HUNGER FOR WHOLENESS III: The Beginning of Life Sets the Stage
On the other hand, we can back off the parents some, and consider Mate’s information about infants with caregivers who just are emotionally imbalanced and unable to handle their own external environment. These caregivers may just be agitated and nervous, but still create an atmosphere too frightening for the baby to handle, still another form of trauma. The only way the infant can cope with the situation is to find ways to emotionally shut down, or tune out the caregiver. Mate’ says that many babies learn to self-sooth by rocking, sleeping, eating, thumb-sucking, or looking for other external sources for comfort. He calls this the “ever-agitated, ever-yawning emptiness that lies at the heart of addiction” (2010, 241).
Furthermore, he also identifies himself throughout the book as an addict, a behavioral addict. Mate’ did not experience trauma from abusive caregivers as so many of his patients. He had a mother who was challenged by her own environment and therefore unable to sooth her son. Mate’ was born in Budapest, a Jewish boy in the beginning of the war. At the age of one year his distraught and fearful mother handed him over to relatives to save his life (2010, p, 241).
As Mate’ identifies with symptoms from early parent-infant separation, and with having an emotionally imbalanced caregiver in his first year of life, he also identifies with the “ever-yawning emptiness” which he claims is the source of his own addictions. The earlier we get introduced to this emptiness, the fewer defenses we have against its power.
I am sharing this paper because it has been an argument of mine for some time that trauma often is a source for addiction. So for the next three weeks I will share the rest of the paper.
When the trauma happened matters
In fact, this logic matches Angela E. Waldrop and associates’ study called “Differences in Early Onset Alcohol Use and Heavy Drinking among Persons with Childhood and Adulthood Trauma.” The study showed that when traumatized children used alcohol to manage their lives, it served as a link between their early onset of trauma and alcohol dependency later in life.
Also, as the chart depicts, when they compared early childhood trauma with trauma later in life, the conclusion was that early childhood trauma could speed up the onset for heavier drinking habits by up to seven years compared to people with traumatic experiences later in life (2007, p. 441). Alcohol abuse and addictions are part of the unresolved ways of self-medicating the wounds from traumatic experiences; the earlier the wound occurred, the more potential for long-term damage to the mind and body.
In other words, if a person experience trauma early in life and start using alcohol, or other substances, to manage their symptoms, they lose the opportunity to experience a normal development of their nervous system and its ability to respond to stress. This leave them with an immature ability to cope, and they will most likely continue the use of substances as it has become the only available way out of their pain. This is a sure path to become alcohol dependent as an adult. For that reason alone we should focus on healing the environment the children grow up in. The larger part of the children’s environment are their caregivers.
Addiction is a family issue
Therefore, being one of those emotionally imbalanced caregivers myself, and having allowed the “ever-yawning emptiness” to reach the next generation, I can also vouch for the desperation to break the cycle. When you see the anxiety you created in your children develop into potential disorders, there is a sense of palpable panic integrated in your already stressed body; and desperation becomes the fuel to find a way for healing…now for the whole family. That is what recovery needs to aim towards. There is very little chance for a child to heal in a dysfunctional family structure. Mate’ quote his therapist saying “Children swim in their parents’ unconscious like fish swim in the sea” (2010, p.253).
With that in mind, if we want to heal our children, we need to own up to our deeds and heal ourselves. Our children and their stories need to be validated. This creates a dilemma for many families who find themselves to be “okay”, and not willing to look within. Trauma, at least childhood trauma, does not happen in a vacuum, it is a family concern. Children are products of their environment, so we all need to own up to our actions, and with wholeness in mind, create healing for our communities. The families need to be part of the recovery for the recovery programs to earn the right to call themselves holistic.
Therefore, again we have to start offering support and healing to the whole family first to stop this cycle of abuse. As Mate’ taught us, the environment for the child, as early as in uterus, will most likely determine the possibility for addictions in adulthood. We would be smarter if we offered healing to the parents beforethey became pregnant. Personally, such support would have offered my own children the opportunities to experience a calmer, less threatening, and more stable start in life.
Instead, their lives began with an out of control raging mother who was isolated and overwhelmed by her own trauma. Without a community of educated and loving support from other mothers, my own attempt on motherhood was severely compromised. With the lack of education about PTSD or an understanding about the symptoms of trauma, I created a frightening and unsafe environment for my two daughters to grow up in. It is with awe I watch how well my girls have adjusted to their lives and how they are thriving in their chosen fields. I marvel over their social skills and emotional intelligence, and think, how can they be doing so well. I am investing a great amount of hope in the promises from trauma experts who tell us that healing for our children is possible. As we heal as parents, they heal too.