Today, we will be discussing the impact of trauma on addiction and recovery.
As a child my earliest memory was when I was a toddler, about 3 or 4 years old, I guess. I was in a passageway, there was a lot of activity going on around me and I was terrified. I was a lost little boy, in my pyjamas and then someone suddenly picks me up and whisks me away and the memory, like a scene, ends.
Later on in my life it was explained to me that my memory may be linked (is more than likely linked) to the night that my father shot someone in our family home. My parents were arrested and charged with murder and my mum was found not guilty and released and my dad was found guilty of manslaughter and did 5 years of a 7-year sentence.
I have always identified the event as the trauma but I’m beginning to see things differently. As a person in long-term recovery from addiction myself, I have engaged in therapy, addiction treatment, worked in the addictions field for many years, and walked alongside others in recovery too, and I’m starting to realise, as Gabor Maté puts it, “the event is the ‘hit’ and the trauma is the concussion. What happens on the inside is the trauma, not the event”.
I’ve carried that lost, frightened little boy around with me my whole life, and despite the treatment and the therapy, I never made the connection, in fact I never really paid him that much attention. I just saw it as an inconvenient weakness, a character flaw, whatever.
But every time something happened that triggered those memories, or disrupted the flow of my life significantly, like stress at work, stress over finances or relationship issues or any trigger really, I became the little boy in his pyjamas in that passageway and I was terrified, and sometimes I would get angry to cover it up and also resort to behaviours that gave temporary relief.
During the pandemic, and the lockdowns, I managed to find the court records for my mum, initially on-line just to confirm they existed and then in person at the records office at Kew. I got to read the police interviews of what happened on the night of the event, the court records from the trial, and even the prison psychiatric reports (to ensure they were fit to stand trial), as well as witness statements. In all I think I was allowed to photograph approx. 160 documents, (I wasn’t allowed to take a pencil or rubber into the booth, but the phone and laptop were allowed!)
Reviewing those documents as an adult; as a man in his late fifties, I was able to meet my toddler self again. I also rediscovered my mum and dad’s voices in those surreal official documents, seeing them at the age they were when these events happened; my mum was 26 and my dad 32 years old. I was able to cast my mind back to being those ages and to think about what I was doing then. Suddenly, to use a term my colleague Justin uses, I was able to go back and “re-parent” myself.
I was able to talk to the younger me and tell him, frightened as he was, he would make it through. I was standing next to my younger self and in my mind’s eye the younger me had help in the form of the older me. I was changing my relationship with my past and I could feel the connection being strengthened. I was reconnecting with myself – sounds strange I know, and it was totally unexpected.
I’m not “fixed” whatever that is, but I am a bit more connected internally. I’m also realising that writing allows me to tell this story without getting emotional which often happens when I verbalise my past and I end up apologising by saying I’m “emotionally incontinent”.
Wow, I never meant to make todays article on trauma so personal but that’s the way it turned out.
To get back to something useful beyond my own experience, her are 5 ways people in addiction recovery can be impacted by trauma:
1. Triggers and Cravings: Traumatic experiences can create powerful triggers that can lead to intense cravings for drugs or alcohol. Even years after the trauma, certain people, places, or things can bring back vivid memories and emotions associated with the trauma, which can cause people to turn to substance use to cope.
2. Emotional Instability: Trauma can cause intense emotional pain and instability, which can make it difficult for people to regulate their emotions and maintain sobriety. People in addiction recovery who have experienced trauma may experience mood swings, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues that can interfere with their ability to stay sober.
3. Self-Esteem and Confidence: Trauma can significantly impact self-esteem and confidence levels. People who have experienced trauma may struggle with feelings of shame, guilt, and worthlessness, which can make it difficult for them to believe in their ability to recover and lead a fulfilling life without substance use.
4. Trust Issues: Trauma can also cause significant trust issues. People who have experienced trauma may struggle to trust others and may feel unsafe in social situations. This can make it challenging to build a support system, which is crucial for successful addiction recovery.
5. Avoidance: Trauma survivors may also try to avoid triggers and painful emotions by isolating themselves, which can be a significant barrier to addiction recovery. Avoidance can lead to feelings of loneliness, depression, and anxiety, which can perpetuate substance use.
It’s important to note that the impact of trauma on addiction recovery is highly individualized, and people may experience a range of symptoms or challenges that are unique to their situation. However, by recognizing the potential impact of trauma on addiction recovery, we can take steps to address the underlying issues and develop healthy coping strategies that support our recovery, including:
• Seeking professional help
• Participating in support groups
• Practicing mindfulness
• Building a support system
• Exploring different therapeutic approaches