The Connection Between Trauma and Addiction
The Whirlpool of Trauma
When I was eight years old, my mother, who had recently given birth to her eighth child, suddenly disappeared. Not physically—she remained in our apartment for the next several weeks, confined to bed — but emotionally and sometimes mentally. Then one afternoon in June 1965, an ambulance carried her away for good. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my mother was sent to a psychiatric hospital, where barbaric treatments for schizophrenia succeeded only in driving her farther from reality. Finally, on Mother’s Day weekend 1966, she took her own life.
As you can imagine, this ordeal was traumatic for me, for my father, for my seven younger siblings, and our entire extended family. It was also problematic in our church, where the twin stigmas of mental illness and suicide made the whole subject difficult to talk about. As a result, nobody talked about my mother, at least not to me. Rather than join me in my grief, the adults in my world avoided the topic entirely. My father remarried the following year. His new bride, a young woman, now saddled with responsibility for eight young children, was emotionally unprepared for the task. Our entire family was caught in a whirlpool of trauma.
It was at around this time that I caught my first glimpse of pornography. Rounding an aisle in our local corner grocery, I suddenly encountered a voluptuous woman, barely clothed, gazing provocatively at me from a magazine rack. The sight of her took me completely by surprise. No one had ever warned me about the existence of porn. No one had told me that every boy eventually sees porn —or that every boy instinctively likes porn because it depicts something we are wired by God to want. I wasn’t sexually aroused by the image since I was too young and naïve for that kind of physical response, but I was mesmerized by it, nonetheless. The woman seemed to touch something very deep inside me, an ache too deep for words.
No one had told me that every boy eventually sees porn —or that every boy instinctively likes porn because it depicts something we are wired by God to want.
During my teenage years, when my classmates in public school were talking about sex or swapping dirty magazines, I did my best to conceal any interest. I was, after all, a preacher’s kid, someone with a testimony to uphold. But when I visited the stash of purloined Playboy and True Confessions magazines I had carefully hidden in the basement of my father’s church, I would experience a soothing wave of dopamine. However, as soon as the session ended, an avalanche of guilt, shame, and self-loathing would leave me feeling worse than ever.
Although porn was ultimately unsatisfying, my fascination with it continued to grow. Even after I had met a wonderful woman who agreed to marry me, I fed my fantasies with images from soft-core magazines. Matters took a darker turn a few years later when I entered my first peep show booth on a seminary-sponsored trip to New York City. For me, hard-core porn was like heroin. I was instantly hooked. Alarmed and baffled by my attraction to something that violated my conscience and the Bible’s moral code, I redoubled my long and lonely efforts to quit.
The Path to Freedom
Needless to say, I never won my private struggle against porn. In fact, porn continued to gain ground, consuming more and more of my life with each passing year. Eventually, it succeeded in carrying me across the flesh line into patronizing prostitutes. That was enough to end my career as a pastor. Although I was never caught, self-hatred and the fear of discovery drove me into early retirement from the ministry. I fled from the limelight into the relative safety of business.
In 1998, after more than a decade of despair, I finally found help in 12-step recovery. At the time, few therapists and even fewer pastors believed that sex addiction is a real thing, but I was fortunate to find a community of men and women who had experienced the same helplessness and hopelessness I knew so well but had found a path to freedom. That path involved a great deal of sharing. In the shame-free environment of the 12-step meetings and confidential conversations with my sponsor and a therapist, I was finally able to deconstruct my dilemma in full detail.
In retrospect, I should not have been surprised by the healing power of those conversations. After all, I had been raised in the church and was familiar with the Bible’s admonition to “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed.” (James 5:16). However, my experience in church had convinced me that certain sins should never be confessed to anyone but God. God would forgive, but his people wouldn’t. A detailed confession of my sexual sins, I believed, would be tantamount to suicide.
It was a discussion about suicide that helped me finally make the connection between my out-of-control sexual behavior and the loss of my mother. During a casual conversation, a therapist friend remarked that “there is trauma at the root of every addiction.” When I asked him to elaborate, he referred me to something called the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) scale, and told me a person with an ACE score of 4 is 700 percent more likely to develop an addiction than someone who did not experience early childhood trauma. I took the test and scored a 4.
I saw myself as a bad Christian who needed to be good. I now know that my Heavenly Father always saw me as a wounded Christian who needed to be healed
During my decades of futility, I saw myself as a bad Christian who needed to be good. I now know that my Heavenly Father always saw me as a wounded Christian who needed to be healed — and the healing began when I finally found a place where I could bring my real self and start to speak the real truth.