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Sexual abuse a driver for addiction problems later in life

Contributor:
Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

The Drug and Alcohol Practitioner’s Association of Aotearoa New Zealand (dapaanz) says recent attention focused on sexual abuse via the #metoo hashtag highlights the plight of a disproportionately high number of people living with addiction.

Dapaanz Executive Director Sue Paton says people with addiction have been particularly impacted by sexual abuse and other childhood trauma and that most of the people she knows struggling with addiction have trauma in their pasts.

"We’re not minimising anybody else’s pain or diminishing what anyone has achieved overcoming it, but the significance of sexual abuse in the lives of people with addiction is a story that really needs to be heard. Many people still see addiction as a person’s own responsibility without fully understanding the drivers behind it.

"Upbringings marred by such heinous breaches of adult trust seem to be the rule rather than the exception within recovery communities. Acts of childhood sexual violation cast long and painful shadows over victims’ lives, driving them to self-medicate and towards other self-destructive behaviours, complicating the recovery process."

Ms Paton says people who have been sexually abused as children are often left feeling dirty and worthless, believing what happened to them was somehow their fault.

"It becomes something that is extremely difficult to talk about, even during addiction therapy. Often counselling and rehabilitation can fail to address sexual abuse as a deep level cause of the trauma behind a person’s addiction, or the addiction service is reluctant to open a can of worms so it may not be dealt with during the time the person is in treatment."

However, when it is addressed, people who are victims of sexual abuse and who use alcohol or other drugs to help deal with their pain can re-learn empowerment and that the responsibility for the abuse lies with the abuser not them.

Briar Scragg maintains that without the support she received from therapists at a residential alcohol and drug treatment programme she would still be trapped in addiction. In 2012 her abuser was sentenced to nine years’ jail for offenses committed to her over a sustained period of her childhood. She is now a counsellor working with clients affected by sexual abuse and trauma.

She says that even though the abuse affected every area of her life, she simply buried the shame, guilt and low self-esteem and kept it all very private. But her body remembered and she began experiencing chronic fatigue syndrome as a result of the trauma. It left her almost completely bedridden with exhaustion and pain - until she discovered methamphetamine.

"When I took meth I didn't feel tired anymore and genuinely believed I wasn't bothered by the sexual abuse," she says.

"It helped me keep a lid on what was bubbling up inside me and I felt full of energy. That’s what meth did for me, until it started causing terrible problems of its own."

She says dealing with the sexual abuse in therapy for her addiction was the beginning of a long and painful process that eventually saw her abuser jailed and led her to a point where she really believes she is entitled to having a good life.

"When I learned to just sit with those feelings that were so unbearable, the desperate need for meth went away. I'll probably always desire it, but it’s really nice not to crave a substance in the same way anymore."

Ms Scragg says she was luckier than many others who are using substances to deal with pain and trauma from their pasts.

"I was educated and from a good family who believed me when I told them what had happened. So many people out there don't have that sort of support. They feel blamed and totally alone in their suffering, and alcohol and other drugs appear to be the only things that will help."

Ms Paton says not enough is being done to recognise and address the impacts of the trauma that is sexual abuse in the lives of people with addiction.

"Those in recovery know that sexual abuse is widespread. They’re all too aware of its impacts on their peers, people they've used with, people struggling to get clean, and people still trapped in addiction. But we’re failing as a society in supporting, treating, and providing justice for victims of sexual abuse."

However, she says Briar’s story is a hopeful one.

"Nobody is broken beyond repair. What happened with Briar shows that professionals can make a real difference in people’s lives. It shows that by acknowledging and working through trauma, people can recover and find the freedom and life they deserve as much as anybody else.

"We need to do all we can as communities and as a society to ensure that this can happen."

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