Trauma drastically alters the senses. And then it dulls them. With the passage of time, trauma can hinder victims from both fully experiencing emotions and tactile sensations, depriving them of establishing healthy relationships and a sense of belonging. This is often brought on by dissociation- a survival mechanism used by victims who psychologically “check out” to avoid any continued danger. This strategy is subconscious, meaning it’s automatic and mostly done without the awareness of the survivor. The default mode of behavior and presentation is often detached, melancholic, guarded, and listless. The person is chronically withdrawn from life, people, and events while being unable to fully feel sensations. The ability to taste, listen, touch, smell, see and feel feelings is significantly impaired, leaving the victim disconnected from the world and him or herself. Often, a victim is unable to identify what they are feeling or how they should feel during a situation and will develop a set of stereotypical behaviors that they think are appropriate. They will smile but there is no joy; they will cry, and no tears; they will even play the role of the energetic socialite but lack enough life to convince anyone.
So, how is all of this relevant to addiction? Well, those who have experienced trauma want to connect as any healthy person would, they want to feel, and they eagerly want to love and be loved. However, they are cut off from doing so by the same mechanism that protected them from experiencing painful memories and/or ongoing trauma. In their yearning to feel, the victim will often seek out substances and behaviors (objects that do not represent an immediate threat of danger nor remind them of the assailant) that will enable them to sense something no matter how destructive the act or substance is. This desperate attempt is the strategy by which the victim uses to jolt himself back into life. So, through our eyes the victims are killing themselves, but through theirs, they are actually surviving the best way that they can. Survivors who are struggling with an addiction are dying to live, they are dying to feel through engaging in a fabricated relationship which satiates the starved soul. The addiction becomes the only way, although erroneous, to feel anything.
With roughly 50 to 66 percent of people with Post Traumatic Disorder (mental health disorder some people develop after experiencing a traumatic event) simultaneously struggling with addiction, it is vital to treat survivors with an actively involved compassionate approach that focuses on safely reaching into the withdrawn parts of the self through a genuinely loving relationship that gradually introduces them to re-experiencing the world. Effective therapy in this area is one that works with the goal of giving the survivor the opportunity to fully experience- to completely feel- their own lives.
Irving Cabarcas, LMHC, MCAP, ICADC
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