By Jim Harvey
On a website linking to resources for finding help for addiction and substance use disorders, I came across the bio of a renowned addiction specialist and author in the United States. The bio described him as, “a therapist specializing in treating the causes of addiction, and not the symptoms.” At once, the words of a personal friend, also an addiction counselor, came to mind. “The symptoms of addiction? Addiction IS the symptom!”
In a previous post, I mentioned Dr. Gabor Mate, a vastly experienced doctor and therapist, and one of the leading experts on addiction anywhere. Dr Mate regularly tells people that the first, and most relevant question to ask about a person struggling with addiction, is not, “Why the addiction?” but, “Why the pain?” And, in his professional opinion, past trauma, often from childhood, is always a part of that pain.
Why the Addiction?
To those who have never misused drugs or alcohol, far less become addicted, there’s often this idea that people take drugs to ‘get high’, or get drunk to ‘feel good’. The preconceived notion that the aim is to get blissfully spaced out in a euphoric space, is quite widespread. But for people with alcoholism or drug addiction, the experience doesn’t have nearly as much to do with feeling ecstatic as society may think. It is rather, and in fact much more, about what substances enable them not to feel.
Human beings are not programmed to want to be perpetually blissful, to be continuously having a peak pleasurable experience. On the contrary, people function best on a varied emotional diet, so to speak. As an Indian sage once wisely said, “It is between the banks of pleasure and pain that the river of life flows.” Everyday life, for most people, is not by default so unbearable that they need to escape their suffering.
Why the Pain?
Some approaches to addiction treatment describe the condition as, ‘a disease of the mind’. While this may sound harsh to some, what is certain is that in the vast majority of cases, the pain people seek to numb, or avoid, or forget, is mental and emotional pain. This pain is referred to as trauma.
People can seek to minimize their trauma, or at least its role in their addiction, if they think they’ve had a relatively happy and trouble-free life. It may appear almost indecent to bring trauma into the equation, when comparing such a life to that of others who have suffered personal abuse, or been the victims of tragedy. But trauma specialists always emphasize the fact that trauma is as much about how a person experienced a given situation, or responded to it, as the event itself. And while traumatic memories are indisputably painful, the way people deal with their trauma can add yet another layer of unpleasantness to feelings and emotions.
How Trauma and Substance Abuse are Related
It is a fact that not everyone with a traumatic past develops an addiction, (though addiction specialists agree that there’s always trauma somewhere in the background where addiction is concerned). This suggests that addiction is not the direct result of trauma itself. It arises from trauma being left unprocessed, and unhealed. When intense emotional pain is allowed to fester inside, or has been locked away in the dark places within someone avoids, it has power over them. Money talks, the idiom goes. So does pain. It can even dictate a person’s behaviour to them, and instruct them to have a drink or get some drugs.
People who have suffered severe trauma without developing a behavioural health condition or displaying other dysfunctional habits, all have one thing in common. They manage to live a relatively balanced life for a very simple reason – they have been able to process their trauma. In short, they have been able to allow their feelings. They have been able to really feel them, and not turn away. Most importantly – and this is a fundamental step in healing trauma – they have developed the mindfulness to be aware of what they are feeling.
How can we not know what we’re feeling, you may ask. When painful memories, thoughts or emotions feel overwhelming, and too much to bear, we push them aside. We try to ignore them, or we distract ourselves from them. We repress them, bottle them up, or find other ways to avoid them. This alone can, over time, create conditions like anxiety, depression, stress, and even physical symptoms of illness. And, of course, we can develop coping mechanisms like resorting to substances. For better or for worse, it is undeniable that this is a strategy which, in the early days at least, ‘works’ – nobody would become addicted if they tried alcohol or substances and were left completely indifferent to the results.
Ultimately, of course, escaping the reality of feelings through substances is doomed to failure. To borrow once again from Dr Mate, “addiction begins in pain, and ends in pain.”
Therapists often describe how, when people are at last ready to really feel, and face their trauma, the sense of relief is enormous. The struggle to avoid their past and their pain, or postpone looking at them, becomes so exhausting that giving up the fight, and no longer turning away, is profoundly healing. But the exercise sounds simpler than it is. Most people can’t just get up one day and say, “Right! Now I’m going to face my pain!” And when people have vast amounts of emotional hurt stored up inside them, releasing it all, like a damn bursting, might not be the safest way to proceed. A qualified therapist can help this process of feeling into past pain.
Somatic experiencing is a therapeutic approach that explores the intimate connection between our minds and bodies. One of the basic premises of somatic experiencing, is that are bodies are very good at communicating to us what we feel, if we can only learn to pay attention. This therapy is based on the principle that trauma gets stored away in the body, or trapped there. Interestingly, this idea that a memory of past emotions stays in our physical body has existed in yoga for over 2000 years.
One consequence of trauma can be that the subconscious mind is always on alert, or trying to process new experience through the filter of past bad memories. Emotions such as fear or panic can be held around the solar plexus, and over time, create tension in the chest and shallow breathing. Anxiety can be held as a tight ball in the pit of the stomach, and create digestive problems, and lower back issues.
What is Somatic Experiencing?
A simplified explanation of how somatic experiencing works is as follows:
- The person is invited to get into the habit of simply noticing what they feel in their body. As often as they can, they return to bodily sensations, and scan their body to see what is going on. If there appears to be a thought or emotion that comes up connected to a physical sensation, they are encouraged to notice this too. What can also happen is the opposite phenomenon: an unpleasant thought or feeling arises – not necessarily linked to past trauma – and their task is then to tune into their body, and see if these thoughts and feelings appear to be producing a reaction anywhere.
- Once someone has got into the habit of tuning into their body, the therapist guides them through an exercise in imagery. They are instructed to imagine a scene which would ordinarily challenge them. This is often re-visiting a past traumatic memory, though it can also be a generic situation of the kind which often triggers them emotionally. In the safe environment of the therapy space, the patient shares what is going on for them, and what comes up. Throughout the process, they are encouraged to remain aware of their body and how it is responding.
- The therapist meanwhile will be watching the person’s body language. Any changes in attitude or posture – curling up into a ball, tensing up, and so on – could be revealing and valuable input for a qualified person.
But somatic experiencing is about much more than just static trauma, stored away like data saved on a computer for example. It’s about trauma as a process, an energy perhaps, that affects life on a day-to-day basis. If a person is unconsciously constantly bracing themselves against what life, or other people, might hurl at them, for example, their trauma ends up informing the very fabric of their existence. Somatic experience encourages us to nurture a new way of interacting with our bodies, and to see them as precious allies in processing our feelings. Just as our body tells us we are hungry, thirsty or tired, it also knows if we’re angry, stressed, sad, worried or apathetic. As surprising as it may seem, when it comes to difficult memories or emotions, we can reach the stage where we’re not even exactly sure what we feel, because we ‘don’t go there’.
The Freedom of Really Feeling
The point about enlightened approaches to trauma therapy, is not to unearth every last traumatic memory, and have someone re-live it. This would be a never-ending and incredibly unpleasant ordeal! It is to get into the habit of turning towards feelings, whatever they may be, rather than away from them. This is an extremely valuable skill – not only does it mean that as and when past pain surfaces, a person can allow it, and process it better. It also means that they accumulate less new negativity or emotional baggage, because they deal with emotions in real-time, as they arise.
It would be outrageous to claim that trauma therapy allows people to be rid of all their pain, or that they won’t have to face great pain ever again. Quite the contrary is often true, in fact, particularly in the early stages of therapy. For some people, the process can be like opening a can of worms – it sets off an overwhelming process of ‘emotional cleansing’ as it were, as one wave after another of locked-away distress comes rushing out.
No, the point is not, “no more pain” (though of course therapy does aim to help people shed the burden of as much pain as possible). The game changer is that trauma is no longer in the driving seat. Pain still speaks, yes, but it doesn’t have the last say. We become free of the dictatorship of feelings, able to make our own choices, not governed by the past. We become empowered decision-makers. In the words of the poet William Ernest Henley, in his oft-quoted but powerful poem, Invictus:
“I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”
Kembali Recovery Center can help
If you or someone you love is struggling with alcoholism or addiction, Kembali Recovery Center can help. Contact us today to speak with one of our counselors and learn more about our programs.