Addiction is a Symptom of Untreated Trauma

melissa-new-post“What is addiction, really? It is a sign, a signal, a symptom of distress. It is a language that tells us about a plight that must be understood.” — Alice Miller, author of Breaking down the Wall of Silence

I am a recovery coach. A recovery coach or sober companion is often called in to work with the most difficult addict, the chronic relapser. A chronic relapser is an individual that has been to several rehabs, often 7, 8 or 9 visits in less than five years. Who has not been able to put together 90 sober days, except in treatment. Whose family, spouse or children have given up on them. In reality, a chronic relapser is an addict that is acting out in their addiction. Their addiction is just a symptom of untreated trauma.

Often, calling a recovery coach is the last resort.

My first job, of course, is to make sure this person doesn’t drink, use or act out. And to find some redeeming qualities of this addicted person so I can approach healing the behaviors driving the addiction. This is the key point that brought me to the understanding that many of my clients have experienced some form of trauma, early in their childhood or adolescent lives.

I always ask the client for their story. I provide all of my clients the ACE study questions. ACE means Adverse Childhood Experiences. The ACE study is an ongoing collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente’s Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego. It started in 1976 with the purpose of finding more about childhood trauma, and the later-life health and well-being of participants. (For more information on ACE, see my blog post dated August 20, 2015). The ACE study poses such questions as: Did you move a lot? Did you ever go hungry? Did you experience a childhood that was less than nurturing? Did you ever have a moment that overwhelmed you? Did you live through an ordeal that changed how you think about people, places or things? The results of the ACE questions, and the addict’s story that comes after it, always profoundly moves me. I get a much more honest story than most clinicians, mainly because of these questions.

The reason it’s significant for me to identify and acknowledge trauma, is because research proves that trauma can activate behaviors that lead to addiction. My clients are using a drug or alcohol as a way of self-protection, of calming down, as life preservation. Everyone in the rooms (AA, NA meetings) knows addicts “use” in order to “numb out.” Well, let’s rethink that, turning it a bit to say: victims of trauma are really using a drug or drink to:

  • Stay safe: After trauma the addict’s own mind can feel like a danger zone, which makes being “out of it” feel safer than being in it.
  • Escape memories: Unwanted and unresolved memories have a way of popping up incessantly after trauma; addictions offer the mind a different area of, or reduced capacity for focus that helps suppress reminiscing.
  • Soothe pain: Substances or the adrenalin rush of self-destructive behaviors change the addict’s body chemistry, releasing endorphins and other mood enhancers that reduce discomfort.
  • Be in control: Sometimes, engaging in addictive behaviors can lead an addict to feel strong, resilient and courageous, an experience that is tremendously alluring when trauma from the past intrudes on the present.
  • Create a world the addict can tolerate: The intense feelings brought on by fear, memories and anxiety can make any moment seem overwhelming. The release of tension brought on by addiction-oriented behavior helps facilitate a manageable experience.
  • Treat yourself the way you feel you deserve: Trauma can leave an addict feeling less-than, worthless, hopeless, and damaged. The more self-destructive the addict behaves, the more it can feel like he or she is living in alignment with who they truly are. While this is false, it can help reduce feelings of otherness and disconnection.
  • Redefine who the addict really is: Trauma changes an addict’s identity all the way down to the core of their beliefs and self-definition. It can seem as if no one understands them. Engaging in addictions can help create a sense of community by connecting the addict to others who feel, see, think and behave as they do. Addictions can help the addict revise their self-perception by allowing them to engage in and act out behaviors that allow them to feel stronger, more courageous, capable, etc., than trauma has left them feeling.[1]

This puts the addiction-trauma link into perfect perspective for me, and I hope it opens some eyes for other addicts, alcoholics, and clinicians that are reading this post. Next week’s post will go on to explain the scientific research that backs up this discovery that addiction is just a symptom of untreated trauma.

Research used in this blog:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,

Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, Posted on August 20, 2015 by Melissa Killeen,

[1] Trauma and Addiction: 7 Reasons Your Habit Makes Perfect Sense, by Michele Rosenthal. Published on March 30, 2015 in Behavioral Health, Living in Recovery, Living with Addiction and at

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