We recently had a conversation with author Jennifer Storm who penned Hazelden books about trauma, PTSD, addiction and recovery: Blackout Girl: Tracing My Scars from Addiction and Sexual Assault and Awakening Blackout Girl: A Survivor's Guide for Healing from Addiction and Sexual Trauma. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and an ensuing addiction, Jennifer now proudly advocates for and protects the people who are forced to adopt that same label for themselves: survivor.
Today, she shares her story about trauma and how it's connected to addiction, the gradual path of healing from PTSD, her entrance into recovery while confronting past abuse, and how to stay sober and manage a healthy mind now during the pandemic. Read on to learn how mental health issues, trauma and addiction are all tied together, but require from us a patient approach that addresses each issue separately.
*Editor's note: some of the content that follows may prove triggering due to its nature and frank discussion of addiction and sexual abuse.
Hi Jennifer and welcome. Let's jump right in, shall we? Care to explain a little bit about where your story of trauma, addiction and recovery all began?
For me, it all started when I was raped at age twelve and never dealt with it, so I covered it up with as many escape routes as I could find: cutting myself to release the pain, drowning my feelings in alcohol and numbing my pain with whatever drugs I could find. I used drugs and alcohol for more than a decade as a means to an end. I was hiding.
It sounds like that abuse wasn't something you felt comfortable sharing with anyone, so you resorted instead to numbing that pain and depression away with alcohol and drugs.
Every time something bad happened, I would compartmentalize it inside my mind, body and spirit. I became a master packer within my own space, each secret, each dark and painful experience had its own proper place and I placed a lock and key over each.
And I'm guessing that this was unsustainable?
I kept them all hidden to the best of my dysfunctional ability but over time they all began to spill out all over the place. There is only so much room in one person to contain the amount of suffering I had endured. In 1997, on a brisk November morning just three short months after my mother had died in my arms, I could not find a place inside myself for that degree of anguish. There were no more internal compartments to contain the pain and a volcanic eruption began to spew from me all over the place in the form of self-loathing, despair and utter insanity—and thus my suicide attempt.
That's awful, I'm so sorry to hear that. What happened next for you? Was this a tipping point where you began to acknowledge that you needed help?
After the suicide attempt as a direct result of my addiction spiraling out of control, I knew I needed serious help.
So you went to an addiction treatment center, I take it? What was that like, getting sober while dealing with all of your trauma?
Yes, I was admitted to an addiction treatment center. One night there, I was listening to a speaker who had successfully completed the program and it really hit me the degree of work I was going to have to do if I wanted to really recover and never feel the way I felt that night that I wanted to die. The speaker mentioned in her share that "her secrets kept her sick." That slogan hit me like a ton of bricks. I walked into rehab packed internally with secrets. Things that had happened to me, truths I had known but couldn't share, feelings that were so dark that I would never express them outwardly.
And what was the result of that realization? What did this mean for your recovery process?
When I heard that woman say her secrets kept her sick, I intuitively realized that if I was going to be successful and really live a full and happy life free from my addictions and free from the desire to constantly harm myself; I was going to have to dive deep into these secrets and unlock the doors inside of me that had been sealed off for a very long time. Which meant releasing and exposing my past traumas and victimizations.
By layering my traumas and victimizations with drugs and alcohol I was just fueling a major fire inside of me, one that eventually could not be contained as evident in my suicide attempt.
So how did you manage to resolve your trauma and PTSD? Did entering into a program of recovery and staying sober help with depression or other mental health disorders that resulted from sexual abuse?
There wasn't a process for this work within the walls of the rehab I was at. The program did not consider in any real therapeutic way past traumas and victimizations. There were exercises to help process the wrongs I had committed in my addiction, we talked a lot of making amends and being accountable and the fourth step is certainly designed to be a mirror for ourselves during a brutally honest inventory of our past. But the Twelve Step rooms are not designed to address victimization and trauma, they are designed to keep a person sober.
So Twelve Step work may not be perfectly suited to helping people process trauma. It's a vehicle for getting people sober and helping them stay sober, but work has to be done elsewhere to manage PTSD or other mental health problems. Is that what you're saying?
I have come to understand that you cannot just treat the addiction. You cannot layer Twelve-Step programs, meetings and sponsorship over that degree of pain and not systematically and simultaneously deal with the underlying pain, trauma or affliction that is boiling underneath. Twelve Step programs are amazing and lifesaving, and they help us manage the addiction and keep it at bay. However, if you do not get rid of the kindling, the reason, the core for the continuous cycle of addiction, then a Twelve Step program only becomes a Band-Aid over a bullet hole.
In your opinion, then, you believe that in order to get sober and stay sober, people in recovery have to manage their trauma or they risk relapse?
Many people find themselves relapsing after years and years of solid recovery in a program and scratch their heads and wonder as to how it all happened. Relapse should be considered feedback from your disease, not a failure. Far too often people become defeated due to a relapse, people around them get frustrated and everyone winds up angry and resentful. All the while, the person with the substance abuse problem is really trying, they just have not been given the right tools to heal from their past trauma.
What's your advice for those who want sobriety but are also dealing with mental health disorders or past abuse?
When I finally got a glimpse of some real clean and sober time, all my wounds were there waiting for me like old movies playing repeatedly in my head. I could process some of them through a Twelve Step program, but in many instances my pains were so dark and deep that I needed additional therapeutic intervention.
Twelve Step meetings are a safe and amazing place to help release the desire to drink or use drugs, and to find collective support to avoid the things that harm us, but they are not the place for deep-rooted therapeutic discovery. Dealing with trauma and victimization is best left in the hands of professionals who can walk us safely through our past experiences so that we can get to the very root of the why.
And now, of course, everyone is trying to manage the stress and isolation that come from the pandemic, which just complicates everything as it relates to getting help and staying sober.
The trauma this is creating in our lives is real and we need to have honest conversations about it so we all know that experiencing trauma right now is the norm, not the exception. This trauma has left many people feeling hopeless and helpless. It is very easy to slip into a state of depression right now and for many people dealing with addictions or substance use disorders, depression can lead us right into a relapse if we aren't careful.
Any tips for people who are depressed and trying to balance self-care, recovery and their mental health issues while living in a pandemic?
When dealing with depression and addiction, sometimes the hardest thing to conquer is our own brain and what it tells us. The movie in your head is always worse when you are watching it alone. Reach out for help. Try to get those thoughts out of your head onto paper or expressed to someone you trust so they no longer hold the same power over you. Counter those thoughts by using daily affirmations. Read a daily affirmation book. Write yourself positive affirmations and post them in areas you will see them frequently throughout the day. Know that your self-worth does not get to be determined by anyone other than you. You are in charge of your recovery today and you are not alone. Your life matters, your recovery matters and you will get through this time.
That's absolutely right. People are ready, willing and happy to support us in our pursuit of well-being and happiness, even and especially during a pandemic. Thanks so much for talking with us, Jennifer.
If you or someone you know is struggling with maintained sobriety, please reach out to Hazelden Betty Ford for answers and help at 1-866-831-5700. You don't need to manage the situation alone. Substance use disorders of all varieties are common and treatable, and there is no shame in needing help with addiction. We're here for you.
If you are a sexual assault survivor who is also on a recovery journey, and you are interested in helping others by sharing a part of your story, learn more about Hazelden Publishing's new book How We Heal. Your experience, strength and hope could become part of this new daily meditation book that will help countless others find help and healing.