Trauma, addiction & managed decline – Carol Hamlett
For the past 30 years I have worked in the homelessness sector in various roles, although ‘homelessness’ as a cover all description doesn’t really fit, for people leading chaotic street lifestyles it’s a symptom rather than the cause of the issues most people experience. Trauma is the real issue, extreme, severe trauma (or multiple traumas), often stemming from childhood and then exacerbated by a system that traps people in crisis and then manages their decline.
When people experience trauma in childhood it is their very foundations that are damaged, they grow up on shaky ground and are vulnerable to any curveballs that life may throw at them. Alcohol and drugs provide the perfect balm for damaged foundations, numbing emotional pain and providing an escape from reality. Reaching oblivion in the fastest way possible is what most adults who have experienced childhood abuse, seek. This usually starts in early adulthood, however rather than recognising the damaged child inside the dysfunctional adult, we label them as naughty, badly behaved, criminals, even. We allow them to continue to fall through the gaps, not recognising their trauma. By the time they reach their 20s, these individuals are rough sleeping, begging, and stealing to fund their drug and alcohol dependency having self-medicated their way through each day. They end up in a hostel, surrounded by others who are also entrenched in a cycle of self-medication with alcohol and other substances, and become part of the revolving door of homeless, drug and alcohol services, building layers upon layers of trauma, and becoming dependent on services to undertake the most menial of tasks on their behalf. As this cycle continues, individuals lose choice and control over their own lives, and become guided by what the system needs of them, ‘attend a class and get your lunch for free, sit on the streets and somebody will be round soon with a sleeping bag and a hot drink’, they believe that this life is all they deserve. Support workers experience burn out through frantic efforts to fix or save those they work with, lacking the understanding that that power or responsibility does not sit with them – but the individual they’re tasked with supporting.
If Dickens were alive today, he could continue writing the stories he was in the 1850s. The system is stuck in a rigid cycle and the belief it can fix the people they see as problems rather than a belief that people can improve their own quality of life given the right environment. We have inflicted a dependency on vulnerable adults in our beliefs that experts will save the day, when in reality the only expert on the individual, is the individual themselves. The system doesn’t seem able to grasp this concept, so we continue to manage people through their decline, pushing them from hostel to detox, prison, rehab, and back to the streets, continuing to build their trauma and moving them ever further away from the outcomes we claim to be working towards.