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How Emotional Abuse Fueled My Addictions

Girl smoking and drinking an alcoholic beverage on the beach.

“We don’t choose to be addicted; what we choose to do is deny our pain.”

— Unknown

What is Emotional Abuse?

Emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior in which the abuser deliberately insults, humiliates, and instills fear in an individual to control her. With prolonged abuse, the individual’s reality may become distorted if she internalizes the abuse as her own failings. For example, if the abusive mother repeatedly calls her daughter fat, even though she may be normal weight, over time the daughter accepts that perspective and begins to view herself as fat. Emotional abuse can occur in a range of interpersonal relationships, including familial, parental, romantic, or professional.1

People who suffer emotional abuse can experience long-term difficulties such as fear, difficulty concentrating, self-criticism, and low confidence. Long-term repercussions may include anxiety, depression, insomnia, or social withdrawal.

Emotional Abuse Fuels Addictions

Prolonged emotional abuse can also lead to chemical dependency, including nicotine addiction and alcohol use disorder. A JC Elliott·20142 study showed that a history of childhood mistreatment predicts persistent adult nicotine and alcohol dependence. This association suggests that prolonged and consistent mistreatment, rather than periodic difficulties in childhood, affects the course of dependence.

Nicotine addiction is an addiction to any tobacco product, such as cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, or E-cigarettes that contain nicotine, an addictive ingredient that increases the level of dopamine, which is a chemical in the brain that makes you feel good according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is an addiction to any alcoholic beverage, such as beer, wine, or hard liquor. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, AUD is an impaired ability to control or stop using alcohol despite adverse health, occupational, or social consequences.3

In this post, I’ll describe how my emotional abuse fueled these addictions and the actions I took to terminate them.

Maternal Abuser

My abuser was my birth mother. If I had to describe her in two words, it would be controlling and critical. She was also:

  • Physically abusive—Placing a hot iron on my hand because I did not recognize the word ‘white’ when seeing it again while reading a schoolbook.
  • Verbally abusive—Berating and haranguing over perceived misdeeds.
  • Unsupportive—Telling me “You didn’t make it because no one likes you!” when I tried out for the drill team in junior high and was not awarded a spot on the team.
  • Reactive—Overreacting to minor incidents, such as dropping a glass bottle of prescription cough syrup on a cement surface.
  • Threatening—Paying her lawyer to send me a letter threatening me with disinheritance due to our poor relationship.
  • Impatient—Belittling me while teaching me to sew if I didn’t perform the task perfectly the second time or if I didn’t understand the written instructions.
  • Authoritarian—She was the boss. I did not live in a democracy. I was not consulted. Everything needed to be done her way and I needed to follow her rules or else.
  • Always right and never apologetic—She apologized to me once in her life.

Addictive Personality

An addictive personality refers to a hypothesized set of personality traits that makes an individual predisposed to developing addictions. This hypothesis states that there may be common personality traits observable in people suffering from addiction. Different personality traits have been linked to various types of addictive behaviors suggesting that individual addictions may be associated with different personality profiles.4

I view myself as having an addictive personality. For example, I needed instant gratification. It was far easier, faster, and less painful to smoke a cigarette and/or swallow a beer to feel better than to just sit there and feel the painful feelings. An additional factor for me was a lack of coping skills when faced with stress or anxiety. Again, I just reached for my chemicals for quick relief.

True Menthol Cigarettes

I dragged on my first cigarette one sunny summer afternoon after completing my junior year in high school. It was a planned event. I was at a friend’s house when her parents were not home. In the downstairs rec room, we opened the sliding glass door and all windows. On the first inhale, I choked and coughed and wondered why people found smoking pleasurable. Continuing to puff and hack away, I initially felt like a juvenile delinquent sneaking a prohibited substance.

During high school, I only smoked intermittently, feeling guilty every time. I worried about the effect it could have on my lung capacity as it related to my competitive swimming during the summer. I did not want to decrease my event times due to smoking.

When I left home to attend college, my smoking increased but not substantially. Since I was captain of the women’s swim team, I was still concerned with lung capacity. Nevertheless, I periodically took smoke breaks from studying in the rec room of the sorority house in which I lived.

The rec room featured a set of pastel patio furniture. A large, heavy glass ashtray lay on top of the white wrought iron mesh patio table. Leaning against the back of the pink and lime green floral couch, alone in the empty room with one leg crossed over the other, I’d deeply inhale the taste of True Menthol cigarettes and then blow the smoke out. I felt powerful smoking, knowing that Mom hated it. I felt smug in the knowledge that I was in charge, doing what I wanted, and there wasn’t a single thing she could do about it. Never mind that she couldn’t see me. It was the feeling of being in charge of myself that mattered.

Coastal Life

But it was not until after I graduated and moved to California from Washington State that my smoking quickly developed into a full-blown 3-pack-a-day addiction. I was hooked. True Menthol was my brand for two reasons—It had a special plastic filter that supposedly filtered out more of the tar and the menthol had a soothing and cooling effect on my throat. Non-menthol cigarettes were harsher and more punishing.

The only two times I didn’t smoke during 24 hours were in the shower or while sleeping. At all other times, a cigarette was either in my mouth or smoldering in an ashtray. I smoked while drinking coffee, talking on the phone, driving the car, working, studying, and lying in bed at night, reading. Smoking erected a cloudy wall, which enabled me to hide my emotions behind the plumes of smoke.

Anti-Smoking Literature

My mother despised smoking. When she found out that I was smoking while living on my own in California as a 22-year-old young adult, she never lost an opportunity to mail me anti-smoking literature, which I immediately tore up into tiny pieces and tossed in the trash.

Later, as a young adult of 28, I worked full-time, rented an apartment, paid my bills, and attended graduate school at night. Mom had no control over me then. I did exactly as I pleased.

Budweiser Beers

Just as my smoking increased dramatically after finishing college and moving away from home, so did my consumption of alcohol—any alcohol—beer, wine, or hard liquor. Smoking paired with an alcoholic drink was the ultimate euphoria; a marriage made in heaven.

Living 50 yards from the Pacific Ocean, it was standard operating procedure during the weekend to carry three tall Budweiser beers and a pack of smokes in my knapsack to the beach, along with a backrest and a towel.

Every Friday or Saturday night for six years, I was out with girlfriends or dates, dancing and boozing the night away in bars and nightclubs of every size and description. I sampled most of the watering holes along the coast in the South Bay of Southern California.

High-level, alcohol did two things for me. It gave me courage when meeting single guys and helped me relax and smooth out the rough edges of the day. On a deeper level, it served to temporarily push down the hurt, anger, and resentment from my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood as it related to my Mom.

For others, alcohol can serve as:

  • A mechanism to cope with anxiety or depression.
  • A way to reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness.
  • A way to temporarily feel better about themselves.

Since my mother’s sister, my aunt, was a sober alcoholic, I knew substance abuse ran in our family on the maternal side.

My Recovery

The key to my recovery from chemical addiction is that I wanted to be free of these addictive substances. I no longer wanted to be a slave to them. Given, the amount I smoked, I was scared to death that I would die prematurely from lung, esophageal, or oral cancer. After four different, serious attempts to quit smoking over ten years, I was finally successful. I did it the old-fashioned way with no patches or nicotine gum. I quit cold turkey. When I reached the 30th smoke-free day, I knew I was home-free for the rest of my life. That was 39 years ago.

As for alcohol, my biggest fear was that I would kill someone with the car, a scenario for which I would never forgive myself. I experienced periodic blackouts. Despite my best intentions, it was always just a matter of time before I over-imbibed and said or did something offensive or destructive. I could no longer live with periodic remorse.

A neighbor took me to my first A.A. (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting, where I wept uncontrollably. I attended meetings routinely for 14 months. A.A. did an excellent job of ruining my drinking career. I highly recommend it. For 38 years, I have been continuously sober.

Summary

Environmentally and culturally, I was exposed to both nicotine and alcohol. Once experienced, I gravitated to both because both substances combined made me feel more powerful, more relaxed, better about myself, and they helped me temporarily push away ugly memories. Over time and with enough frequency, use led to abuse, which led to addiction and an inability to manage my life without them.

I believe my chemical addictions were inevitable. Given my addictive personality, my genetic background, and the emotional abuse, I was destined to pick up multiple chemical or behavioral addictions.

Survivors, if you are suffering from a chemical or behavioral addiction, help is immediately available. Quitting smoking and drinking were the two most satisfying and impactful accomplishments of my life. I fully believe that if I had not quit smoking, I would have died in my fifties. Freedom from addiction has enabled me to live a life free from chemical crutches. And assuming you want to, you can too! I strongly encourage you and support your efforts to give yourself the best chance to be the person you are meant to be.

Resources

Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.). https://www.aa.org/

American Lung Association. https://www.lung.org/quit-smoking

Adult Survivors of Child Abuse (ASCA). https://www.ascasupport.org/

References

1. “Emotional Abuse.” Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/emotional-abuse

2. “The risk for persistent adult alcohol and nicotine dependence: the role of childhood maltreatment” By Jennifer C. Elliott, Ph.D.·2014. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24401044/

3. “Understanding the Different Types of Addiction, From Chemical to Behavioral.” By Sara Lindberg. Reviewed by Ryan Howes, Ph.D. Self. October 29, 2021. https://www.self.com/story/types-of-addiction

4. “Addictive personality.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Addictive_personality

Additional Reading

The Connection Between Childhood Trauma and Substance Abuse: Heal from the Emotions to Overcome the Addiction By Evie Wright | Mar 23, 2022.

Trauma and Addiction: Ending the Cycle of Pain Through Emotional Literacy By Tian Dayton | May 1, 2000.

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