The 19th century novelist Lewis Carroll once famously wrote: “I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then,” but he may have been wrong. A new study suggests that the impact of early abuse or neglect lasts into adulthood, affecting personality and alcohol use. The study, which appeared in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, involved 314 young adult subjects. Investigators collected data on the participants’ childhood experiences, personality and drinking habits. The group was followed up at five years. The researchers identified four distinct forms of abuse, and three out of the four appeared linked to a specific pattern of problem drinking. The kinds of maltreatment identified by researchers were emotional neglect, emotional abuse, physical neglect and physical abuse.
Children who were emotionally deprived were not more depressed than other people as adults. They were, however, markedly less joyful. In adulthood, positive emotions seemed to be subdued or suppressed. The lack of emotional input and bonding early on seemed to tamp down on adult happiness. Nevertheless, this was the only group that did not turn to alcohol to cope; emotional neglect did not predict a problem with alcohol.
Adults who had been abused emotionally as children experienced an elevated rate of depression and were more apt to use alcohol. In fact, emotional abuse was the strongest predictor of the four in terms of overdrinking throughout the week. These adults were also more likely to experience negative consequences from drinking, such as relational turbulence or missing days at work.
Physical neglect in childhood appeared to researchers to make adults somewhat anti-social. The physically neglected group showed poor self-control as well; once they started drinking they found it difficult to stop. Neglect did not appear to predict either weekday or weekend drinking in particular, but it did tend to produce heavier drinking both during the week and on weekends. Investigators believe that the anti-social tendency was a constant driver for unhealthy drinking.
The person who’d been physically abused as a child tended to be highly impulsive and highly motivated by rewards. This person, once they began drinking found it very hard to stop. The binging tended to take place more on weekends (reward) rather than on weekdays. These individuals also experienced negative consequences related to their overdrinking, but these were connected to heavy episodic drinking as opposed to consequences from drinking too much on a daily basis. Childhood suffering is not a sole determining factor in life. However, not addressing the pain and struggles encountered in childhood can lead to later problems. Only when painful history is confronted and sorted out can its power to influence be overcome.