Addiction doc says: It’s not the drugs. It’s the ACEs…adverse childhood experiences.

Orginally published by Jane Ellen Stevens

He says: Addiction shouldn’t be called “addiction”. It should be called “ritualized compulsive comfort-seeking”.

He says: Ritualized compulsive comfort-seeking (what traditionalists call addiction) is a normal response to the adversity experienced in childhood, just like bleeding is a normal response to being stabbed.

He says: The solution to changing the illegal or unhealthy ritualized compulsive comfort-seeking behavior of opioid addiction is to address a person’s adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) individually and in group therapy; treat people with respect; provide medication assistance in the form of buprenorphine, an opioid used to treat opioid addiction; and help them find a ritualized compulsive comfort-seeking behavior that won’t kill them or put them in jail.

This “he” isn’t some hippy-dippy new age dreamer. He is Dr. Daniel Sumrok, director of the Center for Addiction Sciences at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s College of Medicine. The center is the first to receive the Center of Excellence designation from the Addiction Medicine Foundation, a national organization that accredits physician training in addiction medicine. Sumrok is also one of the first 106 physicians in the U.S. to become board-certified in addiction medicine by the American Board of Medical Specialties.

Sumrok, a family physician and former U.S. Army Green Beret who’s served the rural area around McKenzie, TN, for the last 28 years, combines the latest science of addiction and applies it to his patients, most of whom are addicted to opioids — but also to alcohol, food, sex, gambling, etc. He sees them in the center’s two outpatient clinics: his clinic, which the Center for Addiction Science has taken over as its rural clinic, and another that opened recently in downtown Memphis.

Since he first sat down in the early 1980s to write a research paper (“Public Health Legacy of the Vietnam War: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Implications for Appalachians”) to describe the symptoms of the newly named post-traumatic stress disorder in Vietnam veterans – “problems with the law, having trouble sleeping, anxiety, divorce, sleep troubles, substance use disorders, depression, anxiety, cognitive and chronic pain issues” — Sumrok has pieced together the ingredients for a revolutionary approach to addiction. It’s an approach that’s advocated by many of the leading thinkers in addiction and trauma, including Drs. Gabor Maté, Lance Dodes and Bessel van der Kolk. Surprisingly, it’s a fairly simple formula: Treat people with respect instead of blaming or shaming them. Listen intently to what they have to say. Integrate the healing traditions of the culture in which they live. Use prescription drugs, if necessary. And integrate adverse childhood experiences science: ACEs.

“My patients seem to respond really well to this,” he says.

ACEs understanding changes practice

Learning about ACEs more than two years ago was a big turning point for his understanding of addictions, explains Sumrok. “I was working in an eating disorders clinic and someone told me ‘90 percent of these folks have sexual trauma’. I remember thinking: That can’t be right. But that was exactly right. Since I’ve learned about ACEs, I talk about it every day.”

He also practices it every day, by integrating ACEs assessments for all patients in his clinics. He currently has about 200 patients who are addicted, most to opioids (heroin and prescription pain relievers, including oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, and fentanyl). “I’ve seen about 1,200 patients who are addicted,” he says. “Of those, more than 1,100 have an ACE score of 3 or more.”

Sumrok knows that score says a lot about their health and ability to cope: ACEs comes from the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study), groundbreaking research that looked at how 10 types of childhood trauma affect long-term health. They include: physical, emotional and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; living with a family member who’s addicted to alcohol or other substances, or who’s depressed or has other mental illnesses; experiencing parental divorce or separation; having a family member who’s incarcerated, and witnessing a mother being abused. Subsequent ACE surveys include racism, witnessing violence outside the home, bullying, losing a parent to deportation, living in an unsafe neighborhood, and involvement with the foster care system. Other types of childhood adversity can also include being homeless, living in a war zone, being an immigrant, moving many times, witnessing a sibling being abused, witnessing a father or other caregiver or extended family member being abused, involvement with the criminal justice system, attending a school that enforces a zero-tolerance discipline policy, etc.

The ACE Study is one of five parts of ACEs science, which also includes how toxic stress from ACEs damage children’s developing brains; how toxic stress from ACEs affects health; and how it can affect our genes and be passed from one generation to another (epigenetics); and resilience research, which shows the brain is plastic and the body wants to heal. Resilience research focuses on what happens when individuals, organizations and systems integrate trauma-informed and resilience-building practices, for example in education and in the family court system.

The ACE Study found that the higher someone’s ACE score – the more types of childhood adversity a person experienced – the higher their risk of chronic disease, mental illness, violence, being a victim of violence and a bunch of other consequences. The study found that most people (64%) have at least one ACE; 12% of the population has an ACE score of 4. Having an ACE score of 4 nearly doubles the risk of heart disease and cancer. It increases the likelihood of becoming an alcoholic by 700 percent and the risk of attempted suicide by 1200 percent. (For more information, go to ACEs Science 101. To calculate your ACE and resilience scores, go to: Got Your ACE Score?)

High ACE scores also relate to addiction: Compared with people who have zero ACEs, people with ACE scores are two to four times more likely to use alcohol or other drugs and to start using drugs at an earlier age. People with an ACE score of 5 or higher are seven to 10 times more likely to use illegal drugs, to report addiction and to inject illegal drugs.

The ACE Study also found that it didn’t matter what the types of ACEs were. An ACE score of 4 that includes divorce, physical abuse, an incarcerated family member and a depressed family member has the same statistical health consequences as an ACE score of 4 that includes living with an alcoholic, verbal abuse, emotional neglect and physical neglect.

Subsequent research on the link between childhood adversity and addiction corroborates the findings from the ACE Study, including studies that have found that people who’ve experienced childhood trauma have more chronic pain and use more prescription drugs; people who experienced five or more traumatic events are three times more likely to misuse prescription pain medications.

“ACEs just doesn’t predict substance abuse disorders,” says Sumrok. “All of our major chronic diseases link to substance abuse, so this is too big to ignore.”

Whether you’re talking about obesity, addiction to cigarettes, alcohol or opioids, the cause is the same, he says: “It’s the trauma of childhood that causes neurobiological changes.” And the symptoms he saw 40 years ago in soldiers returning from Vietnam are the same in the people he sees today who are addicted to opioids or other substances or behaviors that help them cope with the anxiety, depression, hopelessness, fear, anger, and/or frustration that continues to be generated from the trauma they experienced as children.

Learning about ACEs helped him understand that the original definition of PTSD, which many people still cling to, is not accurate. In the 1980s, PTSD was defined as a result of trauma that was outside the realm of normal experience.

“That was just wrong,” says Sumrok. “Divorce, living with depressed or addicted family members are very common events for kids. My efforts are around helping people to see the connections, and that their experiences are predictable and normal. And the longer the experiences last, the bigger the effect.”

He also says, “Drop the ‘D’, because PTSD is not a disorder.” It’s what he learned from van der Kolk, who wrote The Body Keeps the Score. “Bessel says we’ve named this thing wrong. Post-traumatic stress is a brain adaptation. It’s not an imagined fear. If one of your feet was bitten off by a lion, you’re going to be on guard for lions,” explains Sumrok. “Hypervigilance is not an imagined fear, if you’ve had one foot bitten off by a lion. It’s a real fear, and you’re going to be on the lookout for that lion. I tell my patients that they’ve had real trauma that’s not imagined. They’re not crazy.”

Patients who learn about their ACEs understand that they can heal

This is what happens when a person sees Sumrok for the first time: They fill out the 10-question ACE survey (Got Your ACE Score?) in the waiting room. “Then when I see them, I go through each question and ask them again,” says Sumrok, who also does a normal physical exam. “Frequently, there’s a difference between the two. For example, this morning, I saw a woman and she reported an ACE score of 1 on the survey. Then, when I asked her the questions, she reported nine out of 10.”

That’s just how I grew up, she told Sumrok. She didn’t think being beaten, humiliated or seeing her mother smoking crack every day was harmful or unusual, especially since most kids she knew were experiencing the same thing.

Sumrok normalizes their addiction, which he explains is the coping behavior they adopted because they weren’t provided with a healthy alternative when they were young. He explains the science of adverse childhood experiences to them, and how their addictions are a normal – and a predictable – result of their childhood trauma. He explains what happens in the brain when they experience toxic stress, how their amygdala is their emotional fuse box. How the thinking part of their brain didn’t develop the way it should have. How it goes offline at the first sign of danger, even if they’re not connecting the trigger with the experience. Drugs like Zoloft don’t really help much, he tells them. Zoloft and other anti-depressants don’t remove the memory triggered by the odor of after shave that was worn by your uncle who sexually abused you when you were eight, or the memory triggered by a voice that sounds just like your mother who used to beat you with a belt, or by a face of a man  who looks like your father who used to scream at you about how worthless you were…the examples are infinite. That’s why van der Kolk says, “’The body keeps the score’,” Sumrok says.

“After I explain all this to them, many of them stare at me and say: ‘You mean I’m not crazy?’” says Sumrok. “I tell them, ‘No, you’re not crazy’.” Sometimes he yells out the door to his nurse: ‘Patsy! Where’s my not-crazy stamp? I need to stamp this person’s chart.”

For people who are addicted to opioids, he prescribes buprenorphine (one of the brand names: Suboxone), which helps them to withdraw from opioids and to keep their job, or return to work. For most people, the drug is less addictive than other opioids. Sometimes if people are young, healthy and haven’t been addicted long, they can withdraw from opioids without buprenorphine.

“There’s no buzz associated with buprenorphine,” says Sumrok. “They can concentrate and think. Once they’re free of the continuous distraction of the acquisition and use of substances, they become pretty valuable employees.”

For people who are addicted to alcohol, he prescribes naltrexone (one of the brand names: Revia), because alcoholics have a high risk of death if they aren’t provided medication. And in this current national attention on opioids, Sumrok is careful to point out that although 33,000 people died from opioid overdose in 2015, 88,000 people die annually from alcohol-related causes, and 480,000 from cigarette smoking. The complicating factor — and why policies don’t work when they chase the eradication of one drug, only to focus on eradicating the next popular drug of choice for “ritualized compulsive comfort-seeking” — is that many people use opioids and alcohol and cigarettes. And if they receive no help to get at why they’re using legal or illegal substances, they will move on to another, more easily accessible drug when the current drug they’re using becomes more difficult to find.