Why Survivors of Child Abuse Are Prone to Relapse


Studies have shown that exposure to child abuse is a strong predictor of substance abuse. The self-esteem and resiliency of child abuse victims can be permanently damaged by their terrifying and painful experiences, and a significant number may attempt to cope with their feelings of powerlessness by turning to drugs or alcohol.

And even when addicts enter recovery, a past history of child abuse will increase the chances of relapse, maliciously undermining the attempts of substance abusers to find lasting sobriety. This is especially true in the early months of a recovery program, when the process of retraining the mind and body to live without intoxicants is still in its initiatory stages.

MRI exams used to chart brain activity in grown child abuse victims have found noticeable neurological changes that are known to be associated with relapse into addiction. But even beyond these physiological effects, childhood trauma also has a profound psychological impact on its victims. Their views of themselves and the world they inhabit are forever altered as the memories of their past experiences continue to haunt them from the shadows.

Conquering the Twin Ghosts of Child Abuse and Addiction

When confronted with profound personal challenges, human beings may need to tap into inner resources they didn’t even know they possessed in order to emerge healthy and whole. A recovering drug addict or alcoholic, for example, will have to summon every ounce of strength and determination she has if she is to have any chance of overcoming her dependency and resuming a normal life. So it is hardly surprising to discover that addicts who were abused as kids tend to have an especially difficult time maintaining sobriety once they find it. Abused children come face to face with evil at a time when they are completely unprepared for the experience, and the feelings of helplessness and betrayal that brand their souls will continue to chip away at their sense of self-worth and self-control for as long as those old wounds are allowed to fester.

Even as adults, victims of child abuse don’t feel safe, don’t feel confident and are totally unprepared to transcend their habitual responses without trained guidance and assistance. Like an opportunistic virus, addiction sweeps in and establishes a foothold in those whose emotional immune systems have been compromised, and although resistance is not futile, it is much harder for those whose spirits have been weakened by egregious assaults on their dignity. Initial success is always tenuous for recovering addicts, even in the best of circumstances, and the deep hurt associated with child abuse will complicate the situation to the point where final victory can seem all but impossible. At root, substance abuse is a type of coping mechanism for the unacknowledged and the unspeakable, and until child abuse victims can learn sustainable skills for psychological survival, they are likely to return again and again to the cold-hearted comforts of drugs and alcohol.

But things are far from hopeless, although they may seem that way from the perspective of a recovering addict who has yet to come to terms with the real reasons for her descent into the madness of addiction. Adult victims of child abuse may feel weak, but in reality they are survivors, filled with an abundance of inner strength that exists even if it remains unrecognized. Psychologically damaged they are, but permanently disabled they are not, unless they choose to give up the fight before it has truly begun. It must be remembered that relapse into addiction is common regardless of a particular addict’s personal history, and very few successful recovering addicts make it to the finish line without an occasional detour.

Treating the Wounded Inner Child and the Lost Adult

While it is true that addiction is a life-threatening emergency, treatment for substance abuse must directly, honestly and even forcefully address any underlying issues that might be present – and that is most certainly the case when a person attempting to move beyond drugs and alcohol is still plagued by horrific memories of a lost childhood. Beating addiction and overcoming the debilitating effects of trauma are both achievable goals, as long as neither is viewed as the lesser priority. Awareness of the challenges in this case is more than half the battle, and finding the courage to confront every aspect of a sad and broken life makes full redemption possible in virtually every instance.

Addiction treatment specialists understand this promising reality better than anybody, and they are prepared to take whatever measures are necessary to help their patients get their lives back on a productive track. The psychological wounds associated with child abuse can be healed with care and loving attention, and substance abuse problems related to such experiences will respond much better to treatment if this important work is undertaken concurrently.

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