Over the past few weeks I've talked a lot about of addiction; from what it is to how to treat it. This week I want to continue that conversation but I'd like to shine a light on a different area of addiction. This week I want to focus on trauma. As it happens, studies have shown that between 50 and 96% of substance abusers seeking treatment report experiencing trauma and up to 34% of people receiving substance abuse treatment have a co-existing PTSD diagnosis. That's GIGANTIC! But it makes sense, doesn't it? If every breath you took came with unbearable thoughts of past traumas, you would likely do anything to ease that burden.
HOW DOES TRAUMA AFFECT YOU?
Trauma of any kind has the power to crack and skew the lens through which you view the world and yourself, making everything appear off. When I work with those in recovery I often hear a similar story; I went through hell and [insert drug/substance] was the only thing that I found that worked and kept me alive. As someone in recovery once told me, "it was drugs or death and I chose to live." Now, not all in addiction have experienced trauma and use substances to escape that trauma, but it's certainly a major factor that needs to be addressed in treatment.
WHAT IS TRAUMA AND WHAT DOES TRAUMA LOOK LIKE?
Trauma can be anything. It can be sexual assault, domestic violence, and war – each of which are widely discussed and shown through media. But it can also be the loss of a loved one, infidelity, or divorce. It's any deeply distressing, disturbing or even embarrassing event/experience that causes a person to shift how they view themselves or the world around them.
When this shift has happened it's not always obvious. You might know a few side effects like nightmares, flashbacks, and hypervigilance from movies like Saving Private Ryan or even Iron Man 3 (yes, I am a nerd, I need to put this here). What you might not see are some of the more subtle signs that someone is dealing with trauma; two of which I'm about to discuss.
If you read my previous article about signs of addiction relapse, I discussed the acronym AA (Attitudes and Actions) as a simple way of recognizing warning signs of relapse. Looking at someone's attitudes and actions can also be a way of identifying trauma/PTSD.
TWO SUBTLE WAYS TRAUMA CHANGES A PERSON
Sometimes these shifts in mood can be obvious – intense irritability, fits of anger/rage, sadness, and/or anxiety– however the mood change I'd like to highlight is what I call the void. It's an absence or minimized version of emotions. A feeling of being disconnected or numb. It might feel like the person is looking through you rather than at you – like a thousand-yard stare. If this mood change sounds familiar it's because this void, or feeling of disconnection and/or numbness, can also be a symptom of depression.
The next subtle sign of trauma is isolation. This can literally be a person physically removing themselves from others – their co-workers, friends, families and loved ones – but it can also mean emotional isolation. The subtle sign is the latter of the two. When someone is emotionally isolating you might feel as if you're only connecting with a fraction of who they are, like there's so much more to be revealed. This isn't necessarily by choice; trauma is powerful and even if the event/experience occurred years in the past it can still occupy/impact one's thoughts.
WHY UNDERSTANDING TRAUMA (AND ADDICTION) IS IMPORTANT
I started this article discussing trauma in terms of how it relates and affects those in addiction. I want to end by stating that like addiction, trauma is far reaching and affects more than people than we might like to admit. Just like addiction, trauma can impact every aspect of a person's life, from their relationships (family, friends, significant others) to occupations (careers and school). Once again, I'd like to ask you to take what you've learned today and share it with someone else. By doing that, we can continue to keep the conversation flowing about mental illness and in-turn break down the barriers that limit people from getting the help they need.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate