Trauma, Addiction, and Healing

The discovery of unmarked graves of children on the grounds of former residential schools have shaken a nation out of its COVID-induced survival mindset. While second vaccinations pierce the collective biceps of Canadians, vigils, orange shirts, and red dresses remind a shaken public there is much more to think about than a pandemic.

Yet judging from media headlines across the globe, it could seem the findings in Kamloops are a startling new topic for minds and hearts to mull. An unthinkable, tragic discovery and a vicious shock.

But is it really shocking?

At Aurora Recovery Centre, an hour’s drive north up from Winnipeg, psychologists, nurses, kitchen staff, and even the facility drivers can assure you they’ve seen patients suffer the effects of this shock for years.

Ancestral trauma, also known as multi-generational trauma, passes on the pain suffered through horrific losses to the next generation’s children, and so forth. The impact of that inherited trauma is colossal to those raised during the transfer.

The concept is not new, nor are the damages that come with it. Especially not for those labouring in the substance use field.

Recently Adam Olsen, an Indigenous MLA in British Columbia, dismissed the notion that the news was shocking.

“For Indigenous people, this story is not shocking nor is it unimaginable. This is the trauma our families have carried for generations,” said Olsen, who was born and raised on Tsartlip First Nation on Vancouver Island. His address to his peers was so powerful that one of the country’s oldest newspapers, the Victoria Times Colonist, published it in full the next day.

The heartbreaking Kamloops news may demand a long overdue reckoning for the soul of Canada. Hopefully, it will also lead citizens and scholars to continue the exploration of how to help people who have only learned unhealthy ways to cope with their trauma.

To those in treatment centres around the world, the correlation between trauma and addiction is a tightly bound rope that requires specific attention.

Trauma can be acute, chronic, or complex. It can come from one stressful or dangerous event — think 9/11 — or it can manifest after repeated exposures to dangerous or stressful events, as with those who go to war or in the careers of first responders. After World War I, the term shell shocked became synonymous with the pain carried by soldiers returning from the trenches in France and Belgium.

In the case of the Kamloops Residential School discovery, transgenerational, historical, and ancestral trauma is front and centre, with the understanding that generation after generation suffers the effects of insidious, genocidal policies.

Trauma can boil to the surface moments, days, or years after a significant event. It calls out in nightmares or terrors, and through anxiety, depression, avoidance of emotions, outbursts, isolation, and panic attacks. In abused and neglected children, trauma is proven to affect brain development. By the time they grow into adults, those who have experienced trauma may have lower immune functions, are more prone to suffer health problems, and overall can count on a shortened life expectancy.

With this knowledge, it makes sense that when trying to cope with adversity, those who have faced trauma turn to substances or unhealthy behaviours like gambling, porn, or food to deal with their darkness. In a new documentary called The Wisdom of Trauma, experts including Dr. Gabor Maté explained, “In the life of every person who has ever been addicted and ever will be addicted, there is always trauma.”

“The first issue is not why the addiction, but why the pain?” he says.

Again, how do people cope with pain?

Aurora’s staff — and deep down the person using substances — knows that when given the choice between confronting trauma or using unhealthy coping mechanisms (such as drinking or getting high), many will choose the latter.

The draw to use substances to mitigate the pain of suffering is an obvious equation and a powerful draw. In layman’s terms, it is as close to explaining the correlation between trauma and addiction as you can get.

“We don’t do trauma work because of the incident, we do trauma work to take the power out of the memory of the trauma,” says senior Aurora consultant, Dr. Johanna O’Flaherty, who is one of North America’s leading experts on the matter of ancestral trauma and the correlation between trauma and addiction.

Like the counselors in group therapy at Aurora, she knows that when you take away the substance, you will see all kinds of antics and behaviours emerge from the percolating emotions of trauma.

“I can guarantee you after they have detoxed, the trauma is going to come up. It is not going to come up gently,” says O’Flaherty, a leading therapist with over four decades experience dealing with the correlation between trauma and addiction.

To treatment centre staff, this can look like refusal to follow structure, anger, defiance, or dismissiveness. Patients brandish and utilize all the psychological weapons at their disposal to keep counselors and peers from probing. Sometimes they will threaten to walk out of treatment rather than continue the journey to healing. Sometimes they follow through with the threat and resume their consumption and agony on the outside.

“The trauma is going to break through, and the patients are going to be acting out all over the treatment centre, because they don’t know what’s going on and we haven’t addressed it yet. So, we need to be able to contain it and at least teach them a little bit about emotional regulation and regulation from trauma.”

As Aurora continues to bring in more experts to get the facility and its staff fully trauma informed — and more importantly, trauma responsive — more and more employers, policy makers and families are starting to see the importance of facing the painful truths that lay within so many afflicted.

With a PhD in Clinical Psychology, a Master’s in Clinical and Depth Psychology, and a Bachelor of Science degree, O’Flaherty has been called in to share her skills with officials responding to some of the world’s most horrific disasters and terrorist attacks: the Lockerbie bombing, the attacks of 9/11, the Las Vegas mass shooting in 2017, and the deadly shooting in Boulder, Colorado last March. When bad things happen, she is often called in to lead the critical incident stress debriefings.

Her understanding of the relationship between addiction and trauma is second to none. She was Betty Ford Centre’s Vice President of Treatment Services for seven years, along with CEO of Las Vegas Recovery Centre, and clinical program director at Sierra Tucson. O’Flaherty continues to train staff of treatment centres across North America.

She has a deep regard for the issues facing Indigenous Peoples. In 2007, she was part of a team of volunteer counselors who flew to Alkali Lake in Northern BC, watching, assisting, and learning to help a First Nation as it came to grips with a horrible legacy that manifested itself in drunkenness and rampant sexual abuse. Eventually, a healing began and out of the darkness, victims morphed into “magnificent, emboldened survivors” says O’Flaherty.

“This experience was a fundamental building block in my understanding of the relationship between addiction and trauma, and I began to see the two as conjoined twins — each with a heartbeat and central nervous system of its own, and yet integrally merged,” she says.

So, it is a natural fit to find O’Flaherty at Aurora, helping people from Manitoba and beyond find and maintain recovery.

Trauma is not exclusive to First Nations people, and Aurora is not a First Nations-only treatment centre. In fact, its 70 beds are usually filled with a tapestry of diverse backgrounds and identities. The facility itself offers an energy in sync with its natural surroundings and Indigenous cultures, with options for those wishing to reconnect or to learn about their own or others’ cultural practices. Dreamcatchers can be found throughout the centre and patients can attend sweat lodges, sacred fires, and drum making. They are also free to decline or choose to attend other spiritual practices of their own beliefs. Or none at all.

President and COO of Aurora, Steve Low, leads Aurora’s path in following the scientific evidence that addiction is a neurological brain disorder and a treatable illness. Aurora uses a comprehensive recovery management system including all aspects of recovery capital — resources at the patients’ disposal — to help clients achieve sustained recovery.

“Not everybody who has experienced trauma will become addicted to substances. Some have found ways to cope, to self-regulate, to face the trauma, and find acceptance and healing by using substances or behaviors without harmful consequences. But we have seen an overwhelming amount of evidence with our patients that trauma coupled with addiction is an insidious problem that needs a solution. They need to heal so they can create their best lives in long-term recovery,” says Low.

In Victoria, MLA Olsen vocalizes the issue of ancestral trauma with succinct clarity.

“When people ask me what our problem is, why don’t we pick ourselves up, they haven’t wanted to hear the answer.”

A month before Olsen spoke his truth to the legislature in B.C., Dr. O’Flaherty was already onto those sentiments during a training session with Aurora staff.

“Why don’t we just leave [trauma] alone and get on with it? Well, because trauma doesn’t leave us alone,” she said.

As Canadians have learned, the Residential Schools were at the centre of a system that took children from their homes, away from their families, and their culture. The students were horrifically abused, even to the point of death in many circumstances. The scourge of tuberculosis added to the unbearable conditions. And despite the last school closing in the 1990s, Stephen Harper apologizing on behalf of the Government of Canada in 2008, and the Pope speaking in conciliatory terms, the truth is the buried trauma from what happened in residential school buildings across the country is far from over.

There is much healing to be done.

O’Flaherty teaches her clinicians to consider the childhood of their patients, then go beyond, intergenerationally, from the parents to the paternal and maternal grandparents. If they had trauma in their lives, how were they parenting going forward?

It helps to understand the downward spiral trauma can create.

“They push down the trauma, then they get sober. They are sober a month or two or three, they see something that triggers them, and they are flooded with trauma memories. And if we in treatment centres have not taught them just the basic elements on how to emotionally regulate and breathe and given them different tips on how to emotionally regulate, then we have not done them a service. There is a big difference between physical recovery and emotional sobriety,” says O’Flaherty.

“Ultimately, trauma is not a logical thing. It is an autonomic nervous system thing,” says Geri Laurence, a somatic experiencing practitioner and Complex Trauma Level Two clinical counselor.

Originally from Yorktown, SK, Laurence has trained with some of the giants in the trauma therapy circle, including Doctors Gabor Maté, Peter Levine, and Janina Fischer. When not giving lectures to Aurora’s patients, she works full time as a critical member of Aurora’s New Dawn Family Program team, helping family members of patients find paths to healing from the pain of trauma in their own lives.

She is enthusiastic about the advances in trauma therapy and uses a primal comparison to get her message across about how trauma, safety and natural regulation go hand in hand.

“You know how animals in the wild are routinely threatened? A lion runs after a gazelle. That gazelle’s nervous systems charge at 70 miles an hour. Though animals are routinely threatened in the wild, they do not have trauma and PTSD. After an intense chase, if [the gazelle] gets away from the lion, it must at first seek safety. Then it must discharge that activation of its nervous system, otherwise it will get sick and other animals will pick up the scent. So, the gazelle starts to shake and quiver. That is the deactivation,” she says.

As humans, we try to outthink the process.

“For us, we have the same nervous system as the animals, but we have this higher, rational brain that wants to figure everything out. We are compounded with shame and all these other feelings, and we cannot tolerate the sensations as well. We push them down.”

“So, when we are feeling something, we push it down. We feel like, oh my god, I’m shaking now. Instead of going, ‘Well my nervous system is just going through a loop and trying to reset,’ we try and analyze it. Our rational mind gets in the way, and we get stuck. That’s why we need to have help in the therapeutic process. It’s to be able to release trauma from our nervous system,” says Laurence.

Trauma healing requires compassionate, empathetic people in a safe setting as patients begin to learn to regulate their emotions. Laurence explains if there was addiction in the family, there was almost certainly trauma. If there was trauma, then there is a need for safety before someone gets into their personal work. Aurora’s trauma-responsive staff offer that safety, and they respond to trauma professionally.

“When patients are in treatment and we are taking the drugs away, sensations are going to be there because they have been mitigated [by substances]. I say to the patients, ‘Now when you are having that feeling and you’re feeling a little bit shaky, let that happen. Tell your peers that you are noticing the shaking and you’re going to allow it.’ I don’t want them to push it down. They are like the gazelle now,” says Laurence.

As the country begins to come to terms with the harms of the past, the scope of the trauma is just beginning to be recognized.

Addiction and trauma are linked in a tight grip which can and needs to be broken. Aurora Recovery Centre is doing its best to employ the top trauma therapists in the industry.

The tears are coming, and Aurora Recovery Centre stands ready to respond.

By Jeff Vircoe

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