Common Symptoms for Child Sexual Abuse Survivors:Addictions
Disclaimer: While Saprea staff have extensive experience in serving clients with substance abuse history, our organization’s primary clinical focus is trauma. Advice or information provided on this page does not replace the practice of consulting a licensed medical care provider or Chemical Dependency Counselor. If you think you may have a Substance Use Disorder, work with your medical provider to safely address potentially serious medical complications that can arise due to withdrawals. If you are currently having a medical emergency, please call 911 or emergency services.
One truth about any traumatic event we experience is that the effects it can have on the brain often linger for many years. In cases of sexual abuse, the reality of living with painful memories and grappling with debilitating triggers can push survivors to seek relief in any form that they can—even if such relief leads to behaviors that compromise their health.
Researchers have established a strong relationship between experiencing childhood sexual abuse and increased rates of substance use, particularly the development of alcohol-related problems during teen years and adulthood. If this experience applies to you or someone you love—please know that you are not alone. Some survivors carry a great deal of shame and consider themselves as weak or broken because they are not able to manage their symptoms of trauma without a potentially addictive behavior. In reality, a large fraction of those who are sexually abused share a similar experience.
What Can I Do If I Have an Addiction?
The trauma of child sexual abuse can affect the way your brain and body function and can contribute to a variety of physical, mental, and emotional health problems. Specifically, the limbic system in the brain can be greatly impacted by childhood trauma and develop in a way that is frequently on high alert for threats and danger. In fact, some survivors of abuse may even endure chronic pain brought on in-part from the abuse.
One of the reasons individuals use substances is for the quick and direct effect those substances can have on their physiological and emotional states. Chemically, different drugs can vastly alter the way we feel. And for some survivors, such effects provide temporary relief from the emotional and physical distress they endure.
Not all substance use constitutes an addiction. While the frequency of use, and compulsion to use a drug/substance are important indicators of problematic use, the threshold of addiction is much more serious. For example, there is a clear difference between someone occasionally drinking alcohol and someone having to drink more and more to get the same effect, as well as experiencing physical withdrawals when attempting to curb their drinking.
Seek Help Today
If you are concerned that you are experiencing an addiction, remember: You don’t have to do this on your own. Trained substance recovery specialists and medical professionals are best equipped to help you assess how problematic a pattern of substance use is and if you are experiencing a substance use disorder (SUD). For many survivors, their efforts to break free from the chains of their childhood sexual abuse are entwined with honestly examining the patterns of substance use and working on managing both in tandem. There are several resources available that are designed to offer you support as you walk this journey.
SAMHSA’s National United States Helpline – 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
Getting support to overcome substance use disorders doesn’t just include detox facilities (supervised withdrawal from substance use) or support group formats like Alcoholics Anonymous /Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Consider exploring options like outpatient care, mental health counseling, and even telemedicine. A professional addictions specialist can assist you in figuring out the best option for you to pursue based on your individual situation.
Visit findtreatment.gov to view treatment options in your area that can provide you support on your road to recovery.
How Is Substance Use Connected to Child Sexual Abuse?
There are many explanations of why individuals who have experienced sexual abuse in their youth tend to develop higher rates of alcohol/drug use. For example, one person may regularly drink alcohol to cope with and help manage very difficult emotions. Another may abuse sleep medications because that seems to be the only way they can find the rest they desperately need. Several survivors also report that substance use is one method they use to find excitement or connect with others without the barriers to interaction that they often encounter when they are sober.
While there is no single reason a survivor may turn to substance use, many common outcomes of persistent substance abuse include:
- Health and medical challenges
- Financial impact
- Strained relationships
- Legal troubles
- Potential early death
- Employment problems
PTSD and Substance Use
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is strongly linked with substance use disorders. Researchers estimate that patients seeking treatment for PTSD are 14 times more likely to have a SUD than those who do not.2 As child sexual abuse is certainly well characterized as a traumatic event(s), we encourage any who are struggling with substance abuse who were sexually abused as children to seek mental health counseling as part of their substance recovery efforts.
Many factors influence an individuals’ tendency toward using certain substances, including one’s genetics. Personal history is a strong contributor to these risks. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) like sexual abuse deeply undermine a child’s feelings of safety and security and are strongly linked to many negative outcomes, including substance misuse/abuse in adulthood.3
Saprea considers the reality of using a substance to cope with trauma not as a judgement of someone’s character or an assessment on how resilient a survivor is. Rather we see substance abuse as a common path that many travel down, influenced by the sexual abuse they experienced and the struggles it forced upon them.
We encourage you to expand your view of substance use as it relates to the long-term effects of childhood trauma. A substance use disorder occurs when a person continues to use a substance even when they know it will impair their ability to function or negatively impact their life. Often, continued use of the substance results in other risky behaviors, social problems, distorted thinking, or even criminal behavior. Severe substance use disorders are often characterized as addictions.
Below are a couple of examples of how substance use can escalate into an addiction.
Lucia has never felt comfortable in her own skin since her stepfather abused her when she was a teen. She was working with a psychiatrist who prescribed a benzodiazepine to help her manage her anxiety. At first, Lucia was just taking the medication when she felt on edge. But lately she has been running out of her prescription quickly and gets headaches when she doesn’t take one.
Connie found alcohol was one way she could ease the pain she felt. When she stole money from her mother to buy booze, Connie felt justified since her mother did nothing when she told her about the abuse. It has now been years since she moved away from home but Connie usually needs to get a drink to get started in the morning or starts drinking as soon as she gets home from work. She notices that her hands shake if she hasn’t had a drink for over 24 hours.
How Can Substance Abuse Recovery Help Me Heal from Sexual Abuse?
Healing from the effects of childhood sexual abuse includes acknowledging the impact your trauma has had upon you. Making the connection between your abuse and how substance use has influenced your personal journey can be a powerful step to take towards recovery.
Our sincere belief is that overcoming the effects of childhood sexual abuse can empower you with the confidence and ability to work through other challenges (including substance use disorders). The reverse is also true: Taking steps to manage unhealthy coping behaviors can be a pivotal step in resolving the lingering emotional and psychological wounds of childhood trauma.2
Understanding that many survivors endure struggles with substance abuse may help you overcome the feelings of shame that often accompany addiction. Reach out. Search out resources that can provide you the information and support you need to take one more step on your healing journey. Working through the challenge of recovery will gift you a new perspective that can energize you in taking more and more steps toward healing.
It gave me the opportunity to see myself in a completely different light… flawed and broken but not destroyed.Sareta, Survivor
Resources to Help With Addictions
Below are three recommendations from our resource library. Each of these recommendations are tools that might be effective in helping you with any addictions you are currently experiencing.
Involving Supportive Individuals
Whether your road to recovery includes formal support groups or not, it is important to tap into the strength of others who can help sustain your efforts, lend assistance, and cheer on your brave decision to overcome looming challenges. Learn more about gathering your own set of supportive allies and how they can help in both recovering from substance abuse and provide power to continue healing from sexual abuse.
Interrupting unhealthy coping patterns takes practice and continued motivation. Taking time to envision what you are working toward can be very helpful. Your aspiration to grow and replace substance use with other practices in your life will also benefit from self-compassion when you fall short. This resource can help you set intentions for your actions and draw upon your vision for the immediate and long-term future as you do so.
Understanding and managing the powerful emotions you are feeling helps you to more effectively navigate both cravings for substances and triggers that are brought on by memories of past abuse. Remind yourself on how your emotions can reflect the different needs you may have by getting more familiar with the Emotion Wheel resource.