Addiction and Early-Life Trauma
Addicts are people who’ve lost control over their relationship with a substance or behavior. They use when they don’t want to. They use when they have promised themselves and others they will stop. They use when it pushes them away from family, friends, and other important people. They use when it impacts their work, schooling, finances, reputation, freedom, etc. They tell egregious lies to themselves and others to rationalize and justify their actions. They do this no matter how abominable their behavior gets, no matter how many problems their addiction creates.
And contrary to popular belief, addicts do this not because they enjoy it. They do it to escape. Addictions are not about feeling good, they’re about feeling less. Addicts cope with stress, depression, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, attachment deficits, and unresolved trauma by numbing out instead of turning to loved ones and trusted others who might provide emotional support.
Addicts choose their addiction rather than other people as a coping mechanism because, for them, unresolved childhood trauma has poisoned the well of attachment. Other people can (and often have) hurt them, let them down, and left them feeling abandoned, unloved, or intruded upon. Thus, they fear and don’t feel secure with emotional intimacy, and they refuse to turn to others, even empathetic loved ones, for help when they’re struggling or feeling down. Instead, they self-soothe by numbing out with an addictive substance or behavior.
Not so long ago, one of the worst possible forms of punishment was not prison or even death; it was exile. For example, in 1814, after ten years as self-proclaimed Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to the Mediterranean isle of Elba. A year later he escaped, returned to France, and retook his throne for approximately 100 days before his ultimate defeat at Waterloo. As punishment, they exiled him again, this time to a much smaller and more remote island, St. Helena, 1,000 miles from the nearest land mass in western Africa.
In the 1800s, you could be drawn and quartered, tortured on the rack, beheaded, hung, and subjected to all sorts of other incredibly nasty punishments. But the meanest, most miserable thing they could think of for a despot like Napoleon was exile. And frankly, not much has changed. When people do something wrong in modern society, we send them to prison, a form of exile. And if they misbehave in prison, we put them in solitary confinement, an extra layer of exile. So, despite the Western ethos telling us we must make it on our own, being alone has long been viewed as a terrible thing.
Even American transcendentalists espousing the virtues of solitude seemed to understand this. Consider Henry David Thoreau. Despite what Thoreau’s writings might suggest, in the two years he spent at Walden Pond he was hardly isolated. His cabin, sitting on land owned by his closest friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was a thirty-minute walk to the town of Concord and he traveled there frequently, usually to spend time at the local pub with Emerson and other friends. He also had frequent visitors at the cabin, most notably his mother. So, even in self-imposed isolation Thoreau craved connection.
The Isolation of Addiction
Addicts don’t seem to understand this basic human need for intimacy and connection. They choose to live in emotional exile, and they do not break this exile even if they visit the local pub like Thoreau. In fact, addicts almost universally say they feel most alone when they’re in the company of other people. And yes, “other people” includes spouses, family, and other loved ones.
As stated earlier, this occurs because addicts have learned, usually early in life through neglect, abuse, and other forms of traumatic experience, to fear and avoid emotional vulnerability. Thus, they distance themselves from others, turning instead to addictive substances and behaviors. When addicts become emotionally needful—related to stress, losses, anxiety, depression, and even joyful experiences—they automatically and without conscious thought turn not to other people but to their addiction, using it as a source of emotional distraction and numbing.
Addicts exile themselves in this way because they learned early on that turning to other people for support, validation, and comfort leaves them feeling worse than before they reached out. Thus, they avoid the type of deep relational connections that, for healthier people, bring needed consolation, emotional resolution, stability, consistency, and reward, finding it more familiar and thus easier and emotionally safer to escape and numb out via addictive substances and behaviors. They use their addiction as a maladaptive distraction from their painfully unmet womb-to-tomb emotional dependency needs.
Addictions are not moral failings. Addictions are not weakness. Addictions are not a lack of moral fiber. Addictions are an intimacy disorder.
When addiction is conceptualized in this way—as an intimacy disorder—we see that the best long-term treatment for addiction is not the pursuit of in-the-moment sobriety, it’s the pursuit of healthy, intimate, ongoing connection. Thus, a fundamental task of treatment, once the addict has broken through his or her denial and established a modicum of sobriety, is developing and maintaining healthy and supportive emotional bonds. It is this approach—not willpower, or babysitters, or shaming, or threatened consequences—that is most likely to create lasting sobriety, emotional healing, and a happier, healthier life.
With proper direction, support, and a fair amount of conscious effort, individuals who were not graced with secure childhood attachments (and therefore the ability to easily and comfortably connect in adulthood) can develop earned security via long-term therapy, 12-step groups, and various other healthy and healing relationships—the most important of which are healthy connections with loved ones. This means the dysfunctional lessons learned by addicts in childhood can be unlearned (experienced differently) through empathetic and supportive emotional interactions, especially with loving, healthfully supportive family members and friends.
Interestingly, addiction treatment specialists and the 12-step community have unconsciously operated with “addictions are an intimacy disorder and healthy connections are the antidote” as an underlying principle for decades. In fact, much of what occurs in well-informed, group-focused addition treatment and 12-step recovery programs is geared, either directly or indirectly, toward the development of reliably healthy social bonds.
That said, developing healthy intimate connections can be difficult, especially for addicts, who, as discussed, nearly always have histories of childhood trauma and other forms of early-life dysfunction that make intimate attachment uncomfortable and difficult. For addicts, learning to trust, reducing shame, and feeling comfortable with both emotional and social vulnerability takes time, ongoing effort, and a knowledgeable, willing, and empathetic support network (therapists, fellow recovering addicts, friends, employers, and, of course, prodependent loved ones). The good news is that both research and countless thousands of healthy, happy, long-sober addicts have shown us that such healing can turn an isolated and addicted life into a life of joy and connection.