The Trauma-Addiction Bond
Our experiences as children may consciously and subconsciously affect how we go through life. Those of whom are in the addiction spectrum are different to others because we feel a greater amount of sensitivity, especially to trauma, when compared with the norm. Addicts are sensitive people for the most part. We may just be born this way and this is possibly at the root of all addiction and co-dependency.
If you ask any addict the following question, the response is usually predictable: “Were you more sensitive as a child than siblings and peers?” The common answer is: “Of course I was.” So how does this work? It starts at the level of the brain. We essentially have two different parts of the brain that are involved with addiction.
The first part is the cortex, the crinkly grey bit that most people identify as ‘The Brain’. This part has only been around in its present form for some 70,000 years or so. It has developed as our need to process and think logically has increased in order to use tools, communicate and to process complex information. On the other hand, we have another part of our brain that is much older.
Perhaps the first recognizable human was Homo Erectus and this early human possessed a ‘mid-brain,’ or ‘limbic system’ that we still also have today. It exists in the center of our skull and is connected to our senses. This part of the brain has the ability to completely override our cognitive brain because it has a ‘Fight, Flight, or Freeze’ response as part of its action. So when we are in mortal danger (or it perceives we are) the limbic system takes over and gets us to a point of safety.
If you are a very small child and you are frightened (say, by a dog biting you), your limbic brain takes over and acts. In the case of a child, that usually means the reaction is to freeze. What’s more, having acted like this, the limbic system stores the information to be used again if the threat reoccurs. So if you see a dog another day, you will automatically freeze because the response is locked into your limbic memory.
Adding into the mix the extra sensitivity we spoke about, you can see that many things have the potential to cause us trauma — and for that trauma to be repeatedly triggered. Picture then a child, who is more sensitive, and he or she sees, hears and feels things that cause them distress. What can they do to feel ok? The child will look for comfort primarily from its caregivers (mum and dad etc.). But if this comfort is not forthcoming (or if parents or caregivers are the source of distress) the child will try to find coping mechanisms to fix the distress.
One of the most common source of childhood distress, which is nearly always present in addiction, is a feeling of shame. If a child is made to feel shame because of how it looks, feels or acts, this is captured by the limbic system and stored. The ‘thinking’ cortex is quite often not yet on line in early childhood, so we are unable to rationalize and resolve this emotional trauma.
I am sure that most addicts or people with addiction know about shame. What we may not know however is that there are two distinct types. There is shame that is healthy or normal (resulting from doing something socially embarrassing for instance), but there is also what theorists have called ‘carried shame.’ This is shame that usually belongs to a parent or caregiver but is picked up by the child as if it were responsible.
For example, if one parent is having an affair and asks the child to keep a secret then the child may become traumatized in a sense. Consequently, he or she will feel their parent’s shame. While it is easy to see how extreme abuse (physical, sexual, verbal) would traumatize a child, it is also often the case that due to the sensitivity felt by those of us in the addiction spectrum, even relatively trivial stimuli can cause distress. We cope with this distress by altering ourselves to a state that we think is ‘o.k.’ So early on we often try to be a perfect child’, or we try to get good grades, or be good at sports. By doing this, we can constantly look for attention or affirmation. On the other hand being very bad also gets us the attention we need, or we can go on to find a role in the family as a ‘hero’, or a ‘lost child’ or a ‘scapegoat.’
When eventually we find a process or a substance (starting with sugar, caffeine or nicotine), that helps us cope with the distress, then the stage is set for a full-blown addiction. If we are lucky, we eventually get to a point when we realize that our lives are a mess and we ask for some help to get us back to a place of recovery and contentment. In the view of many people in recovery this is ‘nirvana’.
It matters not which recovery path that people take – the point is that it’s much better than anything they’ve experienced so far and they can start to get a real life. However, this can be a dangerous place. It’s true that life might now seem manageable, relationships might reestablish and blossom, jobs can materialize and the rollercoaster can get to a level track — yet, despite all this we may still remain vulnerable. This is because all of the shame and guilt locked into our limbic system is still sitting there just waiting to be triggered.
It may not matter how many times the program or the steps are worked through — the minefield of unresolved trauma it still waiting to be triggered. It may never happen, but if it does (sometimes after many years of recovery) the result can be that we resume doing what we always did when it was triggered before…we relapse into addiction. If you have good recovery, but there is a nagging feeling of not being ‘quite right’, don’t ignore it, get help. It can get fixed and it just might save your life.