Understanding How Trauma Leads to Addiction

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The Reality of Suffering

It is tragic, though, the unavoidable reality that there are traumatic things all around us. There is no escape from pain and suffering in this life. We try very hard to escape, and we use things like social media, drugs and alcohol, power, sexuality, and so many other things to avoid what is difficult around us. In the end, though, the realities of life will always catch up with us. There is nothing from which we can run away forever.

Obviously, this is not to say that there are not good things in life or pleasure and enjoyment; these are certainly a part of most people’s experiences. The problem arises when we become so enamored with the desire for pleasure that we try to deny or run away from the suffering—when we try to pretend that suffering, pain, and evil are not real. The truth of the situation is that pain and suffering are real, and we must learn to deal with them if we are to pursue a meaningful life.

There is an important connection between this pain and suffering in life and reality and substance abuse and addiction issues.

From Suffering to Addiction

Because suffering and pain are realities of life, traumatic situations will affect nearly everyone somehow at some point in their lives. This can come in many different forms, including physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; bullying in various forms; death of loved ones; poverty or loss of a job; experiences in warfare; and many others. These situations and many others inflict trauma upon those who experience them.

When we undergo these situations, there are profound physical, psychological, and emotional things we are experiencing and knowing. For example, in situations where there is abuse, we are learning something about the nature of human beings. We are coming face to face with the darkness that lies in the heart of each of us. Abuse challenges our understandings of ourselves and others.

  • Who is this person I thought I could trust?
  • Did I do something to deserve this?
  • Is this what everyone is like?
  • Can I trust anyone?

Questions like this begin to plague and shape us, causing us to question so many things around us.

The reality of death can cause similar questions.

  • Will everyone leave me in the end?
  • Will anyone miss me when I am gone?
  • Will I ever see this person or be with this person again?

These kinds of questions and reflections on trauma are not always part of our conscious awareness. The effect is sometimes much more serious, a gut reaction and a feeling. We know it is the depression or anxiety it causes, in the reactions, it evokes from us, even if we don’t realize the source of these things.

Traumas like these, especially ones that happen over longer periods of time, cause questions like these deep within us; these traumas subtly shape our thinking and being. In many cases, the vividness of the trauma, the relentless nature of it, the constant presence of the pain—these all become overwhelming and, at times, unbearable.

This is often the place where addiction can occur, and it can be for different reasons. In some cases, substances like alcohol or other depressants can function not to feel the trauma as sharply; the dull and numb our senses, which allows us to escape from the sting of the trauma for a little while at least, that is the goal. Hallucinogenic substances can also be a way of escaping from this world to somewhere else; this is a way of trying to escape or run away from the present world filled with so much trauma. Stimulants like methamphetamine and others can be used to stay busy living in the present and future rather than dwelling on the past. These are, of course, generalizations, but they are instructive for realizing some of how different substances provide an escape from trauma.

Pain and suffering are a reality, some situations of pain and suffering can lead to trauma, and various substances like those listed above can be ways of trying to numb or avoid the trauma for a little while. It is understandable; the trauma can be unbearable. The problem is that rather than solving any problems or helping us deal with things, many of these substances are addictive and even deadly—they end up causing as many new problems as we were trying to forget or avoid by running to them. Even knowing this, though, these substances are addictive, and so recovery is difficult.

From Addiction to Recovery

The ultimate desire is recovery, first from addiction and the grip of the traumas that often lead to the addiction. This is why many treatment facilities today are utilizing holistic methods that consider the physical and neurological impact of substance abuse and seek to address psychological, emotional, and spiritual elements to help the whole of the person.

Trauma is never a simple thing to address, and we must be careful not to suggest that treatment magically solves all of the problems. Trauma is often something we have to live with for the rest of our lives. It does not simply get erased and removed. However, we can become stronger and more capable of handling things. The problem with running away from the past is that it is part of who we are, and we cannot escape ourselves. The solution has to be some form of addressing what has happened and who we are to overcome the past and move forward. Of course, these words cannot fully express the difficulty and momentous journey involved in this. Recovery, though, is not erasing the past but overcoming it. Substance abuse is often related to trying to escape yourself, but the goal is to become fully integrated as a person, to be whole. Wholeness can only come from reconciling who you are. This is the goal of treatment: to help patients both in reconciling who they are and overcoming trauma and equipping patients to overcome the physical and neurological effects of substance abuse.

Firefighter in recovery