Addiction is a Symptom of Trauma
Let’s talk about addiction as trauma. I am sure we have all worked with someone who struggles with substance abuse, maybe a parent of a child client, maybe a teenager. I am also certain we all have a family member or friend who has struggled in some way or another with substance abuse, gambling, or some other addictive behavior. It can be hard work to love and care about people who seem intent on destroying themselves. It is important work though, and it is important that we begin to look at this struggle in a different light. It is important to know that our clients and loved ones are not in fact intent on destruction, but intent on hiding, intent on not feeling in such a big scary way. We need to ask what has happened to this person, not what is this person doing.
I worked for an agency whose primary focus was substance abuse treatment. I never imagined as a young social worker, recently graduated and feeling knowledgeable, that I would work in a substance abuse setting. But there I was. I learned a lot in that job, and I also learned what I believed to be helpful, and what may not be to people in early recovery. Around that same time, I attended the Starr Trauma and Resilience summer conference for the first time, and so much of what I learned there made sense in terms of the adults and teens I was treating for substance abuse. The impact on the brain seemed similar, this made sense to me in a way my CAADC coursework did not, my MSW coursework had not. I felt empowered with information, and armed to help people in a way I had not been. I went from feeling like I was a competent therapist, to a therapist armed with information, armed with compassion, and comfortable with not knowing, with admitting I did not know much at all actually, but that I have the capacity to be curious about another’s experience.
We need to remember no matter the client, no matter the issue that brings that person to treatment, that person is the expert on themselves. We as helpers need to remember we are in a position to walk alongside, overtime perhaps be a guide, but ultimately to be a partner with the person we are working with. Rather than telling a client struggling with substance abuse “you need to go to AA, or you need to do x, y, z” we need to ask, what do you think feeds the healthy part of you? What fills you up? We can help our clients, parents of clients, family members, acknowledge their recovery as their own, and that it must be nurtured in order to flourish. Recovery is a time to find peace within the self, and mindfulness strategies are really helpful here. People who have been using substances, and then cease, get flooded with feelings that they were likely running from. If we can help our clients to regulate and sit with those feelings, we can come to know what their experience was like. We can come to know together what those feelings are, we can be curious with our clients who may be wary of being curious about themselves.
We can provide some education about the brain, about trauma, about substance abuse, and we can provide connection. We can build resilience in our clients and loved ones. Using mindfulness and somatic awareness along with substance abuse knowledge, we can assist our clients to regulate, to learn about themselves, to experience recovery and what that means for them as an individual. We can provide a containing experience for big emotions, and bear witness to what occurred before, during and after the substance abuse. Substance abuse itself is a trauma after all, a time of loss and fear, and while not always, there may have been a trauma before the use began. We can offer our clients and ourselves grace to begin again each day, to learn something new each day, to sit a little longer with our emotions each day. One day at a time.