all made the choice to pick up a drink again. I only know they did this because they had luckily made it back to the program and were sharing what went wrong. Each of them said their lives got full, they stopped going to meetings, let go of their sponsor and being a sponsor and got the feeling they were "cured". I listened intently because my program has changed and I am careful to make sure I am spiritually fit under my new plan.
In my first few years of recovery, I went to 3-4 meetings a day! I was single, excited about my new life and eager to learn and connect. I was riding a tremendous pink cloud and it was great. I have never lost interest in recovery because of the spiritual focus and how great my life has become. However, there is that notorious however-life has gotten extremely full and perimenopause has moved onto my street and all of sudden I am feeling a full range of emotions again that are easy to misinterpret as relapse mode. Irritable, restless and discontent!
Old tendencies make me want to blame something or someone outside myself for my lackluster attitude. Al-Anon meetings quickly put that idea to bed. I am addicted to making other people or situtations my problem and that is never the truth. People and things like my job might cause me stress but stress is a relative term. Stress is the result of the stories I tell myself in my head. And, my head, I have learned is the dangerous street where my addiction hangs out. I need to continue a daily program of recovery to maintain my spiritual fitness or I am powerless over the gangsters that hide in the recesses of my mind.
This year, I have learned the tremendous effects menopause has on a woman's mind, body and spirit. My lack of desire for sex, my foggy brain, my quick shift to anger, dread, etc all have their roots in my shifting Estrogen. The great news is that being sober allows me to do the necessary mental and spiritual footwork to uncover and resolve the true root of my problem. I can treat my hormones with an educated physician and I can treat my mind with the truth about aging gracefully. I can affirm that as I age, I become more beautiful rather than listening to my addiction that wants to find every flaw and every wrinkle.
I have begun studying positive psychology. I love the field and much of it mirrrors step work. Positive recovery is action based and focuses on positive action for wellbeing. Writing a gratitude list, noticing what is going right in my life, telling others how much they mean to me, practicing meditation and deep breathing are all core practices of positive pyschology. I have a deep interest in becoming happy and not just sober. I notice many people with long term recovery feel the same. I believe the steps help us clean up our side of the street and then there are many other practices we can participate in that will increase our wellbeing. Doing service in the program or any charity for that matter offers the ongoing high I never got from a drug.
I finally had the epiphany that I have been chasing the wrong goal all these years-perfection. No wonder I never feel good enough! Now, I turn my attention to the growth instead. When I look at all I have learned since I entered recovery, I know I hit the lottery. Each day I wake up sober I have another chance to connect with people I care about, learn things that interest me, make mistakes and laugh at them, become a better mom, wife and daughter, and the list goes on. I am free from multiple addictions and I understand that the happiness I have always sought in achievement is absolutely buried under that goal. Instead, I seek happiness in a life of meaning and purpose and I am everything I ever needed.
On my run this morning, I was thinking about the "waves" of life and how to stay afloat when the going gets rough. Perfectly calm water can only exist in a vacuum. Because other elements exist, like earth, air and fire, the water is affected and waves arise. On a perfect day, when I have practiced many of my spiritual disciplines such as acceptance, exercise, breathing, service to others or meditation, my inner self is calm and I have a better chance of responding to life. On other days, when I rush out my front door to work without reading a positive passage or taking time to get centered, I am more easily disturbed by the blowing of the wind, shifting of the earth and heat of the fire.
I am extremely grateful for my recovery lifestyle which shifted me away from constantly being a victim into a life of empowerment. I face many circumstances today which have the potential to completely paralyze me with fear or pain and, instead, I CHOOSE recovery. I am able to choose it because I am not on drugs. When I use drugs/alcohol or any mind/mood altering substance, I lose my choice. I work a program one day at a time, year after year, for close to 17 years now, because the risidual effect of doing so is what helps me face and flow with life's waves.
Today, I expect waves. Today, I do my best to not close my eyes and turn my back on the waves. Today, I believe I can turn into the wave and ride it in the direction intended for me and end of up exactly where I am meant to be for the moment. Circumstances, like my mom's terminal illness, certainly weigh on my heart and mind greatly. I choose to be there for her. I choose to feel my feelings, share with my loved ones, cry my eyes out and then get up and go see my mom as often as I can. Changes at work impact me. My territory had two representatives working it for eight years. Now, it's just me. I could tell myself I can't do the work and complain or I can sit with my manager and strategize how to best spend my attention/effort and take responsibility for my efforts. Recovery teaches me to give every outcome to my higher power. I am only in charge of my attitude and my effort.
People misbehave all the time. I believe hurting people hurt people. I believe people show you who they are and their behaviors are about their wounds, not anyone elses. What the world needs now is a whole hell of lot more love, compassion and tolerance. Anger and resentment don't take effort. Rising above the wave does. For me, that begins with self-care. By attending to my mind, body and spirit each day, I calm the waters and can be of use to others instead of a hardship
I began the practice of hot yoga six months prior to my mom's lung cancer diagnosis. It may sound odd to some, but I did this at the instruction of Angel Healing cards my aunt sent me which kept suggesting I do more yoga and meditation. The deck of cards has over 60 cards and no matter how many times I shuffled them, the same two cards appeared about yoga and meditation. In hindsight, I can clearly see that I was being guided to a practice that would help we weather some of life's roughest seas.
I remember sitting bedside to my mother in the emergency room after she was rushed to the hospital post chemotherapy for her cancer. She developed a rare condition called Rhabdomyolysis which is a breakdown of muscle tissue releasing damaging protein in the blood. She could barely speak and I could see the fear and confusion in her eyes. My mother is a very strong woman and seeing this in her brought me to my knees.
If it wasn’t for the yoga, I think I might just collapse right now. My core was already strengthened from daily participation in my recovery program and now, the yoga strengthened me further. Some might look at hot yoga merely as a form of great exercise. For me, it is a teacher given to me at exactly the right time to teach me how to suit up and show up when I would normally collapse and fall down. The messages of yoga, spoken by my teacher in class, are always exactly what I need to hear and remember.
Matt says, “In between your poses, relax. Let everything go. Be completely still. Let the energy of the pose revitalize you.” He constantly reminds me to breathe through my nose to slow down the heart and return to calm. When I begin to project into the future and worry about my mom and how her lung disease and cancer might progress, hot yoga offers me a way to return to the moment, rely on the conscious flow of energy and trust.
I feel relieved of the burden of thinking I need to control anything. I am restored to sanity. I do my third step everytime I enter class and offer my whole being to the G-d of my understanding to guide, heal and restore me. I begin every class with an intention. Lately, that intention is to heal and align myself for maximum positive energy to flow through me to optimize my well-being and the well-being of those I love. I may not be able to cure my mother’s condition but with hot yoga, I learn how rely on my inner power to be of maximum service to her in her time of need.
As time goes by and my life experience increases and deepens, I realize more what it means to let go and let God. Before now, I was unaware of all the silent demands I placed on people, places and things to behave and exist in a way I deemed acceptable. Discomfort and pain are my signals today that something is misaligned in my thinking, rather than in my life. I understand that rather than expecting outside conditions to change, I just might need to adjust my attitude and expectations.
It is a blessing to have that understanding. This understanding enables me to loosen my grip on what I prefer things to be and, instead, embrace what my Higher Power offers me. When I want others to act a way that will provide me more comfort, delight, security, etc -and they can't or won't act that way- I now accept things as they are, trust there is an opportunity to grow and look to adjust my perspective of God's goodness in my life. I ask myself questions like "How might this person, place or thing be a teacher for me? What lessons can I learn from this experience? What is this person, place or thing forcing me to address that I hoped to ignore or avoid?"
Recovery has taught me that when I am placing demands I am acting like a toddler having a tantrum. More than likely, God knows exactly what I need and when I stop pounding my closed fists on the table, he can gently place his goodness in my lap.
My husband and son are asleep after a fantastic night in the neighborhood trick or treating. I love anything, including a holiday, which accentuates innocence and imagination. I love the amazing costumes. I love the taste of banana chews. I love the chill in the airl. I love coming home after the long evening and having a bowl of cereal, instead of a line of cocaine.
Halloween was one of those big party nights for me when I was still out there using cocaine and alcohol. I loved to dress up and pretend to be someone else. I loved the strange vibe in the air and the parties. I thought I was having such a good time until I realized addiction tricked me.
I don't miss hiding the baggies in my costume and snorting lines in a bathroom stall. I don't miss smoking packs of cigarettes because I couldn't stop. I don't miss grinding my jaw and making a fool out of myself. I don't miss blackouts and not remembering where i went or how I got home. I don't miss the wretching from too much booze, the hangovers or the spent money.
Recovery has treated me with the ability to walk my son by the hand around the neighborhood with my head held up high. No one today would imagine or believe the hell I experienced. For a moment tonight I thought, boy it would be nice to be having a glass of wine and a little blow. Then, my recovery voice laughed and replied, "What glass of wine? You would have chugged the whole bottle if you were using cocaine. You wouldn't be at a party. You would be delusional, paranoid, wired and wacked out. You would be miserable, alone and desperate. You ended up in an emergency room from your last party for goodness sake! What do you miss?"
Like I said, recovery is a treat and addiction is full of tricks. Luckily, I don't fall for those tricks anymore.
If I spend time thinking about the various issues specific to addicted clients I come up with a few central themes. Many people need to find a sense of purpose, some need to find a sober place to live, and others need to find a way to earn income or repair family relationships. However, what is needed to follow-through on any of these tasks is a sense of self-esteem, or what I like to call ‘Emotional Competence’ or EC. I think of of EC in this way: are you up to the task at hand? Do you have the ability and wherewithal to follow-through? It seems to me that if you don’t like who you are and you can’t take ownership of the successes in your life then it’s very likely you’ll never like who you are. I am convinced that there is a direct relationship between poor self-esteem and giving away all of the credit in your life to a higher power.
While there are many causes of poor self-esteem, I am not convinced it is necessary that you need to know why you dislike yourself. All of the reasons we dislike who we are tend to manifest in the same way and the end result is the same: poor self-esteem, diminished self-confidence, and a poor self-concept. Rather than focus on changing the past (which is generally impossible) let’s use this time to focus on how we can feel better about our place in the world. I want to posit seven ideas for change. It’s important to try and change how you feel about yourself as poor self-esteem can lead to relapse.
1) Sentence completions: on a piece of paper start with a sentence that says “I like myself because” and complete the sentence as many times as you are able. If you feel blocked you can try “I could like myself if…..” and complete several sentences. Note any patterns and share what you learned with a trusted friend or mentor and ask for feedback.
2) Affirmations: I could spend hours writing about affirmations so I will simply encourage you to look online for ways to create affirmations. When you complete affirmations just remember: they need to be said in the present, they need to be realistic, and they need to include a level of risk. When I say ‘level of risk’ I am simply suggesting that you can read them aloud, read them to yourself in a mirror, write them on a piece of paper, read them into a tape recorder and play them back, or you can go for the highest level of risk and read them to another person.
3) Forgiveness: I suspect we all have done things which are less than flattering to our ego. It will be likely that many times the stupid thing you have done will simply work itself out and people will see that you made a mistake and will be able to let go of their annoyance about you and your actions, so take heart in that. Other times the act perpetrated against us is so great that forgiveness seems like too huge a leap – perhaps we can begin by remembering that forgiveness is about forgiving the person and not the act. Seek more support if this is a block to you.
4) Volunteer work: My grandmother would tell you that if you want to raise your self-esteem you need to do esteemable things. I am a GIANT fan of volunteer work and have done all kinds of volunteer and service work in my life. When you have a “dark night of the spirit” and you feel bad and you have done volunteer work, no one can take away how you have helped another human being lessen their burden or suffering. Your behavior is in black and white. Never forget that. Two of my favorite websites include: Serviceleader and Volunteermatch.
5) Meditation: My idea of meditation is to simply focus on one thing at a time. I like the idea of sitting on the bed in the morning when we get up and before we retire. Focus on something that makes you feel joy and breathe in through your nose and out your mouth – try this for at least two minutes each session and I suspect the long-term benefit of this practice will surprise you. If this doesn’t resonate with you, I want to invite you to explore the online resources available to you.
6) Therapy: Having a trained listening ear is important for accountability and support. We tend to experience distress when our perceptions don’t match reality. It is important to have someone provide feedback that can tell you where you might be stuck. I have been very fortunate to have worked with some very excellent clinicians in my time and these people have been invaluable to me.
7) Start something new or do something you love. If you like working with older adults, chances are that the people you work with also love that you’re willing to step up and volunteer your time. Perhaps you like walking someone’s dog or you are jazzed about writing to homebound seniors. Have a desire to connect with folks? You could begin a blog or a get involved in a letter writing campaign. My sense is that when I push myself past my comfort zones the rewards are huge.
While it can be likely that you can manage living your life entrenched in self-hate, it’s not fun and your life will feel really small. Do something good for yourself and work on yourself esteem – your recovery will thank you and the people in your life will notice that you have changed.
Whatever you decide to do, I want to invite you to begin today.
I wanted to share some of my feelings around the recent loss of a man who was loved by world. He loved to make us smile, laugh, cry, and giggle. A man who cared so much for others, including our Armed Forces around the world. He gave of his time generously, and we all never knew how much he was suffering on the inside. I shared some of this on my own personal recovery blog a few days ago, and it hits on some key points that we all as human beings can learn from. Of course, I'm talking about Actor & man of Comedy, Robin Williams.
Life just all on it's own can be a journey of good and bad, trials and tribulations, happiness and blessings, but when we see someone on the outside, we really never know what's really going on inside. I also talk in my blog post about the Stigma around the issues of Recovery, Addiction, Mental and Emotional illness and disorders. Which these same issues and a few more were part of the why's that took his life ...
“Robin Williams, Actor & Comedian describes his lifelong struggle with addiction that today is a ‘Haunting Awareness’ he had about recovery from addictions. . It’s a recovery legacy, an addiction awareness that he left for those of us who live life in recovery. Even though he lost HIS battles yesterday of addiction, recovery, and battle with mental health issues, he left this message, these past quotes for all of us to know, understand, and take to heart. . When will this trend of suicides due to ‘Dual Diagnosis’ of addiction relapse & mental illness? It’s time to STOP the government CUTS to proper Mental/Emotional Health & Recovery Services from Addictions! There are thousands of us out here who are not famous, or have the money for these almost always very expensive recovery and mental health services and treatment centers. But even when you have the $$$$, like Mr. Williams, guess it really didn’t help him now did it? . . Snippets Of Mental Illness, Addiction & Recovery After Thoughts In His Own Words…
It’s not easy, and it’s a very POWERFUL example of the daily battles we can have, and even long-term recovery people can have a life threatening RELAPSE at anytime. . “It waits,” he told “Good Morning America” in 2006. “It lays in wait for the time when you think, ‘It’s fine now, I’m OK.’ Then, the next thing you know, it’s not OK. Then you realize, ‘Where am I? I didn’t realize I was in Cleveland.” .
Williams, the comic whirlwind known for his hilarious stream-of-consciousness ramblings, was found dead Monday after the 63-year-old hung himself in his San Francisco Bay Area home in perhaps his final attempt to silence the demons that relentlessly targeted him. . ”Cocaine for me was a place to hide. Most people get hyper on coke. It slowed me down,” he told People in 1988. .
“The Belushi tragedy was frightening,” Williams told People. “His death scared a whole group of show-business people. It caused a big exodus from drugs. And for me, there was the baby coming. I knew I couldn’t be a father and live that sort of life.” .
“I was in a small town where it’s not the edge of the world, but you can see it from there, and then I thought: drinking. I just thought, ‘Hey, maybe drinking will help.’ Because I felt alone and afraid,” he told the newspaper. “And you think, oh, this will ease the fear. And it doesn’t.” .
“One day I walked into a store and saw a little bottle of Jack Daniel’s. And then that voice —I call it the ‘lower power’ — goes, ‘Hey. Just a taste. Just one.’ I drank it, and there was that brief moment of ‘Oh, I’m OK!’ But it escalated so quickly. Within a week I was buying so many bottles I sounded like a wind chime walking down the street.” .
“You know, I was shameful, and you do stuff that causes disgust, and that’s hard to recover from. You can say, ‘I forgive you’ and all that stuff, but it’s not the same as recovering FROM it.” .
“Just as the gay rights movement only gained momentum when individual men and women summoned the courage to “come out,” I believe it is time for those of us who have struggled with depression to stand up and be counted.To understand depression and to reduce its stigma, we need to pull back the veil to show its familiar face”. “So I am officially coming out of the closet”.
*My own after thoughts? Robins Williams death makes me feel some FEAR if I’m open and honest here. Is this what I have to look forward to because I live my life in recovery and battle mental illness? I can’t help but wonder, and makes me a bit edgy. . We can still learn a lot from a man who truly put into words his past battles with addiction, recovery, and severe depression. The answer to my question from my earlier post of the non-famous that passed away yesterday? The other nameless people who were NOT in the headlines, or made national news? HOW many nameless people die from mental/emotional illness’s & addictions by SUICIDE EVERYDAY? … Here is our ANSWER. . SUICIDE: Suicide (Latinsuicidium, from sui caedere, “to kill oneself”) is the act of intentionally causing one’s own death. Suicide is often committed out of despair, the cause of which is frequently attributed to a mental disorder such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder,alcoholism, or drug abuse. Stress factors such as financial difficulties or troubles with interpersonal relationships often play a role. Efforts to prevent suicide include limiting access to firearms, treating mental illness and drug misuse, and improving economic development. Although crisis hotlines are common, there is little evidence for their effectiveness. .
Older age is associated with increased risk of suicide; people above the age of 65 are at the greatest risk for death by suicide. Approximately one million people commit suicide each year worldwide, that is about one death every 40 seconds or 3,000 per day. For each individual who takes his/her own life, at least 20 attempt to do so. Suicide has a global mortality rate of 16 per 100,000 people.
Just another precious life of a man who loved others, went out of his way to make people laugh, cry, and enjoy anything he was in of his movies. He enjoyed stand-up comedy, which is when he was at his BEST. And to the Williams Family, the world is praying and grieving right by your side...
A study published in the August issue of the journal Addiction and summarized on PsychCentral by Richard Taite looked at the impact of second-hand trauma on later substance abuse. Researchers looked for traumatic medical events in the families of 1.4 million children born in Sweden between 1984 and 1995 by examining hospital discharge records. They were able to identify children who had a parent or a sibling who had been diagnosed with cancer or an immediate family member who suffered an injury which resulted in permanent disability or who had been a victim of assault or who had died. They then assigned each child a score of 0-4 depending on the amount of secondhand trauma s/he experienced. Then the researchers turned to medical, legal and pharmacy records to see which of these children were diagnosed with substance abuse problems when they reached their 20’s.
The researchers took care to control for other factors that might promote substance use, such as socioeconomic status, drug use by family members, psychological wellbeing and parents’ educational level. What they found was striking: Children who experienced even one of the four secondhand traumas under study had twice the risk of later drug abuse. Children who experienced the death of a parent were at greatest risk. Having a parent or sibling who was the victim of violent assault was the second most powerful factor. The PsychCentral report points out that “substance abuse was even higher in children whose siblings had experienced trauma than it was in children whose parents had been traumatized”. The authors of the study had high confidence in their findings since they were able to conduct annual sampling of a national population over a period 16 years and because they had access to multiple data sources in order to identify cases of substance use disorders.
Of course, previous studies have noted the impact of adverse childhood events (ACEs) on childrens’ emotional development. As I explained in another post researchers have found that people who endure a great deal of toxic stress spend much of their lives in fight, flight or fright. As the ACEs Too High Newsletter explained in October 2012:
“(These children) respond to the world as a place of constant danger. With their brains overloaded with stress hormones and unable to function appropriately, they can’t focus on learning. They fall behind in school or fail to develop healthy relationships with peers or create problems with teachers and principals because they are unable to trust adults. Some kids do all three. With despair, guilt and frustration pecking away at their psyches, they often find solace in food, alcohol, tobacco, methamphetamines, inappropriate sex, high-risk sports, and/or work and over-achievement. They don’t regard these coping methods as problems. Consciously or unconsciously, they use them as solutions to escape from depression, anxiety, anger, fear and shame. (http://goo.gl/VEl0ez) (Please continue reading)
However, the Swedish study suggests that we should be extremely thoughtful about the needs of children in families who are coping with even a single traumatic event. I think that a child who appears to be coping quite well in the face of a family tragedy may be at particular risk. If the child continues to achieve at a high level in school and doesn’t present obvious behavioral problems, it may be tempting for overwhelmed parents or busy teachers to imagine that she is relatively unscathed by a catastrophic event. However, recovering alcoholics and addicts often tell me that, as children, they acted to protect parents who were struggling with disastrous family events by stifling their own feelings and trying at all costs, not to add to their parents’ burden. Suppressing natural reactions to huge family events can take a huge toll on a child’s mood, even if the entire cost of the effort doesn’t appear until later in life. I often think of the observation made by author and grief counselor Dr. Alan Wofelt that “anyone old enough to love is old enough to grieve“. He notes that adults commonly avoid discussing death with children because they fear they will exacerbate the child’s grief by taking note of it. But, as Dr. Wofelt points out, children will grieve anyway, and worse, they will feel all alone with their pain if adults do not address loss and help them to process it. Dr. Wofelt has suggested guidelines for helping children to cope with grief. While he is talking about what to do when a child loses a loved one, it is my experience that these guidelines are useful and pertain to any catastrophic family (or community) event. Here is Dr. Wofelt’s guidance:
“Be a good observer. See how each child is behaving. Don’t rush in with explanations. Usually, it’s more helpful to ask exploring questions than to give quick answers.
When someone loved dies, don’t expect children’s reactions to be obvious and immediate. Be patient and b e available.
Children are part of the family, too. And reassurance comes from the presence of loving people. Children feel secure in the care of gentle arms and tenderness.
When describing the death of someone loved to a child, use simple and direct language.
Be honest. Express your own feelings regarding the death. By doing so, children have a model for expressing their own feelings. It’s all right to cry, too.
Allow children to express a full range of feelings. Anger, guilt, despair and protest are natural reactions to the death of someone loved.
Listen to children, don’t just talk to them.
No one procedure or formula will fit all children, either at the time of death or during the months that follow. Be patient, flexible and adjust to individual needs.
Adults must recognize their own personal feelings about death. Until they consciously explore their own concerns, doubts, and fears about death, it will be difficult to support children when someone loved dies.”
How have you handled difficult family events with your children? Do you have your own suggestions?