In this film, Dr Vincent Felitti, from Kaiser Permanente presents information from the ongoing 17,000 person Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study to challenge the conventional view that certain chemicals are intrinsically addicting. He presents the evidence gathered in the ACE study to show that “addiction is not a disease, but is an unconsciously attempted response to minimize the effects of abnormal life experiences. Addiction can be seen as the unconscious, compulsive use of psychoactive materials in response to the stress of life experiences, typically dating back to childhood.”
Dr. Felitti discusses patients, including the woman who was the first person to draw his attention to the issue of using substances (in her case food), who are engaging in behaviors normally considered harmful in order to alleviate and protect from the pain of childhood experiences. He primarily addresses food, alcohol, nicotine, methamphetamines and heroin addiction. They are a few of the things that may be seen as public health problems but may often be “personal solutions to long-concealed adverse childhood experiences. Describing bad habits as self-destructive behaviors hides their functionality in the life of a trauma survivor.”
As I think about how we try to address substance abuse, the heroin crisis, and human trafficking, I am drawn to the conclusion that we will fail in our attempts to resolve the crises until we begin to talk about the long held private conditions that lead to the public problems. “These life experiences are very likely to be lost in time, and protected by shame, by secrecy, and by social taboos against exploring certain aspects of human experience.” So many of us were raised in families and cultures where we did not discuss shameful family secrets. As we grew up we were seen as the problem when the legacy of adverse childhood experiences presented as addictions and mental illness.
At this point in time treatment options are few and far between and minimally address the origins of the addiction. By failing to address the adversity experience in childhood by so many people, we fail in our attempts to treat. When treatment fails, we blame the person instead of recognizing that by “treating someone’s attempted solution, we may be threatening and causing flight from treatment” or forcing them to find another, possibly life-threatening, solution.
When these childhood experiences are named and validated as the source of long term difficulties in adolescence and adulthood we are removing the stigma and helping persons understand that it is not about having something wrong with them, but that something was done to them. The next steps are to assist in finding healthier solutions and recognizing the strength and resiliency that helped them find solutions in the first place and survive in the midst of extremely adverse experiences.