Addiction, Trauma and Connection

I recently finished a remarkable book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Dr. Gabor Mate’. Dr. Mate’ writes with deep compassion and insight about the addicts of the Downtown Eastside neighborhood of Vancouver, B.C. What really struck me was the subtle but profound genesis of most if not all addictions; the presence of trauma in early life and the patterns of response that formed as a result. As an extension of these traumas Dr. Mate’ found that the need for connection led to the poor choices that resulted in addiction.

This reminds me of my youth: when I was in middle school I discovered cannabis for the first time. It was not the substance itself that I found appealing, it was the acceptance that came as a result of simply joining in with others in getting high. Acceptance… The sad thing is that acceptance can be found in a multitude of environments but the price of admission to the group of stoners is so low; all you have to do to gain acceptance is to get high. No achievement, no character, not a thing. Just hit the joint and you’re “cool.” This continued through my early university years. I found belonging in the group that smoked pot, not with the drinkers. I don’t much care for alcohol, or more accurately I don’t enjoy throwing up (the almost certain outcome of my interactions with booze of any kind.) I actually think that cannabis should be legal and controlled. It’s just not for me.

I recently completed an intensive training in DBT-PE, or the prolonged exposure protocol for treating PTSD. And it was intense. Watching videos of patients undergoing the imaginal portions of the treatment were very difficult. This is where they recall out loud, over and over again, the trauma. And while this does not “cure” trauma it puts it in its place – in the past. The infectious nature of the memory is eradicated but not the memory itself.

One thing that came up in the training that really resonated with me was the often subtle nature of trauma. While most people think of trauma as rape or violence or combat, it often takes the form of serial and pervasive invalidation, repeated exposure to the anxiety or depression of others (most notably our parents) and even a lack of attachment in infancy. Dr. Mate’ believes that trauma can even happen prenatally; the anxiety or other suffering our mothers experience informs our neural development and coping mechanisms (aka somatic markers for you neuro geeks.)

As an adoptee I can certainly relate to the lack of attachment. And when you add in my other outlying factors it is no wonder that I sought connection the easiest way I could. The idea of lack of attachment was further validated in one of my patients, a 21 year old recovering heroin addict. She was adopted at 7 months; her mother and father were (are?) both addicts, so one can only imagine the vacuum of deep bonding she experienced. We explored this recently and it was quite the revelation to her. It was also very validating – she is NOT an addict by choice. Her deep programming or pattern would have her be no other way.

In a recent conversation with my 93 year old mom we talked about why certain AA groups (and their counterparts such as Celebrate Recovery) can be so effective while others are “less than optimal” (my euphemism for suck.) My conclusion was (with her concurrence) was the depth of connection that those in recovery so desperately need can only be found when like-minded others gather together and work together, forming real relationship. The ineffective groups are comprised mostly of “box-checkers” as I call them, those people who are not really interested in a better life but are just going through the motions in order to appease an external directive (like the court.)

The worst traumas are often subtle, resulting in a sense of otherness that cannot find meaningful connection with people and so, sadly, lead to attachments that diminish us – often to the point of death – and that reinforce our false belief that we have little or no value. And we are so afraid of more rejection that we run like hell from vulnerability. We run from the very thing that can save us.


6 thoughts on “Addiction, Trauma and Connection

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  1. I started typing this yesterday, but work got in the way. And, there’s bunches of info to absorb……Whereas I understand pervasive invalidation, I never framed it in the context of ‘serial’. I witnessed this on a daily basis as my son was growing up. I would witness it in the interaction between kids and their parents in Scouts, at church, social events, etc., and I would also see it in the interaction between certain teachers and students. As a parent, I stood my ground and would not allow my son to be under the supervision of these particular teachers. The void created in these children as a result of invalidation would, of course, have to be filled. Inevitably, I would see so many of these kids in the court system. This was in the 80’s and 90’s, so after my child became a well educated, productive member of society, I quit paying attention.
    Enter social media – what has been the effect of social media on invalidation induced PTSD (I’m not sure if that’s the proper phrasing, but you get my point) patients?

    “This where they recall out loud, over and over again, the trauma. And while this does not “cure” trauma, it puts it in its place – in the past. The infectious nature of the memory is eradicated but not the memory itself.”
    This makes perfect sense. See, this is why my fathers yearly reunions with his WWII pilot buddies were so important to him. He always looked forward to them and he told me it “put the war years in their proper perspective.” It also explains why his position with the government and the responsibilities that came with it led to a premature death. He was never the same after hurricane Camille. There was no outlet for the human devastation he had to sort through for years There were no reunions for those involved, no “recalling”, of shared experiences, no follow up to the lives affected.

    So, back to the social media/PTSD question……I’m interested in your thoughts.


    1. Interesting question! I don’t have data to support my opinion on this…
      In the context of pervasive invalidation I think that social media plays several roles, both direct and indirect. Directly we see “bullying” and the drama that the immature promote – as an aside I include a moratorium on social media for most of my CCFA recommendations (an assessment I do for DFCS) Indirectly it is much more insidious; one of my primary axioms is “you go where you look.” In another way you could say we experience that which we attend to. If a person (child or adult) experiences invalidation at home or in close relationships then they will subtly have the same reinforced by the posts and newsfeeds they attend to. Conversely, validation received by electronic means is interpreted unconsciously as shallow or superficial – the energy of presence legitimizes validation, while the absence of that energy allows the validation to skip off the unconscious of the reader.
      When I have time I will look into the research in the field (which may or may not exist, and in that case there is PhD dissertation topic #42)


  2. I would love to do a little more research on prenatal trauma. My sister adopted my nephew at only 2 days old and his separation anxiety is pretty severe and surprising to me since he was adopted so quickly.


    1. There are many factors that inform attachment issues. Prenatal “trauma” is but one of many. I do not know my birth mother so I have no idea how she cared for herself while pregnant or any emotional issues she may have had that informed my own. There are genetic factors that inform temperament among other things. Environment plays a big role even in early childhood. “Goodness of fit” is the relationship between the default settings of the child (so to speak) and the environment in which he is raised. As an example, if mom punishes by a slap to the face, whereas dad does it with a belt, the slap may have significant emotional impact while the belt is received as actual punishment/discipline. The meaning of the act and how it is received emotionally makes a difference. The slap is personal while the belt isn’t.


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