You Cannot Put a Band-Help Over a Bullet Gap: How I Healed From Sexual Trauma and Substance Abuse
I was raped when I was 12 years old and then twice as a teenager.
These experiences, combined with other personal trauma, resulted in my turning to alcohol and marijuana and eventually trying to escape.
I tried to find control over self harm, eating disorders, and partying until I passed out. I had so much pain inside of me that I decided that it was better to remain in denial – obscured and unaware of my surroundings – than looking into that darkness.
In 1997 I saw my mother die after a long battle with cancer. By that point, I had become a master of my emotions – I kept all of my victimization and trauma in the places I had built for them. But my mother’s death was one traumatic experience too much. My feelings took the form of a brutal suicide attempt.
When I woke up in the hospital the next day, I realized that I needed serious help. Doctors recommended inpatient addiction treatment, and I agreed. The treatment center I went to was amazing and I learned so much from the staff and other women there.
At the same time, it wasn’t traumatized. During my admission, the providers asked if I had ever been sexually assaulted and I replied yes. That answer meant that I was immediately assigned to the women’s department – no more, no less.
One night while listening to another patient tell her story, I heard her say, “My secrets keep me sick.” The truth of this statement hit me hard. I had gone to rehab with tons of secrets: painful things that had happened to me, truths I knew but not shared, thoughts so dark that I couldn’t imagine ever saying them out loud.
Every time something bad happened, I divided it into my mind, body, and spirit. Every secret had its right place and I kept them all under lock and key. After my mother died, I learned that there was only so much room in a person to contain this kind of suffering.
When I heard this woman say that her secrets were making her sick, I understood that I needed to investigate these secrets and open doors in order to be successful, to live a full and happy life without addiction and the constant desire to harm myself Me who has been sealed for a very long time.
I had to question the worst moments of my life.
This stay in rehab was the beginning of my recovery process, but nowhere near enough. For those of us who have suffered from both addiction and sexual trauma, we cannot treat just the addiction. After rehab, I attended 12-step meetings which were amazingly helpful. They help keep the fire of my addiction at bay.
But I realized that I couldn’t layer 12-step meetings, addiction treatment, and sponsorship over my pain level. I also had to deal with the pain and trauma that underlies addiction. If I didn’t address my trauma directly, I would put a band-aid over a bullet hole and ignore the underlying problem.
Sure, a patch will last awhile – it can get you through days of collecting chips and celebrating a newfound life in recovery. But if the wound from the trauma is still festering underneath, that plaster will eventually fly away, causing a relapse that could be fatal.
This is why many people relapse after years of addiction recovery.
Here is my fundamental belief in addiction recovery: To achieve long-term sustainable recovery, we need to get to the bottom of what motivates us to use it. Why do we feel the need to punish ourselves? What are we running from? What is the underlying feeling? Is there a traumatic event in our history that made us drink or use or hurt ourselves? Was it a long history of abuse, harassment, hardship, or marginalization? What kind of thing is that that makes us pick up our drug of choice even when everything seems to be going well? If left untreated, this thing could destroy everything for us.
When I realized that my thing wasn’t just rape, but every other trauma that came before and after, I knew what to do to finally heal the wound. I had to start unpacking my feelings, the painful events in my past, and the facts about myself that weighed on me with shame.
I could only do this with the help of a traumatized therapist. My therapist knew when to push me and when to help me be gentle with myself. She had years of experience working with trauma and her specific training supported me on my journey in a way that would no longer harm me or force me so close to the edge that I would fail and use it.
It took years to recover, but understanding that I had to do it moved me on the path to being addictive. Working on strengthening my coping mechanisms and releasing the demons in my heart has given me more freedom than I could have imagined. Every time I let go of the darkness inside of me, I make room for the light, for the fulfillment of a new life and a deeper understanding of myself. This confidence has been one of my strongest tools in recovery.
I don’t do this recreation thing perfectly every day. Trust me i’m human I make mistakes. But my foundation for recovery is now solid. I built it myself and I know every inch of it.
When something traumatizing happens – because life brings both hardships and joys – I no longer have to deal with these old trauma layers. I can focus solely on the problems that lie before me and have the tools to deal with them in a healthy way.
Jennifer Storm is an award-winning victim rights expert, attorney, and best-selling author. After working on some of the most iconic cases in history, she is often the first source of calls when the media reports on addiction, victimization, and trauma. This essay is an excerpt from Jennifer’s new book, Awakening Blackout Girl: A Survivor’s Guide to Healing from Addiction and Sexual Trauma. More information is available at jenniferstorm.com.