Traumatic Impacts & Addictions

Connection between Mental and Physical Health
October 6, 2016
Healing from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
October 18, 2016
Do you know anyone who struggles with an addiction?  A struggle with alcohol?  Sex?  Shopping?  Pleasing people?  (Yes, to some the last one could be considered an addiction.)  Do they have someone to talk to about their behavior and also their emotions and experiences that are related to their addictive tendencies?  Addiction is one of those experiences that seems to have a cloud of shame and fear hovering over the one experiencing it.  The tendency, then, is for the one struggling to go underground with their addictions.  This can be doubly painful because part of what likely gave birth to their addictions is that they went underground with their pain and difficult emotions and experiences in the first place.
When Trauma Occurs
So what happens – and what has been happening – to a person that finds him or herself struggling with an addiction?  The lens of trauma can be helpful here.  Most of us can acknowledge that humans are worthy of love and designed to love, that this is a core part of one’s humanity and human desire.  But many among us have not been able to experience the gifts of having someone there for them during particularly distressful times, or to allow them to be seen, heard, acknowledged, and accepted.  Many have not been given the resources of adapting in a positive way during stressful or hurtful times, and thus their own resources of loving others and self were also able to grow.  This kind of void of a safe place – in stark contrast to one’s deep reaching out for such safety, which in itself is likely outside of his or her awareness – can be inherently traumatizing (Susan Johnson, Becoming an Emotionally Focused Therapist, 2004).  And it is a place in which attachment to other things can fill a deep need, thus setting one on a path toward nursing oneself through addiction.
The Three Faces of the Self
James Olthuis helps us see this through his paradigm of the three faces of the self: Me, Myself, and I (James Olthuis, The Beautiful Risk, 2006).  The ‘ME’ self refers to the story we tell ourselves; it is how we see and understand ourselves through the grid of our experiences.  The ‘MYSELF’ self is our unique, authentic self; it speaks of our unchanging value and worth as people, and it is our self that is genuinely loved no matter what.  The ‘I’ self is our doing and acting self; it is the part of us that lives in the present moment and allows us to act in the here and now and to make certain choices.
The painful reality that happens for many who struggle with addiction is that their ‘three faces of the self’ become more and more separated and isolated from each other.  They are no longer in touch with who they are (their ‘MYSELF’ self), but only or primarily with their experiences and their pain which they are not able to deal with (their ‘ME’ self), and thus they begin to lose touch with their innate ability to make decisions that they might want to make, to stop certain habits for example (their ‘I’ self).  This separation of their ‘selves’ is a very painful experience.
This is where addictions can come into the picture – by engaging in a substance or activity, or whatever the object of addiction may be, one seeks to manufacture a sense of connection between their ME, MYSELF, and I.  By doing so, in the moments in which this connection is felt, there can be what Olthuis calls a hum within one’s being – a sense of peace, serenity, albeit one that is not genuine or lasting.
Journey Toward Recovery & Healing
Journeying with someone who struggles with addiction is multi-layered.  There is a behavioral component to be sure, such as restructuring one’s schedule and accountability process, and creating needed boundaries are part of the path toward recovery.  But at the heart of the journey must include an effort to help those who are struggling to come above ground and process their hidden and buried emotions and experiences (their traumas) that lie beneath their addictive patterns --- so that they can come in touch with their unique, authentic, beloved, selves (their MYSELF) once again – and again and again.
This is the kind of help that therapy can offer – a sacred space and encounter between therapist and human person who finds him or herself stuck, in which the three faces of the addicted self can coalesce in ways that their souls are meant for.  Such inside out changes are powerfully healing agents for behavioral change, and it is this core ingredient for healing that must accompany other needed efforts toward changing behavior.
If you or someone you know is struggling with addictions, please recognize the existence of deeper desire underlying their addictions; acknowledge the traumas they may have experienced which they may have learned to deal with by going underground with them; and consider directing them to those who are able to help them get in touch with their forgotten, neglected, wounded but beautiful selves again.
James Olthuis, The Beautiful Risk, 2006.
Susan Johnson, Becoming An Emotionally Focused Therapist, 2004.
Written by David Lee, Registered Clinical Counsellor