Childhood trauma and addiction. This is a real thing! “Rocketman,” an intriguing biopic highlights this connection.
“Rocketman” is a movie that was released in May 2019. It is a biographical musical film based on the life of musician Sir Elton John. It stars Taron Egerton as John and follows this great musician from his early years to stardom. “Rocketman” does a great job of showcasing the relationship between childhood trauma and addiction.
For many years, researchers have been studying the connection between addiction and trauma in childhood. There is evidence supporting this interconnection. However, it is essential to remember that not all addictions are rooted in traumatic experiences.
There are quite a few other factors that play a role. Amongst these are mental illness, peer pressure, environment, modeling other people who use drugs, prescription of medications with addictive potential, and family history. Of course, there is also the issue of choice and making wrong decisions.
In “Rocketman,” young Elton grows up in 1950s England. His cold, unaffectionate mother Sheila raises him. Bryce Dallas Howard plays this role. His father Stanley was mostly absent from home, serving in the Air Force. Even though his father was mostly gone, he showed no interest in his son when he was around. He was emotionally cold and distant.
SAMHSA has a good definition of trauma. “Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.
In the US, about 61% of men and 51% of women report exposure to at least one lifetime traumatic event. Also, up to 90% of patients in public mental health settings have experienced trauma. This report is according to SAMHSA.
It is important to note that different people handle trauma differently. Some individuals are more resilient than others. Trauma comes in various forms. Some examples are military combat, car accidents, child abuse, sexual assault, natural disasters, medical conditions, bullying, domestic abuse, street violence, and growing up in an unstable home.
Young Elton grew up in an unstable home where he experienced emotional abuse and neglect as a child. “Rocketman” gives an excellent account of how this trauma may have played into Elton John’s adult life.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) has a good definition of childhood trauma. “The experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.”
Most people think about physical and sexual abuse when they consider childhood trauma. This is correct. However, an often forgotten trauma in childhood is emotional abuse and neglect.
Physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect are all traumatic life experiences. Unfortunately, these occur at an alarmingly high rate all over the world.
Trauma in childhood can be very harmful. Let us point out two significant factors worthy of note. Firstly, a child’s brain grows and develops quickly. Secondly, children are very dependent on their caregivers. Because of these reasons, children are especially vulnerable to trauma. Also, some studies have shown that the greater the amount of trauma, the more the likelihood of developing a mental disorder or substance use disorder.
A study found that childhood emotional abuse and neglect were more likely to cause adult depression than physical or sexual abuse. Again, the movie “Rocketman” highlights this. Young Elton showed signs of struggling with depression. Even though he had issues with drugs and alcohol, he also showed symptoms of a depressive disorder. This illness very likely contributed to his overdose on medications, as was shown in the movie. Luckily, this suicide attempt did not end his life.
An article published by Maltz defines childhood sexual abuse as follows: “Sexual abuse occurs whenever one person dominates and exploits another by means of sexual activity or suggestion.”
So, how common is this? Maltz’s article reports that 28-33% of women and 12-18% of men were victims of childhood or adolescent sexual abuse. Appalling! According to RAINN, government authorities respond to a report of child sexual abuse every 8 minutes. Let that sink in.
And you know what? These numbers likely only reflect a portion of the actual deeds. We all know that many of these cases go unreported.
Accounts in the Sir Elton John movie do not show any indication of sexual abuse as a child. On the other hand, he experienced severe emotional abuse and neglect.
The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study is one of the most extensive investigations on childhood abuse and neglect. It also highlights household challenges, later-life health, and well-being. This study included over 17,000 patients.
The ACE Study showed the following:
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA),
Also, studies done by the Veterans Administration (VA) have shown that about 35-75% of veterans with PTSD abuse drugs and alcohol.
These numbers thus show a relationship between childhood trauma and the likelihood of abusing drugs. Indeed, the strength of the association is certainly quite strong!
Traumatic experiences can cause strong emotions and physical reactions. These can continue long after the event and affect peoples’ daily lives. Even though the trauma may have occurred in childhood, its effects may be chronic and persist into adult life.
Traumatic reactions can cause a variety of responses. Some examples are:
In the movie “Rocketman,” young Elton experienced an intense and ongoing emotional upset. He struggled to understand why his father was so distant and never even hugged him. Moreso, when he saw how emotionally and physically connected, his dad was to his step-siblings. Young Elton’s trauma as a child likely played a part in his drug and alcohol use.
In an interview, Sir Elton John describes his parents. “My dad was strict and remote and had a terrible temper; my mum was argumentative and prone to dark moods. When they were together, all I can remember are icy silences or screaming rows. The rows were usually about me. How I was being brought up.”
In “Rocketman,” young Elton had a quiet, reserved and emotionally cold father. Even though his mom was more outgoing, the poor relationship between his parents impacted him negatively. Young Elton longed for love from his caregivers. Unfortunately, he remained starved. It was heartbreaking to watch his father leave the family. He left without hugging Elton, or even saying goodbye.
Severe long-term problems can occur if early trauma is not resolved. This is not to say, however, that everyone who undergoes trauma develops an issue. Many people are resilient and do not have any effects from such experiences. On the other hand, some others may end up with different conditions following a horrid experience.
Some mental illnesses commonly associated with trauma include:
Stress and trauma have a link with addiction. Trauma in childhood affects your ability to cope with stress and other life pressures. This situation may become overwhelming and contribute to addiction to drugs and alcohol. A study shows that adults abused in childhood are about 1.5 times more likely to report drug use in the past year. Also, the age of onset tends to be younger. Experimental drug use tends to be as early as 14 years for victims of childhood sexual abuse. On the other hand, it is about 15 years for those not abused.
The relationship between drug and alcohol use with childhood trauma is quite complicated.
So, why is this the case? There are many possible variables. Self-medication is one of them.
Self-medication with drugs and alcohol is quite common. People may use stimulating or sedating drugs to “help” the symptoms of trauma. Such presentations may include restlessness, anxiety, depression, social phobia, and problems with sleep. Unfortunately, this is a very slippery slope, and sooner or later, addiction becomes an added problem!
In addition, getting involved with drugs and alcohol may put such people in harm’s way. This situation may be due to the caliber of people they associate with, the type of environment they find themselves in, driving and operating machinery while intoxicated, and medical complications. More trauma can occur as a result. Hence, creating a vicious cycle.
Of course, there is also the effect of genes! Some studies have shown an association linking PTSD prone people to addictive tendencies.
In the case of young Elton John, it is hard to say exactly what may have caused him to use drugs. The movie shows multiple issues, including neglect, loneliness, failed relationships, as well as pressure from being in the limelight.
In an interview given several years before his biopic, Sir Elton John talked about his childhood. He described his father as “a tough, hard, unemotional man.” During the interview, Elton John also described his father as “dismissive, disappointed, and finally absent.”
This relationship most likely affected his psyche as evidenced by yet another statement – “It wasn’t that he didn’t know how to relate to kids. He left us, remarried and had another family, and by all accounts was a great dad to them. It wasn’t the children. It was me.”
Childhood trauma affects the brain negatively.
The brain can respond and adapt to various changes in the environment. This adaptation is known as plasticity. There is a lot of brain growth during childhood. This development causes the creation and strengthening of networks between brain cells. Also, there is the removal of some networks and cells during this process.
Your life experiences affect the way your brain develops. New growth, strengthening, and breaking of brain connections continue to occur as your brain develops during childhood. Unfortunately, negative experiences can hinder proper brain development. Brain scans in abused individuals show disruptions. These changes likely make people more vulnerable to addiction to drugs and alcohol.
Many studies have looked at the relationship between childhood trauma and addiction to drugs. Of course, no one knows for sure how this comes about. It is likely people use drugs and alcohol for the following reasons:
In “Rocketman,” young Elton was told by his mom that his dad never liked him. She also informed him that his dad never picked him up as a baby and didn’t come home at night until he was in bed. Can you imagine the negative impact this would have on a child? Such abuse would likely leave long-lasting emotional wounds on an individual.
As a way of coping with the psychological trauma from emotional abuse and neglect, some people turn to drugs and alcohol. This is despite being aware of all the negative consequences of drug use. “Rocketman” portrays this coping mechanism.
In general, children crave attention and validation. Proper provision from caregivers helps young minds blossom. In the absence of parental warmth, however, children may seek other ways. Often, these can be destructive. Even though Elton John’s seeking yielded huge success and many fans, his struggles with his emotional starvation remained an issue.
Young Elton had a lot of fame and financial success from his career. In spite of this, however, he remained emotionally starved and suffered as a result. Until he sought treatment.
It is crucial to treat substance use disorders in addition to resolving the trauma. The reason for this is because addiction can rear its head in a different form if the trauma is still an issue.
If you were traumatized during childhood, likely, you did not get the help you needed at the time the trauma occurred. Also, you may not have had an advocate. “Rocketman” showed that Elton John did not get any help during his childhood years of being neglected. He was, however, lucky in the sense that he had his grandmother, to whom he was quite close.
It is well known that the harmful effects of childhood neglect run quite deep. The lack of a safe adult to count on for comfort makes this trauma even worse. People who have been traumatized feel isolated and vulnerable. In some cases, they try very hard to fit in and make the wrong choices as a result. Isolation and loneliness can last a lifetime despite attempts to blend in.
Trauma increases your risk of developing an addiction. Also, abusing drugs and alcohol increases your risk of undergoing further trauma. In addition, people with substance abuse disorders are less likely to cope with traumatic experiences adequately.
Again, the resolution of trauma is essential to full recovery.
Medication-Assisted Treatment, group therapy, individual therapy, social support, and a good life structure all have roles to play in treatment. You should seek the help you need. There are many great healthcare providers and treatment centers that can help.
“Rocketman” begins with Elton striding down the hall of an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting center. His flamboyant outfit consists of a bright orange devil-like costume, with horns and wings. Young Elton barges into the AA meeting, with interesting looks from the other participants. He proceeds with introducing himself. “I’m Elton Hercules John, and I’m an alcoholic.” He also follows this up by stating he is also addicted to cocaine, cannabis, shopping, and sex.
What is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)? This organization is an international fellowship of men and women who have had a drinking problem. It is nonprofessional, self-supporting, multiracial, and apolitical. Membership is free, and there are no age or education requirements. Even though it touts itself as being for people struggling with alcohol, AA is also open to people with other addictions.
The power of group sessions is impressive. The ability to share experiences and learn from others in groups is well known. Also, interacting with others who share similar experiences has a healing strength. In addition, storytelling is one of the ways we can heal from our trauma. This was powerfully played out in “Rocketman.” Young Elton gradually lost bits of his devil’s outfit as he told his story. It was as though he was peeling off the false layers around him, to reveal his real inner vulnerable core.
The same principles apply to other support groups like Narcotics Anonymous, Pills Anonymous, SMART Recovery, Women for Sobriety, Cocaine Anonymous, and several others.
“Rocketman” is a biographical movie based on the life of musician Sir Elton John. This movie does a great job showcasing the relationship between childhood trauma and addiction. In young Elton’s case, his trauma was emotional abuse and neglect.
In Elton’s words, “My dad was strict and remote and had a terrible temper; my mum was argumentative and prone to dark moods. When they were together, all I can remember are icy silences or screaming rows. The rows were usually about me. How I was being brought up.”
There is a lot of evidence showing that childhood trauma affects the brain. These changes are both structural and functional. Unfortunately, this can predispose people to mental illness and substance use disorders.
Survivors of childhood trauma are up to 5,000% more likely to attempt suicide, have eating disorders, or become IV drug users. Also, a child who experiences four or more traumatic events is five times more likely to become an alcoholic. In addition, such a child is 60% more likely to become obese and up to 46% more likely to become an injection drug user.
Rocketman has received international acclaim with Taron Egerton’s stellar performance as Sir Elton John. The movie ends with a subtitle informing viewers that Sir Elton John has been sober for over 28 years. This is evidence of the effectiveness of receiving proper treatment for trauma and addiction.
Recovery is not just about counseling and abstinence from drugs, but also about healthy connections, acceptance, and forgiveness. Investment in good relationships cannot be over-emphasized.
Have you seen this movie? I’ll encourage you to see it if you have not. In my opinion, this is a must-watch! I welcome comments on your thoughts or experiences on childhood trauma and addiction.
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What a great article! Very informative, and beautifully covers the link between addiction and childhood trauma. I am a big fan of Gabor Mate, whose extensive work has shone a light on substance use as a symptom of negative early experiences. I also appreciate that you have included the numerous other self-help groups such as SMART Recovery, Women for Sobriety, etc. Well written!
Thanks Cheri. I am glad to hear you found the article informative. We certainly need to continue to raise the awareness of the link of childhood trauma with addiction.
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