To Overcome Addiction, You Must Address Underlying Trauma

One of the most widely known addiction treatment groups, Alcoholics Anonymous, famously lists twelve steps the addict must take to overcome their addiction. While these steps include everything from admitting you’re powerlessness over the substances you abuse to seeking out people you’ve wronged in the past to make amends, none of the steps mentions acknowledging or coming to terms with a traumatic experience. Some healthcare professionals take a different perspective on addiction recovery. According to a wide body of research over the past 20 years, experiencing a traumatic event as a child or young adult greatly increases the likelihood of developing an addiction later in life. Addiction recovery means not just addressing how you’ve harmed others, but also looking at the harm that has been done to you.

By definition, a traumatic experience puts the individual’s life and physical-well being at risk and renders them incapable of protecting themselves from potential injury or death. Experiencing a natural disaster, a terror attack, and being mugged are all common examples of traumatic experiences. If the trauma is severe enough or occurs over a long period of time, a survivor might develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The symptoms of PTSD can be intense and destructive. After getting hit by a car, for example, it’s normal to think twice before crossing the street again. For someone with PTSD, being on the street or even around cars may trigger sudden flashbacks or intense feelings of anxiety that stop them from going out at all. While truly healing physical and psychological wounds created by trauma takes time, abusing drugs or alcohol can seem like a shortcut with immediate short-lived highs that mimic genuine happiness, but fall short of the real thing.

This doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with 12 step programs. They provide a tremendous support system and are no cost. They also clearly suggest that for many, additional treatment will be needed to overcome addiction. For those with trauma in their history, unless and until a person deals effectively with that issue in a meaningful way, it is not likely that s/he will be able to maintain an effective or happy recovery.

There is no benefit to ignoring a traumatic experience; refusing to discuss trauma only invites more shame, stigma, and isolation around an already sensitive topic. As intimidating as it might be, encouraging an addict entering recovery to clean out their closet, so to speak, will likely help them embark on the next chapter of their lives without regret or illusion. The harm we have done to others is only part of the equation. We must also address the harm done to us that we were powerless to prevent.

If you’re reviewing addiction treatment options for yourself or a loved one, look for facilities that emphasize trauma work. Connecting with healthcare professionals attuned to the needs of people who have survived trauma can make the difference between relapse or finally living a life free from painful memories.