The Monster in the Closet: Issues of Childhood Trauma, Codependency and Addiction

*** Originally Published on Engaged Sociology by IUP Department of Sociology***

Author Note: ***Before I begin the paper I want to introduce a case study about a fictional boy named Max. I want to emphasize that this story is a fictional case study created to show how childhood trauma impacts an individual’s development, it will be referred to throughout the paper several times. ***

Max’s Story

Max’s story is one that I hold close to my heart because Max is this kid who grew up to be an amazing person. Despite the adversity that he faced he decided to dedicate his life to service and education. When people look at Max today, they see the exact person I described to you; they would never guess for one second that Max was someone who had grown up in a dysfunctional family, experiencing childhood trauma. They tell Max about how good of a person he is, and about all of the good things that he has done, and they praise him for his accomplishments. However, Max does not feel like he accomplished anything. When he hears these praises, he feels numb. He feels like his work, no matter how great it was, wasn’t as good as the other people around him.  To understand why Max felt this way we need to look at a few events in Max’s life starting with things that happened while Max was in school.

School

In Middle school, Max’s life was a nightmare. Max’s peers bullied him, a lot. They bullied him because he loved to learn, which after all, is the point of school. The other kids didn’t understand the importance of being different. Due to his passion for art and education, the other kids would always say things like “Max is so gay,” “Max is a fag,” or “Silly faggot dicks are for chicks.” School turned into something that Max despised, and he avoided the other kids like the plague. Max walked around with a target on his back. Kids would spit on him, grind his face into fences, and even attack him on the school bus.

When Max was in the 7th grade one of the other kids asked him to play basketball, and he was so happy because no one ever bothered with him. He saw this as his chance to fit in with the other kids, so he went to play with them, not thinking anything of it. When Max went up for a three-pointer, mid-jump one of the kids bent down behind him, and another one pushed him over that kid, doing what was called table topping. Max laid on the floor bleeding not feeling a thing till he saw the crimson red blood on his hand, an incident that resulted in 13 staples in his head. The only person that helped him was the art teacher she sat with him holding paper towels on his head to stop the bleeding, as he cried until his parents got to the school. The school, who was supposed to protect him, and the school who should have called the ambulance. Max didn’t feel like he had anyone he could talk to at home or school, he felt alone. So, Max lied about what happened to him that day in the gym while he was playing basketball, saying he slipped on a water bottle. Max feared that if he told the truth no one could protect him from what would come next. He went to school regularly surrounded by fears.

Thinking the worst was behind him as he entered the 8th grade, Max again encountered bullying that was traumatizing, the same name calling continued, and so did the physical violence. One-day Max was on the bus, he intentionally sat towards the front of the bus so that the kids would hopefully leave him alone. A kid named Marcus who used to be friends with Max got on the bus, and as he passed the seat where Max was, he turned towards Max his face expressing anger and started punching Max. Max was thrown into the window of the bus, his back hitting a broom that was against the side of the seats. Max had to fight back kids were around him screaming “Fight! Fight! Fight!,” and he had no escape. When he got home, he had a huge bruise on his back that would be there for weeks. The next day he was called into the vice principals office to discuss the incident, and she told Max that he was playing the victim, even after seeing the bruise. Max’s vice principal suspended him for three days. After that, it was all about getting to high school. Max knew that if he was ever going to escape the one thing that would set him free was attaining a college degree. Max wanted to go somewhere where he knew no one at that school would ever have a chance of getting into, and he did. He went to a charter school with supportive faculty, and it changed his life. Now that we know about Max’s experiences in school we can move on to what happened at home.

Family

A lot of the trauma that Max experienced in school, he felt as if he couldn’t discuss that with his family because there was also some trouble at home. When Max was growing up things were normal until he was about four years old. Max developed a seizure disorder which was the first of many stressors on his family. Before and even during this time, he was this happy, curious, creative, kid with a family that loved and supported him. As he grew up things started to change there were stressors that his family faced, and that turned his world upside down.

Max’s dad was one of those people who were like Dr. Jeckle and Mr. Hyde. Life had just dealt him a hand of cards that was difficult to manage and he never really resolved those issues. As a result, he grew bitter, and the bitterness was like a toxin that destroyed everything in its path. Some days he was loving and caring, and other days he was a force of nature that you just wanted to avoid. When Max was growing up his dad would hit him, and not in a spanking way but it the lashing out kind of way. His dad’s answer to everything was that he wouldn’t have problems if he would put down the books and pick up the weights. No matter how hard he tried Max knew he wouldn’t be seen as perfect.

Much like the kids at school Max’s father decided that he was gay before he ever did and would constantly tell him that he was a faggot and that no girl would ever date him. He made his hatred and disgust of the LGBT community known. After each of these episodes, his father would feel bad, he would apologize, and then get him something nice. Rinse, wash and repeat. If Max ever brought up the situation, the nice things he got were thrown in his face. People made him feel guilty. It was emotional whiplash, to say the least. Max would get awards, honors, degrees and in a moment of rage his father would discredit them all, and make him feel awful. He would say things like “You should turn down that award because you’re still a piece of shit” or “Those degrees don’t mean anything you went to college and got stupid.”  Max learned to take these things with a grain of salt, because he came to know that he was changing for the better, and the people do not like change.

Around other people, Max and his family were made out to be perfect, but the second that those other people were gone, it was like a war zone. Words cutting like knives, and seeping a venom that would slowly eat away at the person they were directed at. People in Max’s family would use him to get information out of other people, and then blame him when things went wrong. People would call him long ears, and avoid talking about certain things around him in a clear way. When Max discussed the things, he went through to other people he trusted in his family they would deny him his truths and say things like “oh honey you aren’t remembering that correctly,” or “Oh, that wasn’t that, it was an accident, they didn’t mean it.” Max knew that if things were going to get better for him that education was vital and he poured himself into that.

Outcome

Luckily for Max, there was a silver lining, something close to a happily ever after, at the end of the story. The verbal abuse both at home and school continued after this but something changed inside of Max. His teachers supported him in high school and would help him when things went wrong in his life. He grew an incredible resilience to hardships and created something beautiful for himself from his pain. With this experience, Max was able to turn his life around. Max’s grades shot up, he took every honors class offered at the high school and passed, got inducted into the national honor society, and got accepted into every college that he applied to. When he decided on a college he made friends, and he thrived, he removed the toxic relationships from his life, got inducted into more honors groups, gained more awards, He earned degrees and honors, and after fixing himself, he dedicated his life to helping others do the same. He does have minor battle scars (pain, anxiety, depressive episodes, and a cracked self-esteem), but he knows now that he is so much more than what has happened to him in the past. So, while his story is sad, it’s a story of hope and survival.

So, why did I take up so much of this blog to tell you about Max, and some of the things that happened to him growing up? What does this have to do with trauma, codependency, and addiction?  The answer is because some children who grow up in environments like Max, don’t turn out like him. They find less healthy ways to cope with the battle scars of childhood trauma (pain, anxiety, and depression). These individuals are the ones you hear about on the news either committing suicide or turning to opioids to numb their pain.

In this blog, I will be exploring the impacts of dysfunctional families on the development of the child leading them on different pathways as they progress through the lifespan. Specifically, I will begin by introducing the opioid crisis, and the rising rate of suicide, then I will move into the connection between these issues and dysfunctional families. From there, I will talk about how this information can be used in other settings. Finally, I will end by summarizing the main points made in this blog post.

Issues of Opioid use and Suicide

Opioids

As seen in the video above, nationally, and even locally, there is an epidemic, individuals are abusing and becoming addicted to opioids. Opioids such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and buprenorphine, are powerful painkillers that when used can cause Euphoria, Decrease respiration, heart rate, and blood pressure, and slower digestion (Vaccaro, 2017). Opioids are an important tool for treating symptoms of diseases, and procedures that cause individuals an extreme amount of pain. So, how did something intended to help people become this much trouble? The answer to this is complicated because the issue has multiple factors associated with it. However, we can attribute the rise in abuse, addiction, and overdose to three things: “(1) a change in the pain treatment standards in the 1980s, (2) Development of powerful pain relief medication in the 1990’s, and (3) The increased availability of illicit opiates in the 2000’s” (Vaccaro, 2017).

The reality according to data presented NESARC (Nation Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions) is that nonmedical prescription opioid use has increased 161%, and Lifetime use of heroin increased almost five times (Douaihy, 2017). With this increase, there are complications such as various types of health problems, and deaths of despair (a term used to describe the intersectionality between opioid overdoses, suicides, and addiction-related diseases, and globalization, societal disruption and economic decline). According to CDC data, Pennsylvania’s deaths from opioid-involved overdoses increased by 20%, making the deaths equate to 25 per 100,000. Overdosing is only one way that addicts lose their life, another type of death, also on the rise in deaths by suicide.

Suicide

Another issue associated with both the opioid crisis and childhood trauma is suicide. When we are talking about suicide, and deaths by suicide it is important to conceptualize what we mean. According to the Nation Center for Injury Prevention and Control, suicide is defined as “death caused by self-directed injurious behavior with intent to die as a result of that behavior.” To learn more about the prevalence of suicide see the video below.

According to the CDC “There were 41,149 suicides in 2013 in the United States—a rate of 12.6 per 100,000 equal to 113 suicides each day or 1 every 13 minutes. This makes suicide the 10th leading cause of death in the United States (May 2017). Think about that for a minute, 113 individuals every single day. This is a serious mental health issue that can have devastating effects not only on the family and in some cases the survivors, but also on the community.

Suicide used to be thought of as something that was centered on the individual, believed to be something intimate and personal (Vaccaro, 2017). However, we are now seeing that the social structures and culture determine suicide rates through factors such as social stability, social bonds, social interactions, social unity, and social regulation (Vaccaro, 2017). These are all factors that individuals brought up in dysfunctional families can struggle with. Let’s think about Max again for a second. His family and peers both caused him to become isolated and struggle with all of the issues above. When mixed with the issues of his sexuality Max was at high risk for self-injury, and suicide.

Every day, we wake up turn on the news, and we listen to stories about individuals who are addicted to substances, we hear how they are overdosing or dying, and how those numbers are rising. You hear about how kids are being bullied to the point where suicide is their only way out. You hear stories of people jumping off bridges. It makes you wonder where did this issue begin? What happened in the development of a child that leads them to a pathway of drug addiction? What makes someone think suicide is the only answer? What role does the family play, and what happens when the family that the child grows up in is dysfunctional like Max’s? What are the results of the trauma associated with growing up in dysfunctional families?

The Monster in the Closet

Arielle Schwartz writes:

“Childhood trauma can range from having faced extreme violence and neglect to having confronted feelings of not belonging, being unwanted, or being chronically misunderstood. You may have grown up in an environment where your curiosity and enthusiasm were constantly devalued. Perhaps you were brought up in a family where your parents had unresolved traumas of their own, which impaired their ability to attend to your emotional needs. Or, you may have faced vicious sexual or physical attacks. In all such situations, you learn to compensate by developing defenses around your most vulnerable parts” (Schwartz, 2016).

When a child grows up in a dysfunctional family, there is trauma left behind that can substantially impact the individual. It haunts them like the monsters that they once believed to live in their closets. When the individual least expects it, the trauma pops out and opens back up those battle scars, and the individual is forced to cope in any way they can. To learn more about how the child processes growing up in a dysfunctional family see the video below.

Growing up in Dysfunction

When you are a child the world is pure, you don’t always understand the things that are happening around you because you are born into the world tabula rasa. Your self-concept is crafted through different social learning opportunities as you develop. Erik Erickson developed a developmental model that explains the development of a child from birth throughout the lifespan (see video below). What we learn from that model is that in each of the developmental stages there are different crisis that must be resolved. The ones related to childhood and early adulthood are trust vs. mistrust, autonomy vs. doubt and shame, initiative vs. guilt, industry vs. inferiority, identity vs. role confusion, and intimacy vs. isolation.

Starting from the time that we are very young the relationships that we have in our lives are critical, the decisions that people in our environment make directly impact our development. Whenever we fail to overcome a crisis that is a part of one of the stages, we carry that crisis with us, until we resolve it (Ackerman, 2017). Sometimes the reality is that it may be a long time until we resolve it if we ever resolve it at all. Dr. Ackerman Stated “I was probably 37. Something like that before I realize I mattered. I looked pretty good on paper. I did a few things, people in the department thought I was an okay colleague but, what a freedom to realize that you matter” This is the result of growing up in a dysfunctional family. Again, much like Max, Dr. Ackerman didn’t turn to drugs, but there are instances where people do, and then become addicted.

Types of Dysfunction

Four types of dysfunctional families that were covered during the conference, they were families with: child abuse, foster children, divorce, and addiction. In the case study of Max, we saw one of these. In the following section, I describe each type.

Child Abuse. According to Childhelp, child abuse is defined as “when a parent or caregiver, whether through action or failure to act, causes injury, death, emotional harm or risk of serious harm to a child. There are many forms of child maltreatment, including neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, exploitation and emotional abuse”. Children who are abused are affected in many different ways the first is regarding development. As you heard in the previous section stage theorist argues that there are developmental stages that involving crises that happen when a parent neglects or abuses their children (Ackerman, 2017). The child will also need treatment for their injuries that could have long-term or short-term consequences (Ackerman, 2017). Finally, because our parents are supposed to care for us, there is an emotional toll on the child who is abused (Ackerman, 2017). So as you can see children who grew up in abusive situations can be significantly impacted.

Foster Children. Children who grow up in foster homes can also have some challenges that they face growing up. Sometimes due to the circumstances of being a foster child an individual can have a hard time establishing meaningful relationships (Ackerman, 2017).  Similar to children growing up in abusive households, children growing up in foster care can have issues with development (Ackerman, 2017). These children also have challenges in constructing their identities and feeling as if they belong (Ackerman, 2017). Overall ½-2/3 of all foster children exhibit some form of mental health issue (Ackerman, 2017).

Children of Divorce. Children who grow up in families where the parents’ divorce is another type of dysfunctional family. Children in these families have to deal with loss or feelings of rejection when their parents split up (Ackerman, 2017). They have to come to terms with what is going on in their families. They also have to forgive their parents and resolve issues related to their relationships (Ackerman, 2017). Divorce can cause a rift in the family unit that ripples out and affects children in various aspects of their life.

Children of Addicted Families. Children growing up in families where the parents have an addiction is the last form of dysfunctional families. Children in these families often feel responsible for the parent’s well-being, so they worry about their parent (Ackerman, 2017). The way that addiction affects the parent who is using can also cause the children to worry about future fights (Ackerman, 2017). Children also start to blame themselves, and they feel personally responsible for what their parents are doing (Ackerman, 2017). These situations lead to instances of fear. No matter what the type of dysfunctional family we know that trauma is a result.

The Pathway to Addiction.

In each of the types of dysfunction families above family members can lead someone to develop co-dependent behaviors. They do this by oppressing the individual through the use of rules that deny them of their five freedoms. The freedoms include: Thinking what you think, feeling what you feel, wanting what you want, seeing what you see, and imagine who you want to be (Sanders, 2017). When an individual becomes co-dependent they are approval seekers, they fear authority, put others ahead of themselves, become addicted to excitement and fear, and adopt a compulsive personality (Sanders, 2017). When an individual realizes that they have negative relationships in their life, it is important that they find a way to perform a relationship detox. Individuals can use strategies like seeking therapy, thinking about their spirituality, and reinforcing their other social bonds (Sanders, 2017). Failure to deal with negative relationships and the trauma associated with them lead to issues of addiction and suicide.

Thinking about the four types of dysfunctional families a study published in 1992 indicated that the two most common types of dysfunctional families were families where one or both of the parents were addicted to drugs or where there was physical or psychological abuse present in the family (Hirschman, 1992). The study goes on to say that children who grow up in households like these are placed at risk of becoming an addict (Hirschman, 1992). So as you can see the opioid epidemic stems from a lot of different areas including the child’s development, and the dynamics of the family unit.

In this section of the blog, we heard a case study about a child named Max who grew up in a dysfunctional family. We were introduced to the opioid and suicide epidemics, and we learned about dysfunctional families and how they can lead to instances of addiction and suicide. In the following section, I will begin by talking about how this information can be applied across settings. Then I will talk about how my experience at the MARTI conference will help me in my career. Finally, I will end by summarizing the blog with a final thought.

Practical Implications

The information presented in this blog has a lot of practical implications, and the information can be applied to different settings. In this section of the blog, I will be discussing the implications to the personal setting the school setting and the clinical setting. I will begin at the personal level and then work my way up.

Personal Setting

            On the personal level, this information can be applied because individuals of dysfunctional family’s whether they struggle with addiction or not feel isolated like they are the only ones struggling with the realities of growing up in a situation like Max. This paper can inform individuals like Max that there is hope and that they can overcome the adversity of growing up in a dysfunctional family. I would hope that someone in Max’s situation, where they are struggling at school and home would pay attention to the section on eliminating toxic relationships and seeking help.

There are a ton of resources out there for individuals going through things like this. In Max’s scenario, he identified as a part of the LGBT community so he could reach out to professionals at the Trevor Project or the It Gets Better Project. These are two groups that help individuals who identify as LGBT deal with the stressors that are associated with that and that can put them at risk of harming themselves. The Trevor Project, founded in 1998 was established by the creators of the short film Trevor. The organization serves as a resource providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBT+ youth ages 13-24 (Trevor Project, 2017). The It Gets Better Project’s mission, as stated on their website, “is to communicate to LGBT youth around the world that it gets better, and to create and inspire the changes needed to make it better for them.” (IGBP,2 017). Both groups, are international groups that help people like Max know that there is a time in life where things get better and that they don’t have to harm themselves. The message here is to find somebody and talk to them, don’t let these issues fester.

 

 School Setting

            In the school setting, YOU ARE A MANDATED REPORTER!!!!, as a teacher you have a responsibility to keep children safe. “Professionals who come into contact with children (i.e., mandated reporters) are required to report when they have reasonable cause to suspect that a child under the care, supervision, guidance or training of that person or their agency, institution or organization is an abused child. However, any person may report suspected abuse” (PSFSA). When you see children like Max who start out energetic and enthusiastic, and then that slowly declines along with their grades and happiness that is a sign that something is going on. Be attentive and look for the signs. When you find evidence of abuse in the home, or in any other aspect of a child’s life, call ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313. Childline “provides information, counseling, and referral services for families and children to ensure the safety and well-being of the children of Pennsylvania” (PSFSA).  Don’t let the abuse go on you have the ability to make a difference and save the child from a dangerous environment. Listen to the students when they talk to you, read the things they write, listen carefully to the cries for help in the silence.

Also in Max’s case, we saw that trauma doesn’t just happen at home it also happened at school through bullying. Bullying is a serious issue, and it is only getting worse with computers. Correct people who are mistreating others and instill positive values in students through lesson plans and guest speakers. Never tell a child like Max that they are playing the victim because it discourages them from reporting serious issues like this in the future.

 Clinical Setting

            Trauma is Traumatic, and people may not be ready to talk about it just yet so work with your clients at their own pace to confront their issues. Go into the meeting with your client tabla rasa. Forget everything that you think you know about addiction and leave the biases associated with those beliefs at the door. These people are humans who have been through hell and back. They have a mental illness that requires them to keep using to feel normal. Relapse is a bitch, and it takes every fiber of willpower to overcome it. So just be there to hear them, support them, and help them to heal and recover.

Application to My Future

One of the things that drew me into Sociology was my passion for social justice; I was determined to make the world a better place. I have three areas of specialty, and they are disability studies, gender and human sexuality, and social inequalities. All three of this specialty intersect with the opioid and suicide crises that are going on right now. By conducting research in my field of study, I can engage individuals in discourse that could eliminate some of the precursors to opioid use and suicide.

In addition to scholarship in the form of research, I am also deeply rooted in fellowship and service. So I can take the information that I am learning and use it to help individuals who are at risk gain access to resources. Linked in with service, is my passion for teaching and as a teacher, I believe it would be my job to ignite a spark inside of my students that help them become passionate and do good. I want to teach them how to look at an issue and deconstruct it, look at the underlying factors, and question everything that they think they know.

Final Thought

            When children are growing up, they deserve the right to be children. They have the rest of their lives to deal with all the stresses that come with adulthood. They shouldn’t be put in situations where they have to grow up too fast and think about things as serious as how they can survive until the next day. They should be happy and carefree and loved. When a child grows up in a dysfunctional family, and they face childhood trauma that is associated with their microsystem they can become codependent and even get on a pathway that leads to addiction and in some cases death. As people who work in education and the social services, we have a responsibility to these children to educate people on these issues so we can prevent the adverse outcomes. If we see instances or signs of abuse don’t fall victim to the bystander effect, call ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313. Help give other kids who aren’t as fortunate as Max a second chance at feeling like the matter.


References

Ackerman, R. (2017). The Emotional and Behavioral Impact of Children and Adolescents Living in Dysfunctional Families [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved 7/13/2017.

Douaihy, A. (2017). Medication-Assisted Treatment for Opioid Addiction: The New Gold Standard? [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved 7/10/2017

Hirschman, E. C. (1992). The Consciousness of Addiction: Toward a General Theory of Compulsive Consumption. Journal of Consumer Research, 19(2), 155. doi:10.1086/209294

May, R. (2017). Suicide, Mental Illness, and Substance Use: Current Issues [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved 7/11/2017

May, R., Faish, C., Seaman, M., Morrow, K. (2017). The Impact of Suicide Panel discussion. Indiana, Pennsylvania.

Sanders, M. (2017). Relationship Detox [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved 7/13/2017.

Schwartz, A. The complex PTSD workbook: a mind-body approach to regaining emotional control & becoming whole. Berkeley, CA: Althea Press, 2016. Print.

The Trevor Project. (n.d.). Retrieved July 12, 2017, from http://www.thetrevorproject.org/pages/history

Vaccaro, C. (2017). Opioids and Opiates [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved 7/10/2017

Vaccaro, C. (2017). Suicide [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved 7/11/2017

What is the It Gets Better Project? (2016, August 17). Retrieved July 12, 2017, from http://www.itgetsbetter.org/pages/about-it-gets-better-project/

Reporting Abuse: ChildLine. (n.d.). Retrieved July 21, 2017, from http://www.pafsa.org/Mandated-Reporters/Recognizing-Child-Abuse-Neglect/Reporting-Abuse-ChildLine

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