This blog entry is about childhood emotional trauma as a primary driver of active addiction, and about the healing process needed to sustain long-term recovery.
Over the last 29 years, I have met thousands of people in recovery, and I have not met a single one of them who was not in need of some measure of deep healing. People do not become alcoholics/addicts by accident. At root, addiction is self-medication. It is an attempt to numb the pain deep down inside. My observation, both of myself and of many, many other recovering people, is that long-term recovery is not secure until this deep inner pain is directly addressed and deep inner healing takes place.
First, I will describe what happens to a child’s fragile psyche (mind/heart/soul/spirit) when raised in an abusive, dangerous and/or violent setting. Then, I will try to describe the reverse of that process – i.e. how healing happens when we are adults and are in recovery.
To grow up healthy and whole, children need to be raised in an atmosphere of unconditional love, respect, gentleness, kindness, understanding, mirroring and support, in addition to being subject to appropriate and healthy boundaries. Children are just not built to weather being raised in an atmosphere of conditional love, judgment, constant criticism, shaming, blaming and/or violence. Their psyches are too vulnerable and fragile to survive intact in such an environment. They simply do not possess the inner resources needed to process the overwhelming, extremely powerful negative emotions associated with traumatization.
So, how do children survive growing up in such environments? In a word, they “dissociate.” The following (edited) definition is taken from the Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders (http://www.minddisorders.com/Del-Fi/Dissociation-and-dissociative-disorders.html):
“Dissociation is a mechanism that allows the mind to separate or compartmentalize certain memories or thoughts [or feelings] from normal [waking] consciousness. … Moderate or severe forms of dissociation are caused by such traumatic experiences as childhood abuse. … Traumatic memories are not processed or integrated into a person’s ongoing life in the same fashion as normal memories. Instead they are dissociated, or “split off” [i.e. repressed, or “pushed down” into the unconscious], and may erupt into consciousness from time to time without warning. They may resurface spontaneously or be triggered by objects or events in the person’s environment. The affected person cannot control or “edit” these memories. Over a period of time, these two sets of memories, the normal and the traumatic, may coexist as parallel sets without being combined or blended.”
What all this means is that when we grow up in traumatic conditions, our original, inborn wholeness as a human being is shattered into a million pieces and many pieces of our original wholeness become lost to us, buried deeply in the unconscious mind. A huge chunk of our heart, mind, and soul basically vanishes. This process allows us to survive in a literally unbearable situation.
To survive, we bury large parts of ourselves and our experiences. But, the kicker is that they don’t go away; they don’t vanish. Way down deep in the hidden recesses of our psyche lays a buried, gargantuan load of profound pain, grief, rage, shame, terror and hurt. And this load of extremely powerful negative emotion can come back to haunt – or even ambush – us, especially during later stages of recovery.
It is not uncommon for people in long-term recovery to find themselves, despite their best efforts at “working a good program”, to become depressed, or to find themselves becoming “lost” in life, or to find themselves strangely full of untraceable anger and rage, or to “hit a wall” in their career, or suffer a plunge to their self-esteem, or have severe relationship/intimacy problems, or other significant and highly challenging problem. Even more problematic and scary is that such problems do not go away, even in the face of doing yet another AA Big Book Fourth Step, or in the face of heavily increased work with newcomers, or in the face of a stepped-up prayer and meditation practice.
Not always, but quite often this is a sign that deep inner healing is the next stage in our recovery journey. Even Bill Wilson, the co-founder of AA, did not escape this problem, and neither did many of the original “old-timer” members of AA. Here’s some evidence: The following edited passage is taken from the AA pamphlet “Emotional Sobriety: The Next Frontier”, authored by AA co-founder Bill Wilson:
“Many oldsters who have put our AA “booze cure” to severe but successful tests still find they often lack emotional sobriety. … Since AA began, I’ve taken immense wallops … because of my failure to grow up, emotionally and spiritually. … Even then, as we hew away, peace and joy may still elude us. That’s the place so many of us AA oldsters have come to. And it’s a hell of a spot, literally. How shall our unconscious — from which so many of our fears, compulsions and phony aspirations still stream — be brought into line with what we actually believe, know and want! How to convince our dumb, raging and hidden “Mr. Hyde” [i.e. our unconscious] becomes our main task.”
Bill Wilson himself did not receive the full measure of inner healing, primarily because (I would guess) he did not make the connection between his early childhood trauma and his later problems with deep depression and acting out sexually, among other demons he faced (in recovery). Also, at that time there was very little understanding of the Adult-Child syndrome; i.e. of how abused children, and children raised in alcoholic households, grow up emotionally stunted and in many ways remain children trapped in adult bodies.
But now we do understand. Most of these problems that are encountered in long-term recovery can be traced back to childhood abuse. And they can be traced back directly to the mountain of unprocessed “stuff” (emotional baggage) buried deep in the unconscious. And all of this buried affect and experience cannot be dealt with by another Big Book Fourth Step. Period. I know this statement will likely raise the hackles of the “keep it simple” and the “all you need is the Big Book” recovery crowds. I’m sorry about that, I really am, but it can’t be helped. Because the truth is the truth, and I’m telling it right now.
There is only one way out, and that way is THROUGH. “Trace It and Face it.” “Face Everything and Recover.” Healing will occur ONLY through turning and facing the inner demons we buried as children. That means doing a “deep dive” into our unconscious well of pain, shame, rage, terror, grief and hurt, and making it all conscious. This can happen in several ways: 1) through working with a psychotherapist who is trained to work with survivors of childhood abuse and trauma; 2) by attending Twelve Step fellowships such as ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) and CoDA (Codependents Anonymous) and SLAA (Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous), and a few others that welcome such deep exploration and sharing of unexpressed pain, and are set up in a way that makes it safe to do so; and 3) through assiduously working with a sponsor who has already “been there and done that.”
Additionally, a recovery coach who has “been there and done that” can provide invaluable insight and support to you as you make this journey into the dark nether worlds of your unconscious, unexpressed pain in service of creating a better life for yourself.
While sometimes scary and often painful, the recovery/healing process is not complicated: it consists of REMEMBERING all the junk you stuffed under the rug all those years ago. And by “remembering”, I DON’T mean just intellectually or cognitively. I mean EMOTIONALLY. I mean remembering, and FEELING, in the here and now, all of the painful feelings packed away in your unconscious. In order to fully recover, you must eventually consciously FEEL everything you could not safely feel when you were a kid. Now, as an adult, with a solid foundation in recovery, you DO have the inner resources to do this remembering and feeling work without breaking down. You DO have the strength to do it. What you may need is the WILLINGNESS and the COURAGE to do it. And, some help.
Remembering is, quite literally, a re-membering: i.e. a gathering-in and reattaching (reintegration) of all the split-off, repressed, fragmented pieces, or inner ‘members’ of the originally whole psyche. Remembering and processing the unprocessed is how we once again become whole people, and also how we become our authentic selves. All of the pieces of who we truly are gradually come together into our conscious psychic wholeness, and as this happens, our authentic, original identity comes more and more into view.
As we continue doing this inner work, the pain, shame, rage, terror and grief gradually subside and are replaced with inner peace and serenity, self-acceptance, self-compassion and compassion for others, and a deep, irreplaceable satisfaction with finally knowing who we really are.