Is childhood trauma linked to drug and alcohol addiction?

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) -- It's 7 a.m. and Stacy Evans is on the road to a job she loves. Five years ago, that would have seemed impossible.

"I didn't even keep a job; I wasn't employed longer than probably a week, long enough to get my first paycheck and then do what I wanted to do. I would sleep all day, and stay up all night," she said.

The Kentucky woman started drinking alcohol and smoking pot at age 15. By 19, she used cocaine and pain pills, then heroin at 25. Evans says at first, heroin, like the fog on a Kentucky morning, surrounded her like a warm blanket.

"Just everything going quiet around you. You can still see the chaos in the background, but you don't hear anything," she said. "You can just zone out; that was what heroin was like for me."

Drug overdoses killed 64,000 people in the U.S. last year. That's more than all the U.S. soldiers killed during the entire Vietnam War. The leading cause of death for Americans under 50 is drug overdoses. One of the factors that may put people at a higher risk for substance addiction starts in childhood.

Evans admits her childhood was chaotic.

"Alcoholism is very prevalent in my family. There was physical abuse as a child that I witnessed, emotional abuse," she recalled. "I think all those things do affect people; they just affect them in different ways."

Sandy Kelley is in charge of the day-to-day operation at Recovery Works, a 91-bed inpatient, outpatient drug rehab in Georgetown, Ky. She sees a link between childhood trauma and addiction.

Kelley says, " neglect, physical abuse or emotional abuse, some life changes, a parent dying, parents getting a divorce, having an alcoholic or substance disorder parent -- all of those can contribute to the likelihood of someone using substances."

She says childhood trauma can mean you have a 27 percent increased chance of getting addicted to drugs.

"The more that you have of these, the increased likelihood is there, that you'll develop these different problems," Kelley continued.

Recovery Works and other drug rehabilitation centers use a questionnaire called 'ACE,' which stands for Adverse Childhood Experience. It's 10 questions that focus on growing up in the first 18 years of life. The items include: Did a parent swear at you, insult you, put you down? Did a parent push, grab or slap you? Were you sexually abused? Did you have enough to eat? Was your mother pushed, grabbed or slapped? Was a household member depressed or mentally ill?

"If on that ACE questionnaire you have a score of 4 or above, you're at 27 percent increased chance to develop substance use disorder," Kelley said.

At the same time, an active coach, teacher or minister in a child's life can balance those negatives with positives.

"That is exactly what's missing in the childhood of someone with trauma... is positive feedback, positive encouragement," Kelley said.

A childhood without any trauma does not guarantee you won't get addicted to drugs. Randy Stafford says he had a very normal childhood. But by age 22, he was using heroin and was arrested for two felonies.

"I had a good childhood. I had everything I needed, and mostly what I wanted," Stafford said. "I chose to go down a path of a deviant."

Today, he's seven years clean and works with addicts at Recovery Works. The tragic trend they see now is more heroin users dying faster.

"Folks are not living long enough to even get sick of it," Scott Adams said. "They're dying before they ever even experience a severe consequence in a lot of cases."

Evans has almost five years clean and has turned her addiction into a passion for helping others in recovery. She's a peer mentor.

"I believe as long as you still have a breath, you will have a chance to turn it around, and everybody deserves that chance," she said. "It's something we all have to fight for daily."

A high score does not mean you are destined to become addicted to drugs, and likewise, a low score does not mean you won't become an addict.

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