Addiction, Mental Illness and Trauma: How I Became an Addict

Addiction, Mental Illness and Trauma: How I Became an Addict August 15, 2019


(This post is part two in a four-part series on addiction by my friend Celia O’Keefe. The first entry in the series can be found here. In this episode she talks about the history of trauma that led into her addiction, so let the reader be advised, there is some potentially disturbing content.) 

In my last post, “Addiction Doesn’t Discriminate and Neither Should You,” I explained some ways which addiction could potentially take hold of anyone. This time, I’m bringing my own story to the table in hopes that it may illustrate some of the ways a person’s brain can be predisposed to addiction. As you may recall, there are two things which most commonly shape the addict’s brain: family history and trauma. In this case, I have both aspects going for me. While I will be sharing some family history, I’ll also be sharing some deeply personal traumas. There is a lot I am still just not ready to share publicly, so for relevance-sake (and my own) I’ll be sharing only pieces I feel directly correlate to the beginning of my battle with addiction.

Both sets of great-grandparents on my mom’s side died of alcohol or smoking related cancers or diseases. Though they weren’t as medically advanced then, our family is fairly certain both of my great grandmothers suffered with mental illnesses, likely bipolar or depression. To the best of my knowledge, both great-grandmothers used alcohol for self-medication; a salted Coors for my grandmother’s mother, and a greyhound (that’s grapefruit juice and vodka) for my grandfather’s mother. (I’m less familiar with stories from that far back on my father’s side but wouldn’t be surprised to find out there were some underlying mental issues there as well.) The bipolar and depression genes are passed on. My grandmother, a solution-seeker, took the family to  “Children of Alcoholics” group meetings when my mother was young and got a lot out of it. As it turns out, years down the road, my mother and her four other siblings would also all struggle with one type of mental illness or another. Of course, these things aren’t diagnosed and magically medicated away. It takes a lot of hard work, trial and error, and patience to work out the complexities of a mental illness.

 They watched my brother and me closely. 

Recently, my mom revealed to me that she’d always been a little concerned for me. You see, I had asthma and horrible seasonal allergies as a kid. I still do, except now I can just take my Advair and a tiny Zyrtec pill once a day and be done. But in 1990-something, it was Albuterol and Benadryl every four hours. And man, I loved that Benadryl. My mom worried because I loved it so much, they had to hide it from me. That slightly minty, cherry taste was The Best! But maybe I too, was just trying to self-medicate. Maybe at three or four years old I just wanted to sleep away intrusive thoughts and flashbacks. And maybe that 2.5mls barely took the edge off. It’s something I have probably spent most of my life trying to forget. 

The babysitter’s neighbor had a daughter around my age, but they also had a son who was much older. A real “big-kid.” I don’t remember his face or his voice now; I just remember he told us what to do, and we were made uneasy enough to listen. I remember the blankets and the walls, the closed door and the carpet, the headboard and the side table. I remember that he had red hair but, in my memory, all I can see is the back of his head watching me, another little girl, and a little boy do as he tells us. He mostly watches us through- and next to- a camera, on a tripod, at the foot of the bed, but sometimes he does things too. From the highest corner of the bedroom wall, behind where the door hinge is mounted to the frame, from outside of myself- I watch me do these things. I watch things be done to me too, and I feel nothing. Not sad or scared or sick. I feel nothing at all. This is called “disassociation” or an “out of body experience.” In traumatic instances, this refers to your brain deciding it is too harmful for you to exist within your body, so you perceive your existence with-out it. When everything was over, the other kids and I didn’t talk about it, but that wasn’t the end of the trauma.

 The other girl broke down and told her parents, who told mine. When they tried to file with the police and get me help right away, I was reluctant. I was afraid. I had heavy guilt, and shame. They did a rape kit. There were more cameras, and I was naked again. They kept saying I was a victim and that I was forced into these things, but I kept saying “I never said no!” and “it wasn’t just me!” I wasn’t ready to process it, and especially not alone. I was five or six then and I couldn’t handle the realization of what had really happened. 

My therapist was the best of the best. He even had a sweet dog, and I still hated him. I refused to talk about it. I wasn’t ready. The abuser’s family moved him out of state and my therapist finally told my parents they were just throwing money away. He said that I wasn’t ready yet, but that this would probably all hit me right before or during puberty.

And boy… it did. 

You see, people who hurt people in these kinds of ways almost seem to smell it on you. Once you’ve been hurt like that, you’re basically bleeding while swimming with sharks. And I couldn’t get away from it. People close to the family circle, who no one would have suspected. They would find me. They would use me, and they would do it again and again.

 A man drove past me and a new friend riding our bikes, we couldn’t have been more than 8 years old. He came back around the block and asked for directions to the park. He looked at me and said I was very pretty, he pulled a blanket off his lap and I smiled and froze. My new friend didn’t do either of those things, she yelled “that’s GROSS!!” and shrieked so loud, dogs in nearby yards started barking, and he drove away. We told our parents and filed a police report. 

We moved when I was 11 to a college campus. The music was loud, people were laughing, I was tall and “developed” for my age. I had a sickly emptiness inside that I wanted to fill. I snuck out to parties with my brother all the time. We knew if we stuck together, we were safe. Besides, we wanted more than mom’s cooking wine- we were looking to catch a real buzz! 

It would happen again- they would find me. I would start creeping away from my brother at parties, telling everyone I was 16. I thought they believed me- as if that makes it better- but now I think they were just sick and disgusting more than anything. It got out of control one night, there were more and more men getting into the futon. I screamed and one of the roommates heard from the hallway, came in and broke it up. He found my brother who helped dress me again, then we walked home. He urged me to tell mom and dad. I didn’t want to be in trouble, but I had to tell my mom at least. She already knew we had been sneaking out, but she now feared for our lives, so we moved again. This time, back to the neighborhood I was born in. My dad was born and raised there too, so there was a sense of security -and boredom- in knowing exactly where I was. I was afraid of my thoughts getting away from me, so I made it my full-time occupation to find any and all distractions. 

This would lead me down some very dark avenues.

(image via Pixabay) 

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