The Tangled Relationship Between Addiction and Trauma

Upset woman

Why do people start using drugs? And who will become addicted and who won’t? These are profound questions that have no simple answer. There’s not one reason that is common to everyone who starts using drugs and then becomes trapped in their use. There is, however, a predictable pattern.

Some people simply begin using drugs recreationally in a group of friends. Others are trying to overcome a lack of self-confidence or a sense of not fitting in. Other individuals are trying to cope with the stresses of work, school or relationships. In each case, drugs appear to solve a problem. They appear to provide a solution to a problem the individual has been unable to solve themselves.

What’s less clear is why some people can’t seem to stop. One possible answer is they are unable to due to some unseen trauma. It’s not easy to see is how many people have severe trauma in their histories. This isn’t something that most people mention conversationally. It’s easy to see, however, why trauma in one’s history could lead one to seek relief and obliteration of the memories through the use of marijuana, alcohol, opioids or other drugs.

Traumatic Experiences in Real Life

Over the years, I have read many accounts of addiction as well as in-depth interviews with people suffering from addiction. I was startled at how often abuse was mentioned.

For example:

  • Rape and abuse as a child
  • Domestic abuse
  • Sexual abuse by a cousin for ten years starting at three years of age
  • Sexual abuse by an uncle and beaten by husband
  • Father was a meth cook who was emotionally abusive
  • Mom’s boyfriend emotionally and physically abusive
  • Physically and sexually abused by father and other men

Physical Injury

There were also many mentions of physical injuries such as these:

  • Broken neck when younger
  • Car accidents
  • Spinal fusion hit on the head with a brick
  • Knee injury, bleeding stomach
  • Back injuries

Severe injuries can result in pain or painful memories that never go away. Alcohol, opioids and other drugs can make them go away for a little while.

Personal Loss and Emotional Trauma


Then there are severe personal losses that send some people into a spin that only ends with them in rehab.

  • Mom tried to commit suicide twice
  • Brother died of a heroin overdose
  • Friends killed by gangs
  • Lost a baby
  • Mom died in a motorcycle accident
  • Both parents died

It’s simply not easy to recover from these types of trauma. The individual makes a discovery that drugs make the emotional and physical pain go away for a little while. It’s understandable that when the pain comes back after that brief respite, these individuals might want the pain to go away again.

So they use more drugs. If the people they normally hang out with don’t agree with their drug use and aren’t also participants, the next step might be to find new friends who are also using drugs. That way, there’s no criticism or reason to feel self-conscious.

The problem here is that when they begin hanging out with other drug users, there are going to be a lot more drugs in the environment. And many different types of drugs.

If this person found their relief in marijuana, for example, their new circle of friends could one day be passing around heroin, which is far more quickly addictive for most people. That’s what happened to a young man in California that I had a chance to interview.

A Real-Life Story

He started out using pot and drinking with his high school friends. This habit progressed until he was doing both daily. Then someone offered him “opium.” But he didn’t actually know what this was. He said:

“Before I knew it we were sitting in my car smoking, and then he’s like, so man, we just did heroin…”

“I had run into somebody who said hey, Ive got some opium, and Im thinking, opium, that’s cool, its like pot times ten. Before I knew it, we were sitting in my car smoking, and then hes like, so man, we just did heroin. And I was like, what? You know what I mean? Because I had no idea. But it felt incredible, and I was like, oh, cool. I did that for like two years. And then, the rest is history.”

By which he means that his addiction to heroin finally led him to rehab and then, ultimately, to sobriety.

It’s so easy to get started with alcohol and marijuana. That may hardly even seem like “real drug use” to a teen or young adult.

Although I’m sure a few people do, no one I’ve ever talked to started out using cocaine, heroin or meth. But when these drugs are around, and your friends offer them to you, it may not seem like a big jump to use one of these drugs for the first time. After all, they’re using them, and they seem to be doing okay, aren’t they? Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. The damaging repercussions of their drug use may not be apparent to their friends at the moment, but they are there if you know where to look.

Then because of the greater addictiveness of these new drugs, the trap may quickly close in on a person. If a person is lucky, they make their way to rehab before they lose everything of value, including their life.

The Link Between Trauma and Addiction is Well-Recognized

Policeman is talking with a woman

Of course, I’m not the only person who has made this observation. There are plenty of doctors and research scientists who have also come to this conclusion.

An early British study found that 54% of women and 24% of men who were in an alcohol addiction program identified themselves as victims of sexual abuse or assault. This study also noted that those with a history of sexual abuse reached problematic drinking milestones sooner than those who had not had this type of traumatic experience.

In a 2010 study, researchers studied the relationship between childhood trauma and dependence on substances. Among the 578 people included in this survey, childhood trauma correlated strongly with later dependence on substances. Additionally, there were certain patterns found by these researchers.

  • Among women, sexual abuse was linked to later cocaine and marijuana use.
  • Among men, physical abuse correlated with current cocaine or lifetime/current heroin use.
  • Among women, physical abuse correlated with lifetime cocaine and marijuana use.
  • Among men, emotional abuse correlated to current heroin use.
  • Among women, emotional abuse correlated to heavier lifetime cocaine use.

What’s most important here is that the connection between trauma and later drug use is very clear. To recover from addiction once a person winds up there, it’s very often necessary to help a person find a way to recover from the painful memories of the past. Not every rehab program offers this type of care.

Further Evidence

There is, remarkably enough, a National Child Traumatic Stress Network, an organization dedicated to raising the standard of care for children that have suffered trauma. This group cites a survey that found that teens who had previously experienced physical or sexual abuse or assault were three times more likely to have been involved in substance abuse than those without this type of experience in their past. And among adolescents who were in care for substance abuse, more than 70% had a history of exposure to traumatic incidents.

Of course, the association between traumatic incidents experienced by members of the military or law enforcement has long been known. A publication from the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin notes that “alcohol and other drug abuse are maladaptive responses to stress and trauma, and such substance abuse is widespread among police officers.”

About those in the military, the National Institute on Drug Abuse comments that “increased combat exposure involving violence and trauma experienced by those who serve result in an increased risk of problematic drinking.” NIDA also reports that “sixty-five percent of veterans who enter a treatment program report alcohol as the substance they most frequently misuse, which is almost double that of the general population.

What Can You Do to Help?

Talking with an addict about rehab

The most important thing you can do is to watch for signs of drug abuse or excessive alcohol use by someone you know who has suffered from trauma. If you counsel them on the need to cease substance abuse and they fail, then you may need to immediately seek an effective rehab program for them. If that person is being prescribed drugs by a doctor after an injury or surgery, this is a particularly important time to keep a sharp eye on them. If their painkiller use continues after their pain abates, they may be headed directly for an addiction.

Alternatively, if someone who is using drugs or misusing alcohol confides in you that they still struggle with painful memories from the past, this gives you a greater concept of the issues they are dealing with. An understanding and supporting attitude may help you guide them toward sobriety.

Finding a rehab that can help them leave these painful experiences behind is also important. Adding more drugs to blot out these memories is simply more of the same solution they were seeking while addicted. A drug-free system that gives a person a bright new hope for the future is a better solution.


Reviewed and Edited by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP, LCDC


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.