Trauma and Addiction

  1. What is childhood trauma?

Let’s start by answering what is trauma if you don’t mind. One of the common misunderstandings is that trauma is an event that created a disruption in our psyche. However, trauma is not about what happened to us, it’s about what happens inside of us. The best way to explain this is with an example that I commonly use with clients: If you think about a soda can as an example. The soda can is a person, when the can is whole it can function as a can it holds liquids, It has specific shape, helps maintain temperature, etc. if I take a big rock and I strike the can. It is going to be reshaped. It is going to be different, it is going to affect its functionality and how it looks. This is the impact of trauma; it reshapes who I am and how I see the world and how I relate to it.

This type of impact is an example of abusive behaviors, when we are strike by a big rock is fairly easy to see how the relationship between the rock and the dent that is left in the can. However, the reshaping of trauma is not exclusive the big rock events, if I take little pebbles and just constantly hit the can with pebbles, eventually that can will be reshaped. But it is impossible to find the one pebble that caused all the damage/trauma is then present through constant patterns, situations, behaviors, moments, environments, which reshape who I am and how I see the world. But they are not as clear as the big rock.

What are those patterns? A constant experience of disconnection and aloneness because parents are not present. Depression from a parent that is experience as a lack of being seen, not being able to be held, constant patterns of possible aggression and up and downs in the emotions, anxious households, fearful households, etc. However, as adults we tend to be unfair to our younger self, we measure trauma from an adult perspective.  We tend to dismiss the reality of the experience of the child. But the reality is that when you are growing up in an environment where you are constantly being hit by those pebbles, eventually they leave a mark and have an impact on how you see ourselves, how you see others and see the world.

Now that we establish a basic understanding of trauma, I can finally answer your question. Childhood trauma is the reshaping that we experience in our development that has an impact on how I see myself, the world and my relationship between the two.

2.  Does everybody who is traumatized will have an addiction or a compulsive behavior? 

Great question and it will be a completely unfair and unreal answer, yes. However, if we understand trauma as an impact on my ability to be in the world in a way that feels authentic, that I’m able to take care of my needs without dismissing them. We can begin to explore addiction from its purpose and ascertain it as a developmental adaptation or a creative adjustment. If we look at our clients’ stories and we invite curiosity into understanding their relationship with the addictive behavior, we often find it started in early adolescence. This is no coincidence, during this important transitional period belonging to a social group becomes priority, and  self-awareness  is especially keen on the risk for otherness in my story and/or self-perception. The impact of the reshaping of abstract adaptation of trauma is present in social interactions.

Addiction is a functional creative adjustment in early life. Therefore, addiction can be a common way of adjusting from the impact of trauma. However, is important to understand addiction as not just substance abuse. When we think about addiction, we have to include behaviors, relationships, substances, emotional states, sex, etc. that serve the purpose of interrupting contact. 

This is crucial because we can be too narrow in our view of addiction by only focusing on the behaviors and the aftermath of the loss of control, the disarray, the suffering, the negative consequences, the broken relationships, the broken promises, the inability to function and connect with others. These are some of the long-term negative consequences of addiction.

3. Are there any good addictions? For instance work

The tricky thing here is that all addictions are good in the beginning, if we understand good as they do their job for a while, and we experience pleasure from them. The problem is that in the long-term the pleasure of addiction is followed by negative consequences, these negative consequences pile on and become extremely disruptive in the individual’s life.

Let’s define addiction quickly before I finish answering this question. Addiction is any behavior, experience, substance, etc. that brings pleasure and/or relief in the short-term, long-term negative consequences and despite this I’m unable or unwilling to  stop. Therefore, if something has become and addictive behavior based on those 3 qualifiers it will be hard to say that there is any addiction that is “good”, the challenge is that in most modern societies we glorify certain addictive behaviors like working out or professional success and we condemn others such as alcohol or drug use. Others can be glorified or condemned depending on gender for example compulsive sexual behavior in a man can be admired were in women it can be shameful and condemned.

4. Is an addiction a choice? 

That is a complicated question, it is a choice but most of the time is not a conscious choice. The best way to understand how people become addicted is with the example of the boiling frog. So in order to boil a frog you cannot have the water boiling and throw a frog in because it will jump out, so the way this is done is that they put the frogs in while the water is cooled and the slowly increase the temperature, by the time the water is boiling it is too late for the frog to get out. The same thing happens in addiction for humans, it is a slow process and which initially the addictive behaviors are positive and enjoyable and by the time we notice that the water is boiling is impossible to get out 

5. Is there really such a thing as an addictive personality?

A lot of people think this is true, however in my experience I do not agree. I believe there are certain environmental and genetic combinations that create a higher risk for addiction. Therefore, the more significant the family history of trauma and addiction the higher the risk of being prone to addictive behaviors. Not sure this is a personality issue.

6. What does it mean to have an addiction to relationships? 

That your object for disconnecting from yourself is another person. That is the simple answer but there is a bit more to it. Because an addictive relationship normally includes some common experiences, for example “I can’t live with you, but I can’t live without you” type of beliefs. In my experience these relationships are normally recreating a familiar relational theme that comes for childhood experiences. For example, if I had the experience of not being seen or abandoned in childhood, I will find a partner that will shut down or runaway in times of crisis or discomfort and will perceived to be abandoned and believe this is my destiny

7. Is the saying “once an addict, always an addict” true? 

Well!!!! It depends on how you look at it. For most people with substance dependent issues there is no going back to using in a social or managed way, because of how substances impact the brain. Thus, if you are looking at this as the ability to go back to the same behaviors that you were doing before with negative consequences the answer will be yes you are always an addict or recovering addict. If you see this through the lens of healing trauma, then your need to anesthetize in a compulsive way will be less, but it does not mean you can go back to your addictive behavior without risk.

8. I know that it doesn’t work like that and change is not always linear, but a lot of people would like to know how much time and effort it will take to overcome addictive or compulsive behaviors 

You are correct, change is not linear and healing is more like a roller coaster. This is a common question and a hard one to answer, because it can take anywhere between 6 months to several years. It depends on a couple of factors, one of course being the severity and time of the trauma and addictive behaviors. The other has to do with what the goal for treatment is. If it is stopping a “bad” behavior, or healing. Because healing goes beyond stopping “bad” behaviors. Healing is to discover that I have the ability to make space for pain and that that pain will eventually end. Which makes it very hard to put a timeline to healing. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s