#MeToo: How the Pain and Shame of Sexual Abuse Can Lead to Substance Use

#MeToo: #MeToo: How The Pain and Shame Can Lead to Substance Use

I met Katie (not her real name) a few years ago when she came to see me to talk about her struggles with substance use. Katie is a beautiful 22-year-old woman with a warm smile and soft brown eyes that exude a kind of tenderness — tenderness that she rarely directs toward herself. She has dreams of being a healthy woman in a loving relationship, a house with a white picket fence and a job as a vet tech, but her substance use continues to ravage her happiness.

When Katie was 16-years-old, she was sexually assaulted in her workplace. At first she told no one because of her overwhelming sense of self-blame and shame. After a few months, she shared what happened with her mom, and while they tried to address it through the legal system, it ended up being a “he said, she said” situation. Since so much time had elapsed, her case was dismissed.

The case might have been over and done with from a legal standpoint, but trauma and shame became Katie’s constant companions. She began drinking, smoking marijuana and eventually using meth and heroin as she tried to exorcise the unwanted thoughts, images, touches, smells and tastes of her past.

Katie is not alone. I’ve met countless young women with substance-related problems who live with a pain narrative that they don’t have words for. And they take solace in escaping in unhealthy, yet understandable ways.

Numerous studies have examined Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) before the age of 18, including, but not limited to, sexual abuse. These studies indicate that these painful childhood experiences play a role in developing a heightened reaction to stress.

As a result, a person may be at greater risk of developing mental and substance use disorders as well as other health-related problems. Katie had personally experienced four ACE events: the sexual abuse, mental illness in the home (mother’s depression), problematic substance use in the home (father’s drinking) and the divorce of her parents.

While Katie originally came to me seeking help for her problematic substance use, it was – and is – equally important to address her trauma. There are many kinds of therapy that can be helpful including:

  • exposure therapy: re-experiencing the traumatic event in a safe environment through remembering interacting with it, to ultimately lessen its impact.
  • hypnotherapy: used as an adjunct therapy to induce a relaxed state of being in which appropriate suggestions are made to bring about subconscious change to thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): a form of psychotherapy that uses eye movements or other forms of stimulation to help people heal from distressful life events.
  • trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: to process thoughts and feelings related to trauma.
  • contemplative practices: such as yoga and meditation.

The point is to find a practitioner or program that is well-versed in both addiction and trauma and that both problems are addressed simultaneously.

While Katie doesn’t have the fame of the Silence Breakers – she shares their common struggle. She is a silence breaker, if only in the safety of my office – and now anonymously on this blog. It is my deepest desire to help her soften her scars and heal and inspire other women to do the same.

Please reach out to get help for yourself or for your loved one. You can start with our confidential helpline at 1-855-378-4373.

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