Substance Abuse and Generational Trauma

As we begin to recover from the pandemic, we are not ready to exhale and breathe a sigh of relief that this pain and suffering from this worldwide event is over. When we examine the far-reaching implications to our collective mental health, one can’t help but to think about our personal traumas and how we deal and process the corresponding feelings. We might also consider the option of self-medicating and wonder if our parents, grandparents, or siblings had similar thoughts.

For many of us we might not even know the impact of the trauma on us personally until we think about our last family gathering. In my experience, funerals and weddings allowed me to interact with my extended family. It was the opportunities to see where I came from and enjoy the wisdom of my aunts, uncles, and other cousins. It didn’t take long for a few of my relatives to indulge in their drug of choice, alcohol. There were whispers about these relatives including the fact that they were “moody.” When I was younger, I took their actions and those comments in stride and didn’t give them further thought. As I got older, I thought about the trials and tribulations that my mother and her brothers and sisters went through growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas. Each of them left their hometown as soon as they were of age. As a nosey nephew, I would pry my aunts and uncles about growing up in the south and I would be met with silence. It didn’t take much on my part to recognize that my aunts and uncles had been traumatized and their response to their children and me over the years would bear that out. I relied on my mother’s filter to explain the toll that southern racism had on their spirit and how they decided to cope with this stress via their drug of choice, alcohol.

I remember my cousins following their parents before reaching the age of consent and none of the adults dissuading the underage children from indulging in alcohol. As the years passed, my cousin’s children followed in the footsteps of their parents. What struck me was the fact that no one noticed the patterns or asked why its ok for everyone to drink like this at family gatherings. And I know first-hand there was a lot of drinking when there was no family gathering. This was combined with comments about certain family members that were “off” or “special.” It was clear that trauma was ever present, but my family spent time pretending it didn’t happen or wishing it away. No one seemed to acknowledge the obvious, including me. In short, I witnessed the impact of generational trauma and substance abuse most of my life.

Phoenix House Newsletter shared that “generational trauma is defined as trauma that isn’t just experienced by one person but extends from one generation to another.” My family has been impacted by generational trauma, and our lack of authentic and transparent communication has created the opportunity for this trauma to not be addressed, not to mention the impact of the substance abuse disorders.

Nellie Galindo in her article The Connection Between Substance Abuse Use and Trauma provided the following statistics about substance use disorders and trauma:
One-fourth to three fourths of individuals who have survived abusive or violet traumatic experiences report problematic alcohol use.

Women who are exposed to traumatic events show an especially increased risk for alcohol use disorder.
Five percent of individuals with PTSD also met criteria for a substance use disorder diagnosis.
As it relates to my family, I suspect that my uncle who were labeled as “special” and drank excessively fit into this category. He passed his unshared trauma to his children and they passed it to their children. My aunt who drank in excess, suffering from an unspoken trauma and considered to be slower than her other brothers and sisters, drank herself into a stupor. Her children (my contemporaries) following their mother’s path decided to drink like their mother when they came of age and now their children have followed their parents. And my family like many other families don’t speak of the substance use and they definitely won’t speak of the mental health issues because our family isn’t mentally ill. And we don’t talk about mental health issues. There was, and still is, a stigma about talking about mental health issues that is still part of our family tradition.

Florien Menlewater and her colleagues in their paper Mothering, Substance Use Disorders and Intergenerational Trauma Transmission: An Attachment Based Perspective identified five latent mechanisms of transmitting intergenerational trauma (1) early interpersonal childhood experiences in mothers; (2) trauma as a precursor of substance use; (3) substance use as a (self-fooling) enabler of parental functioning; (4) continued substance use impacting parental functioning; and (5) dysfunctional parental functioning and its relation impact upon off spring.

For my family, these mechanisms make perfect sense. The trauma, not addressing the trauma and then self-medicating with alcohol is how my family coped with stress. This is not the path of healing.

A recovery mindset and a focus on building resiliency is crucial for this population.

References

  • Brown, P & Wolfe, J (1994) Substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder comorbidity. Drug and Alcohol Dependence Vol.35 (1) 51-59
  • Galindo, N (2020) The connection between substance use and trauma. Relias.com
  • Menle, F & De Pauw, S and Vanderplasschen. (2019) Mothering, Substance Use Disorders and Intergenerational Trauma Transmission: An Attachment-Based Perspective. Frontiers in Psychiatry. Vol 10:728
  • Phoenix House Florida. (n.d.) Breaking Generational Trauma and Addiction. Phoenixfl.org

Thank you for reading this article and we welcome your comments and reflections.

About the Author

Dr. Warren Braden is a native of Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Braden is currently in private practice as a Marriage and Family Therapist-In Training in the State of Wisconsin. He is also an online instructor at the University of Phoenix and Concordia University-Wisconsin. Dr. Braden’s focus is on connecting health care providers to community-based health agencies with the goal of improving the overall health and wellness of the population, as well as, enhancing the training and skills of the health care, social work and public health practitioners in the field, through evidence-based practices.

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