A new outlook on addiction and recovery.

I celebrated 14 years of sobriety this week and I know this time of year is when a lot of people consider getting sober. New beginnings, fresh starts and maybe it’s just that over the holidays everything came crashing down.

I know that was the case for me. I didn’t get sober at this time of year because it was a New Year’s resolution of mine. I had been writing down my ‘first day of sobriety’ for a long time and then going to some meetings for a couple of months prior and asking myself if I really needed to be there.

I got sober when I did because I couldn’t do it even one more time. I couldn’t go through the whole process of thinking it would be different this time, then ending up on a binge and blacking out, only to have to come down and pick myself back up again a few days later. It was horrid and I really hated myself because of it.

Yet, for the better part of my sobriety I questioned whether or not I was a real alcoholic and whether I really needed to be sober. But what I have come to accept is that drinking has adverse effects on me and that even if I could manage my drinking I have no desire to drink ‘responsibly’ whatever that means anyway.

Today I have a much different understanding about why alcohol and drugs had such an impact on me. When I was young my parents used to warn me to be careful with alcohol and my drinking because they believed that alcoholism was genetic. Knowing that my whole immediate family has had challenges with substance abuse it would be very reasonable to believe it was simply genetics and unfortunately my immediate family had the bad gene.

But what I have come to understand and to know deeply is that addiction has its roots in trauma. That pain and suffering from adverse childhood experiences, and/or life circumstances such as poverty, oppression, stigma and any type of prolonged chronic stress will lead us to find the best way we can to cope and often this is through addictive behaviours.

A hurt is at the centre of all addictive behaviours. It is present in the gambler, the Internet addict, the compulsive shopper, and the workaholic....
Stress or adverse experiences directly shape both the psychology and the neurobiology of addiction in the brain.
— Dr. Gabor Mate

As humans, we are very resilient and we are programmed to survive, no matter what that might look like. So when life is too overwhelming we find ways to make it more manageable. Which for me was using substances and food.

Believing and understanding trauma and toxic stress as the underlying cause of addiction, I have a much different outlook on the treatment and recovery process.

There were many things that were helpful to me in the programs I attended for the first few years of my recovery. I felt like I had some community, I was lucky enough to find a group of people who supported me and cared for me. I was given the very good advice to distance myself from my family who were still very much in active addiction. I learned to identify and not compare and so many other great tools, as well I was advised to go to therapy.

Knowing what I know now, I also have a much better understanding why other aspects did not work for me, and in fact often set me off on a tail-spin. But at that time I thought I was defective and that I wasn't able to do it right and that's why it wasn't working for me.

What I realize is that the approach was not trauma informed and so when I was told things like “Just give it over to God” or “Let go” or “Your powerless” it was like pouring gasoline on an already well ignited fire. I wanted to do it right, I wanted to believe if I followed the program I would feel better, but I didn’t. Honestly, I endured a tremendous amount of suffering during my first seven years and I think it could’ve been different.

Over the last few years I’ve been learning more about trauma and stress as it relates to addiction, as well as the neurophysiological impacts it has. That trauma and stress directly affects the nervous system, our internal wiring. Depending on how it’s affected our nervous system we might be more programmed to feel anxious, nervous and panicky. For others, it could be that we have gone into a state of collapse and often feel depressed, lethargic and hopeless. Many people vacillate between these two states, I know I did. Depending on the state we are in we will look for ways to medicate it and sometimes get the expected response and other times not.

When we take away the only medication we know (drugs, alcohol, food, shopping) we are now left without any way to cope and life can seem impossibly overwhelming.

To treat trauma we need to take a holistic approach - understanding neurophysiology in addition to focusing on our emotional and spiritual well-being – to have long-term impactful recovery.

As well, I’ve come to understand that recovery is not often accessible to those who are ready and actually want it. There are many social factors that impact an individuals ability to recover such as accessibility to treatment, counselling, and worse is if someone is already struggling with being able to house and feed themselves, let alone get around to meetings or appointments their chances of recovery are negatively impacted. Which is why some of the cliché sayings like “Recovery is not for those who need it, recovery is for those who want It.” is not only untrue, it’s ill informed, shaming and harmful. Recovery is not for those who want it, recovery is for those who have access to it.

If trauma and stress are so highly linked to addictive behaviours it would make sense to treat the trauma, not only the addiction. To treat addiction differently we can start by understanding what is really beneath it all, and as we do this we may find more compassion for the addicted person or ourselves as we go through recovery.

At this point I understand on a personal level, with my own addictions as well as living much of my life with familial addiction, that recovery is complex. As well there are so many aspects to recovery including social, economic and political factors that need to be considered so we don't place all of the responsibility on the individual.

If we really start to consider the impacts stress and trauma have on our nervous system we can begin to understand why it’s so important for recovery to incorporate body based treatment techniques in addition to things like talk-therapy, and step programs.

But to understand which types of body-based techniques to incorporate we need to have a better understanding of the nervous system, and how stress has specifically impacted an individual.

Again, if I knew what I know now I would not have kept trying to force myself to do intense forms of yoga and exercise in those first few years. I often left shaky, completely exhausted and out of body and the only thing I could do to help myself come down was binge on food and go to sleep. It was the exact opposite of what my body needed at the time, but I was focused on ‘getting healthy’ and I thought intense exercise was the way to do it.

In some of the most recent trainings I have done I’ve made so many connections to why I felt the way I did IN RECOVERY, as well as connections to what was often driving my behaviours and underneath my reactions to movement, food, relationships, finances and even being a mother.

Today, as much as I know that the impacts of stress and trauma have a profound impact on our physical, mental and emotional health, I know just as deeply that there are is also a tremendous amount of potential for recovery and not to just survive, but to thrive.