In my work as a therapist, I witness gut-wrenching pain on a daily basis. I sit with clients as they unpack horrendous stories of abuse and trauma and hopelessness and despair. Ask a room full of addicts if they endorse a history of trauma, and most everyone will raise their hands. Human pain knows no bounds- few of us leave our worlds unscathed.
Addiction and trauma are simultaneous- they inadvertently create, cause, and maintain each other- forming a vicious cycle riddled with compounded pain. Whether it’s conscious or not, the ability to self-medicate emotions has real, standing power in a world that often feels unjust and unfair.
Many people believe that the healing processes move on separate tracks. Many people argue that one must work on sobriety before unleashing the trauma.
To some extent, this belief has its merit. You cannot appropriately discuss or improve your mental state while in the throes of addiction. Furthermore, clients in early recovery present with fragile egos and vulnerable concepts of self. Anything can trigger a relapse, and unveiling the layers of trauma while managing unforgiving cravings and new emotions can even seem punitive.
With that said, healing is healing is healing- and you cannot merely examine one piece of a person’s puzzle without looking at all the other pieces.
For my clients, their substance use starts as a solution before it evolves into a problem. Even once it becomes a problem, the self-medication remains incredibly tantalizing. Numbing trauma feels safer than opening the wound. After all, it’s easier to pretend something doesn’t exist than it is to look the monster in the eyes.
Yet, I argue that the healing process must be concurrent. Abstaining from drugs and alcohol is one thing (and a significant thing at that), but a sobriety without the emotional healing will never feel as fulfilling or meaningful. Time and time again, I see well-intentioned people relapse because they cannot or will not process the anguish that plagues them.
Because trauma is so interchangeable with addiction, I believe it’s nearly impossible to address one without the other. You need to understand your pain. What’s more? You need to understand how to deal with your pain- in a way that isn’t causing more pain.
At best, the work is going to be tricky and unpleasant. At its worst, the process will feel painstaking and ruthless. But we humans are resilient, and we often don’t know how much we can refine and grow until we give ourselves a fighting chance.
Trauma-informed therapy isn’t for everyone. Delving into the past, connecting how that baggage relates to the present, and subsequently harnessing it to reshape your future- that hurts. When you’re newly sober, limited with coping skills, feeling insecure and seemingly alone, the processing hurts more than any physical pain in the world.
And, yet, in all my experience working in acute addiction, in all the clients I’ve met and all the recoveries I’ve seen, I’ve noticed the uncanny similarity: those who are willing to go into the past have a better chance of easing into the future.
Even though I’m a therapist, I’m the first to admit that this work doesn’t have to be with a therapist. It can be with a sponsor, with a friend, with your own introspective reflection. It doesn’t have to happen on a specific timeline. But trauma doesn’t disappear on its own. And if your trauma has any relationship with your using, that relationship will likely become even more apparent once you become sober.
And, as I always tell clients, the only way to “get over” the pain is to “go through it.”