One way to think about addiction is the acknowledgement that most if not all addiction has developed due to trauma. This might be a traumatic event or how one person has treated another. The feelings associated with trauma often vary from one individual to another. It could be that someone has a sense of feelings being unbearable, or a sense of not feeling anything at all. Before thinking a bit more about how trauma causes addictive behaviours, it’s worth considering what can be traumatic.
All human beings and animals require consistency and stability in order to survive. Anything that interferes with attachment; home; safety; can cause disruption. If disruption is sudden or continues for a while; it can cause trauma. Abandonment. Separation. Abuse. Hurt. Bereavement. It is clear these five states can lead to traumatic responses that potentially lead to shut-down and an inability to cope with everyday life. The definition of trauma is an emotional shock or injury or wound. An animal gets a fright and will cower or withdraw, or stop feeling hungry or sleep more than usual. Humans are no different. If anything, trauma can be described as the trigger and addiction the reaction.
Everyone has an addiction, whether that is through substances, behaviours, spending, how we treat people, personal care, health and fitness, gambling, general lifestyle, to name just a few. To carry out a particular task in a repetitive and compulsive way to the point of being out of control is an addiction. It is a coping mechanism to try and deal with what is happening; something to counteract fear and loss; both being traumatic. These components correspond with the five states of abandonment, separation, abuse, hurt and bereavement.
One of the challenges around trauma and addiction – particularly in a family unit/setting; is recognition of trauma and non-judgement of any subsequent addiction. Open and honest conversations are required – even though they are painful and difficult. It can be so hard to address the obsessive compulsive actions of a significant other, especially if their seeing it is too threatening, too distressing. When you apply an understanding of trauma into the interaction, this can help. Now the really challenging bit might be the need for a significant other to become aware of where they are in relation to the traumatised person struggling with an addiction. Judgement and prejudice are unhelpful responses that can ultimately prolong a trauma.
So practical steps beyond openness and honesty around addiction is to ask a traumatised person what they need. It might sound like a strange question, but bearing in mind that trauma and addiction rocks the sense of self from a physiological axis; or as I like to think of it, each and every one of us walking across the map of life. When trauma comes it jolts consciousness and throws a person into chaos. When chaos is present then nurture and kindness need to come to the fore. It is just being with someone that is traumatised in a non-judgemental way that can change outcomes that may lead to addictive behaviours. With this in mind and considering children of parents that are struggling with addiction; it is important to note that a child’s role is never to look after a parent struggling with addiction; that mantle must be managed the other way round. However recognition and non-judgement are paramount. Complexity arises out of subsequent negative behaviours from parent to child born out of trauma and because of their addiction that may result in the five factors mentioned. When this happens then the cycle of trauma continues. This is why nurture and kindness are the key factors at key intervals. When we consider children that are struggling with addiction; then the power has always been with the parent, therefore recognition and non-judgement needs to balance with sensitivity and patience. If a parent struggles with holding these attributes, then they should seek support. If a child/young person is with a parent struggling with addiction, they should seek support. The experience of trauma is part of being human; how engaged we are with the healing process is a choice; but not a choice dependant on our own interpretation of experience with the five named factors.
These words are an invitation for a new conversation about family and therapy around trauma and addiction and the absolute link between the two. An individual struggling with addiction in a home is no different to someone living on the street. The only difference is primal; attachment, home, safety. It is warmth and consistency. It is family connection, in whatever form that may be. So much has been written about attachment, trauma and addiction; particularly around what is perceived to constitute a family. There are millions of people in the world that have lost family and friends, and do not have a secure base or home that they feel a sense of belonging to. The irony is the judgement. Trauma is not a weakness or fault. Probably the biggest secret and unhappiest betrayal of people is that we are all traumatised. If that is not addressed it will repeat – that is for certain. The reason why there are so many sectors of society working with trauma is because of its prevalence. It needs to be thought of in that context. When people are not supported, nurtured or filtered, trauma leaks. It is important to highlight that nobody wants to be addicted to anything. For many people it is about finding ways to live their life as free from addiction as possible. Addiction for many is to relinquish control of self.
When people live with addiction they are not selfish, or less than anyone else. They are trying to cope with unbearable feelings. Their window of tolerance is half-closed. They are traumatised.
Nicholas Conn is a leading industry addiction expert who runs the UK’s largest addiction advisory service and is regularly featured in the national press, radio and TV. He is the founder and CEO of a drug and alcohol rehab center called Help4addiction, which was founded in 2015. He has been clean himself since 2009 and has worked in the Addiction and Rehab Industry for over a decade. Nick is dedicated to helping others recover and get treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. In 2013, he released a book ‘The Thin White’ line that is available on Amazon.
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