21 Aug Trauma, Addiction, and Mindfulness
By Jim Harvey
Have you ever met someone in recovery, and found they seem like a very balanced and well-rounded human being? Perhaps you’ve spent time with them, and discovered a person who is open-minded, kind, intelligent, patient, non-judgmental, creative, funny, understanding, and more. If so, you’ve more than likely also thought, “Wow! How on earth did they, of all people, end up being an addict!”
Many of us have asked the same question of ourselves. We look at our gifts and abilities, at what we believe we have to offer the world. We think back to the things we have achieved, the times we’ve done things for the benefit of others. We think of our inherent qualities, of who we know ourselves to be deep inside. And when we do, and look at our lives and addiction from this positive (but not delusional, and therefore valid) perspective, our substance abuse may strike us as completely absurd and utterly incomprehensible. “How did I sink so low?” we may ask. Or, worse, “How did I end up so untrue to myself? How did I betray the principles, values, and attitudes I hold dear?”
All of which would be painful, and not particularly helpful thoughts. But it’s very hard to look at addiction and those who suffer from it, and not wonder if perhaps a different road could have been taken. Was it inevitable that someone would go down the path of addiction? Or could personal pain have been dealt with differently? Because ultimately, addiction is always about pain. Addiction begins in pain and ends in pain. It starts with the pain we want to escape. And ends with the sum total of all our pain, including all the extra suffering the addiction itself has created. But more on that later.
The past cannot be rewritten (though how we explain it to ourselves, and how we perceive it, most certainly can). But the question of what causes addiction, of what makes people fall prey to it, plagues all those who suffer, directly or indirectly, from its destructive effects.
There are a number or reasons why people might turn to a substance and its effects, and many of these are fairly obvious. Alcohol or drugs make people feel better – they help take the edge off stress or anxiety, provide extra energy, boost self-confidence, reduce the need for sleep and so on. But not everyone who drinks alcohol, or uses drugs recreationally, becomes addicted.
For some people, addiction seems to ‘run in the family’. And indeed, science tells us that genetic predisposition plays in a role in creating addictive tendencies. Another perspective sees addiction as a disease, and, what’s more, a progressive one. Then there’s the idea of the addictive personality – people are programmed to develop addictions since it is in their makeup.
But for world-renowned addiction specialist and therapist, doctor Gabor Mate, none of these alone are sufficient to explain full-blown addiction. Furthermore, in a sense, they reduce a person to victimhood. If their ailment is caused by factors beyond their control, and not of their own creation, then it’s just the luck of the draw. Disempowering views on addiction such as these can be very discouraging. How can anybody hope to heal from addiction if its root causes bypass personal willpower?
Gabor and other behavioural therapists believe that nobody is wired to be an addict. People are, however, wired to seek happiness. This, they clarify, people do in two ways: by seeking experiences and situations that make them feel happy; and by trying to remove things that prevent them from being happy. The greatest and most pervasive of these is emotional pain. And persistent emotional pain, according to Mate, comes from past trauma.
In simple terms, (and in Mate’s own words), “Addiction begins with solving a problem, and the problem is that of human pain, emotional pain.” As a result, the predominant question for Mate is not what causes an addiction, but why the pain? The answer, for him, is always childhood trauma.
This comes as a surprise to many who suffer from addictions and may seem not to apply to them. “My childhood was pretty happy – or at least, nobody abused me or caused me great harm,” they may think. They are not seeing trauma in a broader sense. Traumatic memories are not just about what we experienced – they’re about how we experienced things. And this is different for every individual.
A child whose parents are always arguing may think, “My parents don’t love me”. Both parents may in fact love the child beyond words but are too caught up in their marital issues to adequately express their love. Two children who grow up with parents whose work is constantly moving them from one town to another, or perhaps even from one country to the next, may look back on their childhood in very different ways. One may think it was an adventurous way to grow up, and a fantastic way to see the world. The other may feel they were continuously uprooted and have developed a deep sense of insecurity and instability.
And then there is the darker realm of overt abuse and objective trauma. Trauma stemming from the unloving and misguided actions of parents or guardians, or from tragic accidents, is much more obvious and easier to understand. It comes with a host of other issues and negative emotions, such as guilt, shame, regret, fear, and so on. In short, great emotional pain. And when that pain is too frequent, too intense, and too frightening to bear, a drink or a drug can be the quickest way to lessen that pain. Particularly when someone can’t see any alternative way out, or forward.
Deep trauma is not a topic I am personally qualified to write about. But what Gabor Mate advocates as the first tool of self-help in dealing with emotional pain – self-awareness – is a personal skill we can all benefit from developing. In a nutshell, self-awareness means paying close attention to what is going on in our inner world. When dealing with pain, and struggling with addiction, self-awareness means asking, “what am I feeling right now?” We take a step back and become the witness of whatever inner experience is presenting itself to us. What am I thinking? What running commentary is currently going around in my mind, on my situation, my feelings and emotions, and so on?
For some, the practice of self-awareness might seem like simply an exercise in seeing clearly. “If trauma is why I use drugs and alcohol,” they might say, “just seeing my pain isn’t going to make it go away. And it won’t make it hurt less either.”
Believing that all trauma, and the pain that goes with it, need to be fully healed before we can be free from addiction, is a disheartening perspective indeed. And, for better or for worse, the journey to wholeness and making peace with past pain, may be a long one. Which may require the support of qualified therapists. Thankfully, here again, more recent and holistic approaches to addiction treatment and therapy incorporate another tool – used also by people in countless other fields, from business to competitive sports via personnel management. This is the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is, in sense, what powers self-awareness. It is the light of conscious attention shed on our life, as it unfolds from moment-to-moment, and from one day to the next.
Therapists teaching mindfulness techniques point to one of its great revelations. Whatever our past trauma, whenever we feel the urge to escape from emotional pain, we don’t need to deal with a lifetime of accumulated painful experiences. We need only deal with the pain we are experiencing in this moment. That’s all. Whatever we are feeling right now, is the only thing that requires our attention. And, in fact, it is irrelevant whether our present-moment thoughts and feelings are the result of our past, or simply like a dark cloud passing overhead. Our only task is to look, feel – and then respond. If the pull of a drink or drug is tugging out at our elbow, instead of responding in a reactive way, with fear, self-judgement, repetitive thoughts about how we are once again taking an easy escape route, and so on, we can start by becoming an impartial observer. We sit still, do nothing, turn our gaze within, and watch with interest. Even just for a few moments. With no opinion, no agenda, and no preferences.
The point is, we can break things down into manageable proportions – one moment at a time. This moment, right now, is too small to contain an entire life story, far less the total burden of the past. When people in recovery speak about dealing first with “the alligator closest to the boat”, they are talking about addressing first and foremost the most dangerous addiction issue, the one that poses the most immediate threat to a person’s safety, in short, continued substance use. Other poor lifestyle choices or behaviours can be corrected later. But in fact, this approach is inherent to mindfulness too. I don’t need to deal with my entire life situation or my entire addiction. I need only face, and respond to, the tiny chunk of human experience that is being presented to me in this moment.
It’s true that learning to be more mindful takes practice. And can, at times, feel like hard work. Fortunately, Dr. Gabor Mate has a simpler, but no less powerful, healing practice he recommends: “Be kind to yourself!” And indeed, sometimes a little kindness, to ourselves and others, goes a long way.
Kembali Recovery Center can Help
If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction or addictive patterns of behaviour, Kembali Recovery Center can help. Contact us today to learn about our Bali recovery center and programs. You never have to do this alone.