Trauma and addiction

We often hear talk of trauma; we often hear talk of addiction. The two conditions have important connections.

Just to be sure that we are talking about the same thing, I will make a couple of definitions here. Trauma is an emotional response to an overwhelming event in which we most probably feared for our lives, felt that we had no control or felt overwhelmingly vulnerable (eg because of a catastrophic natural event). Maybe it was a sexual assault or a car crash. (You don’t have to suffer physical injury to experience trauma.) Trauma can also refer to our response to prolonged adverse events such as neglect, abandonment, sexual/physical/psychological abuse; narcissistic parent(s) or bullying.

Whatever the cause, trauma will probably leave you feeling probably more anxious, afraid and more easily overwhelmed by stressful life events. My own experience of prolonged multiple traumas (various types of abuse, abandonment, bullying) left me with a constant background feeling of anxiety, a sense of shame, a lack of self-worth, anger, denial, fear and a tendency to emotionally withdraw in difficult moments.

Many people live in this state, their traumas unrecognised and untreated. But it is a very uncomfortable state of affairs as it can create a state of hyper-vigilance which in turn can create disrupted sleep patterns, muscle tension, chest pain, and chronic pain or other chronic and difficult to explain health conditions.

At a more general level we are all traumatised by the consumerist, shallow, egocentric society we live in which is toxic for human beings. The fact that up to 70% of visits to the GP are related directly or indirectly to stress bears witness to this. Unfortunately, the attitude of our culture to any problem is:  “tómate algo” or “cómprate algo”. Many people who seek assistance are simply medicated, in spite of the sometimes horrific secondary effects these pharmaceutical products produce. Treatments like these are very profitable as one removes the symptoms without treating the underlying cause. Treatment is more profitable than a cure.

Where does addiction come into this? For a traumatised person their early experiences with a drug (eg. alcohol) can feel exceptionally agreeable as perhaps for the first time, the person feels free of the pain/anxiety/fear/shame they have carried for most of their lives (often without realising it) . The feeling is perhaps: “I have found a way to overcome my social awkwardness – great!” In fact, you haven’t found a way to overcome your social awkwardness instead, you have learnt to use an emotional anaesthetic. We have learnt to do something to distract ourselves instead of doing what we need to do.

In our society there exists a golden rule which goes like this:

“He who has the gold makes the rules.”

The alcohol industry, for example, has a lot of gold. It has skilfully used its gold in exactly the same way that the tobacco industry used its gold. We have been manipulated/brainwashed to see alcohol as everything that it isn’t:  alcohol helps with stress, it makes you happy;  it’s success, it’s sexy, it’s cool, it’s adult. Alcohol is in fact the opposite to all of those things. However, the effect of the drug alcohol together with this propaganda/brainwashing gets us hooked, usually when we are very young and keeps us hooked. It is seen as normal to consume this drug. However, biologically nothing could be further from the truth.

We might go on to establish a productive and meaningful life but we do not realise that we are living with an elevated level of stress, anxiety or fear. (We know no better as we have always lived with those feelings.) But the feelings produced by our trauma continue to impact our behaviour, as we try to avoid the uncomfortable feelings, leading us to repeatedly finding ourselves in the same harmful situation (eg. a string of toxic relationships). We might become over controlling, perfectionist, “people-pleasers”, chronically angry, or chronically anxious.

So long as our emotional immune system is relatively strong and we have sufficient engagement in life (a healthy social network, children, sport, creative activity), then we can probably manage our emotional pain and dependence on alcohol. Inevitably, we will encounter ourselves in situations which threaten to overwhelm us emotionally:  divorce, death, depression, lost job, chronic illness, COVID lockdown; or caring for sick parents or other family members.

Increased levels of stress, anxiety or fear lead us to increase our dosage of anaesthetic (eg, alcohol, cocaine, marijuana).  Our dependence/addiction now jumps to another level of harm, another level of destruction. And so the nightmare worsens.

I have lived through many traumas. I have used alcohol and many other substances to try and manage my uncomfortable feelings of anxiety, fear, shame, a sort of emotional emptiness, an emotional black hole.  I wanted to find peace, a sense of purpose, to be able to give and receive love in a healthy way. I thought that alcohol and other addictive substances did this for me. They did the opposite.

I have spent more than twenty years helping people find their way to freedom (not recovery which is something else); helping people identify, work and integrate their experiences.

I am still on my journey, free and independent of alcohol (and other substances); I don’t need it, want it or miss it. However, I do have more peace in my heart, a true sense of connection and an immense sense of gratitude for my life.

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