What “Rocketman” Tells Us About Pain and Addiction


This article, in a slightly edited form, first appeared on Pain News Network on June 15, 2019.

“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.

Although the movie may be enthusiastically embraced as a contender for the 2019 Academy Awards, it offers even 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.

Yes, he was 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 Elton 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 Elton John remembers it, “The rows were usually about me, how I was being brought up.”

What Science Tells Us About Childhood Trauma

In her TED Talk, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris describes how childhood trauma may affect health across a lifetime. Childhood trauma can lay the foundation for “seven out of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States,” including adult 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. However, childhood trauma may, indeed, lead to serious medical problems. It 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.

Dr. Robert Block, President of the Academy of Pediatrics, observed, “Adverse childhood experiences are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today.” The consequences can be staggering. People with an ACE score of 4 were 2.5 times more likely to have pulmonary disease and hepatitis. They were four times more prone to depression and had 12 times the risk for suicidality.

Childhood 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 his associate Dr. Howard Schubiner, EAET combines talk therapy with cognitive behavioral therapy to change brains that have been structurally altered by trauma. 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. The 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 at least one cause of addictive behavior.

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

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 in life begins with how we are treated as children. It may seem Pollyannaish 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.



  1. Wilma Ingram on June 16, 2019 at 4:01 am

    All traumatized childern don’t use drug’s or drinking.
    I was traumatised by alcoholic parent’s, and my sibling’s. Sexual, mental, emotional and physical. My parent’s were narcassistic people.
    And they taught my sibling’s to do bad thing’s to me also. Most drug user’s use drug’s because they want to fit in with the in crowd, to belong, to have friend’s. After my horrifying childhood, I didn’t want to fit in no where. What my family did to me was enough.

  2. Mariana Ivanylo on June 17, 2019 at 11:08 pm

    In his book “In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts” Dr Gabor Mate clearly indicated that over 90% of his patients with substance addiction had history of early life trauma. I strongly believe it to be the case. Trauma affects brain development and chemistry which may create a perfect ground for development of chemical dependence.

  3. Connie Martin on June 18, 2019 at 3:21 pm

    This is a reach out to see if Dr. Webster is attending the NATIONAL OPIOID LEADERSHIP SUMMIT in Sacramento on June 25th? I live in Sacramento and am trying to attend. Thank you !

  4. Tony on July 10, 2019 at 7:37 pm

    It seem to me that we are still missing the point Addiction is only a symptom. Not the only symptom nor is it always a symptom as Wilma has pointed out. If we miss the signs of child abuse and do not have a treatment plan for children and their parents we will continue to watch the flaming fires that burn families into unrecognizable units of dysfunction.
    I’m not suggesting that the various forms of addiction are not a real problem that needs our attention. But let’s non confabulate the two. Child abuse or ACES need to be addressed at the earliest stage possible preferably long before addictions and other late stage symptom set in. That is if we intent to help our children and the family before they become part of an other generation of rocket men.

    • Tony on July 10, 2019 at 8:17 pm

      I misused the word confabulate. I mean to suggest that the “recovery” systems and programs do not deal with the problem of child abuse and may even create more problem for the victims by accepting child abuse symptoms as normal behaviors. Or use drugs to control the child. When the line to the nurse(drug supply) is longer than the lunch line we have surly taught our children and their parents that drugs are the answer, its just a matter of which drugs they will use as adults. A early childhood trauma that few are willing to accept as a trauma is the cutting off of part of a infants penis aka circumcision. It is the first trauma most American men experience in life.

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