health as it happens

Trauma, not pot, is often the gateway to addiction -

Published July 04. 2021 12:01AM 

Karen C.L. Anderson

I have so much empathy for Jean Church, her nephew and her family after reading Church's letter to the editor: "Wake up: Legalizing marijuana is crazy," which appeared June 30 and in which she wrote marijuana was the gateway drug that led to her nephew's lifelong addiction.

But she is wrong.

Cannabis isn’t a gateway drug.

Alcohol isn’t a gateway drug.

Nicotine isn’t a gateway drug.

Caffeine isn’t a gateway drug.

Trauma is the gateway.

Childhood abuse is the gateway.

Molestation is the gateway.

Neglect is the gateway.

Drug abuse, violent behavior, hypersexuality, and self-harm are often symptoms (not the cause) of much bigger issues. And it almost always stems from a childhood filled with trauma, absent parents, and an abusive family. But most people are too busy laughing at the homeless and drug addicts to realize your own children could be in their shoes in 15 years.

Communicate. Empathize. Rehabilitate.

− Russell Brand, actor, writer, and activist. Sober from heroin and other substances since 2002.

Trauma is an emotional and physical response to something that was too much, too soon, or too fast (or too little, too late, too slow) for an individual's nervous system to process.

Trauma is the disconnection from self, the separation from the body and emotions.

Trauma is energy stuck in the body.

Humans live with physical trauma, developmental/emotional trauma, intergenerational trauma, and collective trauma.

As overwhelming as all of that may sound, trauma isn’t the problem. The problem is that our culture has stigmatized healthy responses to trauma.

Humans are wired to respond to trauma. It’s part of our blueprint. There are four commonly recognized responses to trauma: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. Each response has a healthy way of showing up, and a not-so-healthy way of showing up.

Addiction is one of the not-so-healthy adaptations and it comes from our culture's insistence that we not be "emotional" or use other healthy ways of responding to trauma. Our culture is not conducive to healing. It is not conducive to feeling. It disparages emotion, grief − anything that isn’t functional and productive.

Triggering events may not be a big a deal for those around the traumatized, but for them the events were indeed traumatic. A boy might be shamed for crying or for trying to protect himself from something. And when healthy attempts at processing whatever happened are made fun of, or disparaged, or discouraged, a person may turn to something else to feel better.

For Church's nephew, and many like him, it isn't the marijuana. If it were, then anyone and everyone (including me) who has partaken would be dead of a drug overdose.

In addition to addiction, conditions like ADHD, some personality disorders, depression, anxiety, and some autoimmune disorders have their genesis in unacknowledged, unprocessed, unrepaired trauma.

This isn't to point a critical finger at parents or families, but to a lack of understanding, and to systems that promote and encourage disconnection from self.

There but for the grace of God (and some luck and a lot of privilege) go I.

I experienced developmental trauma as a child. I turned to various substances (mostly food and wine) to try and feel better. I suspect I am on the ADHD spectrum. I experience inexplicable pain in my body. And I used to shame myself for all of it. Rinse and repeat. In that regard, I am not unique. Not by a long shot.

The work now being done in the field of complex trauma and understanding how the human nervous system works is vitally important. What I have learned on my own has been enough to make a significant difference in how I live my l life and how I experience my body. While some of it may seem cutting edge, so much of trauma repair is ancient wisdom that humans have forgotten or are embarrassed by.

And guess what? A small part of that, for me, is the use of cannabis products. I am so grateful they are now legal.

Karen C.L. Anderson is a master-certified life coach and author. You can learn more about her at She lives in Waterford.