What ‘Rocketman’ Tells Us About Pain and Addiction

By Lynn Webster, MD, PNN Columnist

“Rocketman” is a new biopic about the legendary singer Elton John. The emotionally-driven musical fantasy takes some liberties with certain details of John's life, but it illuminates an essential truth: childhood trauma can lead to pain, addiction and other severe health problems.

The movie is generating some Oscar buzz, but it offers more to viewers who want to see how painful childhood experiences can adversely affect people when they become adults.

The film begins with the flamboyantly wealthy and gifted Elton John strutting down a hallway -- in full costume complete with a colorful headpiece from a recent stage show -- to his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

He becomes the center of attention at the AA meeting when he begins to describe -- through flashbacks told, in part, through song and dance -- his childhood, which was devoid of love and acceptance.

“rocketman” Paramount pictures

“rocketman” Paramount pictures

Elton John is a musical prodigy, but his talent couldn't save him from the harm caused by a father who rejected him and a mother who didn't protect him. As John told The Guardian, "My dad was strict and remote and had a terrible temper; my mum was argumentative and prone to dark moods. When they were together, all I can remember are icy silences or screaming rows."

As John remembers it, "The rows were usually about me, how I was being brought up."

How Childhood Trauma Affects Health

In her TED Talk, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris describes how childhood trauma can affect health over a lifetime — laying the foundation for seven out of 10 leading causes of death in the United States, including addiction and even suicide.

As Dr. Harris points out, our healthcare system treats childhood trauma as a social or mental health problem rather than as a medical issue. Doctors are trained to refer traumatized children to specialists rather than providing intervention and treatment themselves. But childhood trauma may lead to serious medical problems and can even reduce life expectancy by 20 years, according to a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (also known as the ACE Study) defined and examined this problem. The study acknowledged 10 types of childhood trauma, including verbal, physical, and sexual abuse; parental rejection and neglect; mental illness or incarceration of a family member; divorce; and substance dependence.

Of the 17,000 adults who participated in the study, two-thirds had experienced at least one of these childhood traumas. Eighty-seven percent had lived through more than one. The consequences of this can be staggering. People who experienced four childhood traumas were 2.5 times more likely to have pulmonary disease and hepatitis. And they were four times more prone to depression and had 12 times the risk for suicidality.

“Adverse childhood experiences are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today,” says Dr. Robert Block, President of the Academy of Pediatrics.

Trauma Rewires the Brain

Adverse childhood experiences rewire the brain. The heightened response to stress that some children develop can affect the reward center of the brain and the executive functioning of the prefrontal cortex. It can also result in maladaptive behaviors associated with pain and addiction.

About a decade ago, Dr. Norman Doidge provided an understanding of how our brains have the capacity to change in his book, “The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science.”  His highly acclaimed research offers scientific hope that there is treatment for the adverse effects of childhood trauma and chronic pain.

Dr. Doidge describes neuroplasticity as the process through which an injured brain can heal itself. An example of this healing process was reported by National Public Radio's Patti Neighmond. It is called emotional awareness and expression therapy (EAET).

Developed in 2011 by psychologist Mark Lumley and Dr. Howard Schubiner, EAET combines talk therapy with cognitive behavioral therapy to change brains that have been structurally altered by trauma. The NIH’s Pain Management Best Practices Inter-Agency Task Force has recognized EAET as potentially beneficial to some people in chronic pain.

Preventing the Need for Drugs

“Rocketman” reflects more than the consequences of a single individual's traumatic childhood. It illuminates a broader social problem that sows the seeds for substance use disorders in adults. 

The approach we take to solving substance use disorders today is focused on treatment and law enforcement. Neither approach seems to be curbing the problem, which suggests the need for a better strategy. Long-term solutions to substance use disorders must include prevention. This means we need to understand what creates the demand for drugs.

Elton John’s story poignantly illustrates two of the causes of addictive behavior:

  1. Memories of pleasurable experiences are the reason drugs are repeatedly abused

  2. Memories of painful life experiences are commonly the genesis of drug initiation

There is compelling evidence that the trajectory of our mental and physical health begins with how we are treated as children. It may seem Pollyannish to say this, but our first line of defense is to love and accept our children, regardless of their gender identity, abilities or individual traits.

As “Rocketman” testifies, anything else can set children on the path to developing a substance use disorder and, in some cases, chronic pain. 

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Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. Lynn is a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, author of the award-winning book “The Painful Truth” and co-producer of the documentary “It Hurts Until You Die.”

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.