Healing Complex Trauma for Addiction Recovery

A young woman with self-described ‘commitment phobia’ turns to substances to numb the pain of a troubled childhood.A young woman drives into therapy. Aamori complains to her therapist that all of her relationships end just after the one-year mark, just as things begin to get serious. The reason, she explains, is that she gets cold feet. After a little exploration, the young TV producer describes what she thinks happens: around one year, a relationship has become serious enough that a guy begins to let down his guard and open up. Aamori generally enjoys this part of the relationship … for a little while. A boyfriend then begins to share his feelings, she says, maybe even saying the “L” word - something she’s not sure she’s ever felt. (When her therapist asks her to imagine speaking the words “I love you” to a man, she reports her feeling as “terrified.”) When she doesn’t return a man’s feelings, he first seems hurt. Then something innocuous happens and they argue. Very soon, he’s raising his voice (shouting) and walking out. She’s left feeling devastated and abandoned, but when he comes back, ready to make amends - after all, he loves her - she’s not willing to let it slide. She declares that she doesn’t want to see this side of a man, and isn’t very willing to trust. She hasn’t dated in four years.

Where others lean on family for support, Aamori experiences isolation. Her father was a well-known director, infamous for his drinking and affairs, and her mother was a talented actress who struggled with her own demons. There were times when she smothered Aamori with affection and words of adoration and moments when she turned hostile with no warning. Her rages were sometimes violent and always frightening, and there were at least as many times when she was simply immune to Aamori’s presence. As a little girl, Aamori called her father’s assistant “Mama” - she still remembers her fondly - until her mother fired the woman in a fit of anger. Because of the many hurts built up over the years between Aamori and her mother, the two women do not speak and her relationship with her father is strained. She says she cannot respect him and most of their time together is superficial and brief. She feels she can’t rely on her dad and feels he only cares about her because her success “makes him look good.”

When asked how she copes with her feelings of family isolation or after a significant breakup, Aamori confesses that she may have a problem with her prescription medication. She takes Xanax, Percocet and Norco for anxiety and chronic pain after a car accident, and says she drinks alcohol with her medication to “try not to feel.” This numbing out behavior, while dangerous, is not uncommon in individuals with histories of complex trauma and the attendant attachment injuries that can frequently emerge as a result.

Complex Trauma

Aamori entered therapy to discuss her relationship problems, believing she suffers from “commitment phobia.” While fears of commitment are not uncommon - there are more single adults than ever before - many adults with painful childhood histories may not recognize a deeper problem driving them to repeat self-destructive patterns.

When people think of trauma, what often comes to mind are distressing, one-time incidents such as a bad car accident, witnessing the sudden death of another person, or an armed robbery. These kinds of incidents are usually traumatic and can remain with an individual for a long time, potentially creating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But a far more common and less understood type of trauma results from attachment injury, also known as attachment trauma. Most attachment trauma occurs between a child and his or her parents or other primary caregivers. Emotional, verbal, physical and sexual abuse and neglect are all examples of childhood traumas that are frequently repetitive in nature and that may result in complex trauma. Consistently witnessing domestic or sexual violence, victimization in bullying and inconsistent or enmeshed parenting where covert incest is present are other types of chronic trauma that leave a lasting imprint. Enduring chronic poverty, war, disease or facing ongoing prejudice as a result of race, gender or sexual orientation are other types of issues that can fold into the mix, unconsciously impacting the way an individual approaches relationships. There are many types of trauma, and no one way people experience or interpret it. Some may recover quickly from the same type of incident while others carry their wounds for a lifetime, depending both on genes and important environmental factors.

Complex trauma is just as it sounds - a complex situation with multiple factors. Part of the trauma experienced may have been one-time, but in the mix, there will usually be the presence of repetitive trauma as well as attachment injury. Because traumatic experiences impact individuals differently, there is no one way anyone should feel and no one-size-fits-all therapy.

Addiction and Complex Trauma

The presence of addiction in the face of complex trauma is common. Those early wounds will surface later on—in work, in social interactions and especially within romantic relationship dynamics. It is common to see individuals self-soothing, something they were not taught to do early on, with the use of substances or compulsive behaviors like sex, food, shopping or gambling.

In order to stand a chance at disengaging long-acquired self-destructive patterns - such as the tendency to self-sabotage relationships - addiction has to be dealt with front and center. Complex PTSD, depression, anxiety and dissociative disorders may all be present, and the tendency to self-injure is not unusual in this population. Addiction recovery very often provides the clarity of mind and the sense of self-compassion a person with this painful history truly needs in order to move ahead. No matter the complexity, there is a strategy for recovery and people who are living proof - testaments to the resilience of the human spirit.

Posted on October 8th, 2014

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