Area grapples with cycle of addiction, crime, and trauma

PUTNEY — The voices of merchants and police speaking about downtown crime and drugs in Brattleboro rang with a level of compassion and wisdom that is all too rare in our national discourse on these topics; once again, I felt honored to be a Vermonter.

I also felt called to add my voice to this critical community conversation.

I appreciate Vermont's recognition that simply imprisoning those who commit crimes while in the grip of drug addiction is worse than useless; our emphasis on rehabilitation is both humane and thrifty.

The intensifying social/economic crisis we are currently experiencing compel us to build on our achievements. By further deepening our understanding of addiction and expanding our definition of rehabilitation, we can create an even more resilient and creative local community and inspire countless other communities struggling with these same challenges.

As a nation, and as a species, we are coming to understand that addiction is a symptom of trauma. The more we understand trauma, the more we see that addiction is a perfectly logical - and, in many cases, even life-preserving - response to it. We also see that almost everyone who has experienced significant early trauma manifests some form of addictive behavior.

Those who find themselves out of control in relation to intoxicating substances are no worse, and no better, than those who medicate their trauma reactions with excessive eating, working, shopping, etc. The former suffer greater social stigma than the latter, but they are also more likely to benefit from decisive intervention in the cycle of harm, which otherwise tends to continue down through the generations.

We can no longer deny the evidence that trauma is a collective and generational phenomenon, not simply an individual or even familial one. The injuries of slavery continue to reverberate in the physical and emotional bodies of slaves' descendants; today's Native Americans still bear the scars of cultural genocide.

Even if one's own parents succeeded in breaking the cycle of generational poverty and/or interpersonal violence, these deadly diseases leave their mark in our nervous, endocrine, and immune systems, as well as in the parts of our genomes that regulate genetic expression.

To be truly successful, the rehabilitation process must go deep enough, and take long enough, to excavate and transform the roots of the trauma that flowered into addiction.

As with all chronic diseases, it is far easier and cheaper to prevent trauma than to treat it. To effectively address the crime we are experiencing in our community, we as a community need to understand what factors increase our risks for trauma, evaluate what resources are already available to mitigate those risks, and apply a good deal of creative discipline to cultivate additional resources.

Happily, the greater Brattleboro area is replete with people who know a great deal about preventing and transforming trauma. Some of them work in conventional medical or therapeutic settings; many do not. The time is ripe for a respectful multidisciplinary conversation on this critical topic, and to create new community-based vehicles to use the talents of healers of all stripes.

While we now recognize that addiction is a response to terrible pain, we are slower to acknowledge that it is also frequently a response to a critical deficiency of true pleasure, joy, and even ecstasy.

Genuine pleasure, joy, and ecstasy are part of our human birthright, and our hunger for them will not be denied. In this sense, addiction is a profoundly spiritual issue, and the transformation of addiction at both the personal and community level calls for the use of spiritual tools.

Here, too, the greater Brattleboro area is rich; many among us are wise in the ways of the spirit. Some of them wear conventional religious costumes; most do not. The time is ripe for a community conclave on addiction and trauma that includes the diverse voices of our spiritual elders and young adepts.

The growing challenge of crime, addiction, and trauma in our community asks each of us to look deeply at how we contribute to these troubles - and how we can contribute to solutions.

Meeting this challenge has the potential to enrich and enliven us all.

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