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The Ugly Side of Talking about Addiction

My friend Trish Callahan, and I have been having an ongoing conversation about the aspects of addiction and recovery that are difficult to address in the public discourse, and we decided it might make an informative post.  Trish is an incredibly talented writer who blogs on BDN as Mainely Thoughts 

Trish: Personally and professionally, I’ve struggled with how do we let people know how horrific our pasts are without triggering them to shut down emotionally or having them feel traumatized vicariously?  I’ve encountered too many mental health professionals who fall into those categories!

Jim: If addiction and trauma have not been part of one’s life, then it’s hard to get it and it’s hard to even listen to what we’ve been through. Folks imagine themselves in our shoes and they cringe. It both angers and saddens me that some of the worst offenders are my colleagues who create barriers to recovery by failing to bear witness.

Trish:  Supporting people in recovery means having hard conversations. Survivors support one another effectively because we get it. We discuss painful things amongst ourselves that we wouldn’t with clinicians or non-trauma survivors.

It’s like being a part of a secret society that no one chooses to belong to, but nonetheless, life and its traumas have made us members. Supporting us means taking on some of our secrets.

(Stock photo)

(Stock photo)

Jim:  The cause and effect relationship between surviving trauma and developing addictions cannot be overstated. If we’re going to address the root causes, solutions, and realities of addiction then we need to acknowledge that childhood abuse (physical, sexual, emotional) and trauma (sexual assault, trauma in military service, other horrible things people survive) ruins lives. For so many of us, the greatest challenge in life is to feel safe in our own skin. This is a major obstacle to addiction recovery.

We need to be willing to support the needs of survivors personally and professionally through empathy and genuineness.  Awareness of addiction and recovery are the highest they’ve ever been We have feel good measures like the “Circle of Hope” but there are unmet needs and issues that must be addressed. We need folks personally and professionally who can discuss violation and pain.

Trish:  What we survivors talk about is graphic. We use vulgar words because we know they don’t touch the vulgarities inherent in the actions of those who traumatized us or inherent in the many situations trauma survivors experience and/or witness . I tell people all the time that the “f” word is actually one of the least vulgar things swimming among the harsh realities in my head.

Jim:  Of the countless reasons I love people in recovery, their willingness to be genuine and to speak of things outside the mainstream is high upon the list. The people I most respect say things like:

– “When I was in prison, I learned…” – “After I was raped I…” – “I see now that there are no bad children  – it wasn’t my fault that I was abused.” – “Sex always feels like abuse…” – “I hate the word ‘molestation’.” It’s a kinder, gentler way of describing what happened to me” –  “I’m never more scared than when I’m in the shower.” –  “Going to the dentist is more than I can tolerate.” –  “Every time I close my eyes, I see my abuser’s face.” – “Every time I get sober I remember. Every time I remember I get drunk.”

Trish:  Bringing the secrets out of the shadows is the most important element of supporting recovery or going into recovery. Neither are easy or pretty. I worry that our current public discourse wants to paint recovery in easy, simple, add water and stir terms.

Our state’s addiction epidemic is solvable over time, but it will be anything but comfortable and easy. Those struggling with addiction need to have hard, uncomfortable conversations with themselves, their loved ones, and the professionals to whom they turn for support. People who say they want to support recoveries in others need to be willing to engage in those uncomfortable conversations, too.

Jim:  Effective dual diagnosis treatment often hinges on identification of past traumas and supporting the needs of a survivor. The challenge are many:

– It’s very difficult to accurately diagnose a mental health condition in someone who has less than a year clean/sober. – A very high percentage of clinicians are neither skilled nor empathic in treating survivors – Systemically, we tend to throw psych meds at folks in early recovery instead of supporting/encouraging a period of abstinence to achieve an accurate baseline – Too many of us are ashamed to share our past experiences. – We keep trying to forget, to move on, to stay in the present and we just can’t achieve this in any sustainable manner. – Too many of us became our own worst enemies in a losing battle for self control.

Trish:  I LOVE and totally concur with that list.  I’d add that it’s not just shame, there’s also worrying about how people will react, like what if your parents didn’t know you were sexually abused? Or what if you embrace the truths that led to struggles with addiction, but everybody else wants to stay in denial?

What if entering recovery leads to changes in relationships and supports? Honestly, those are inevitable, and like trauma, it should be an inherent part of our larger conversation. Perhaps the most gifted therapist to help me started by telling me that he wasn’t going to be able to fix everything or make it go away.

He wasn’t going to be able to change my past, nor could he make life easy, just, pain-free or fair. He was able to teach me about what happened in my brain and body in response to trauma. He taught me what coping mechanisms and cognitive processes might help me as I navigated life as a trauma survivor.

He told me that if I was willing to commit to the process and all its ugliness, my life would be forever changed for the better.  He was right on all counts. Life isn’t easy, just, or fair, and my past is still there, even in recovery. In recovery, though, life can be more beautiful and fulfilling than I could have imagined prior to getting on that path.

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