For many of us in recovery, we’ve often heard that taking things one day at a time helps us to stay on track. This is because sobriety has to be a consistent decision we make to tame that part of ourselves that wants to get high every day. I am five years sober and still as committed as ever to my sobriety.
But lately I've been thinking — what was it that made my commitment so strong? And why do so many of us fall off the wagon?
For me, the first year of sobriety was the most difficult. Still, I was always committed to sobriety from the day I decided to stop drinking. I have never looked back, and my decision feels strong and unwavering. But I don't think it's committment alone that keeps me sober.
I think the surprising and hidden reason we don't stay sober is because most of us have unresolved and deeply unconscious trauma that has never been acknowledged or worked through. Because as far as I can tell, the only difference between me and many others who are trying to get sober is that I did some very deep trauma work prior to getting sober in the first place.
For me, I couldn't think about sobriety until I did this work. For many years I devoted time and energy to integrating and releasing my trauma before I decided to quit drinking. So by the time I decided to put down the bottle, I was ready. I had gotten to the root of my drinking problem which made all the difference.
Although many risk factors contribute to addiction, trauma is one of the most important and least acknowledged of all of them.
I know this because of my personal experience with addiction and because I was a mental health and addictions nurse for over 20 years. I’ve been actively involved in assessment, treatment, and research at all levels of the mental health and addictions conversation.
I can say that even though there’s a lot of research to back up my claims, we still don’t see enough trauma recovery support for people with addictions.
For myself, if I hadn’t done extensive trauma recovery work, I’m not sure I would have even tried to get sober, much less stay sober. If I look back on the many decades I drank, there were moments I tried to stop drinking, even if it was for a week or so. But inevitably, I would return to my habit.
At the time, I didn’t understand the dark feelings and cravings that would come. Yes, there was a chemical addiction component, but it was more than that. It’s like I was running from something that kept coming after me, and the only thing that made it stop was to drink.
Only now do I realize that it was trauma that kept chasing me back to drinking. I didn’t have the language or ability to pick it all apart and understand what’s happening.
This is why it’s essential to know that trauma recovery is an integration process, not a removal of trauma. Trying to run from or remove trauma is what people get wrong about trauma recovery, and it keeps them chasing their tails for years.
Unfortunately, an extensive search of trauma recovery approaches within medical research reveals some that work well, while others may not. But most of them lack a proper understanding of the importance of integration.
We will never remove trauma. It’s as much a part of us as the nose on our face. What we can do, however, is integrate it into our lives, our psyches, and our understanding. And this is the part of trauma recovery that still needs more work within the treatment community.
But what do I mean when I say integration?
Imagine a tapestry — to create the pattern, we weave in different colors of fabric. Our psyches are just like that tapestry, with the different colors representing the parts of our learning and experiences over the years.
What we’ve been doing with trauma is the same as keeping an entire ball of fabric separate from the process of creating our tapestries. Instead of weaving it in, we wish to forget it and leave it balled up in the corners of our psyches. It sits there, weighing us down and reminding us of our forgotten and shameful history.
Integration is when we acknowledge that forgotten ball of fabric. We sit with it for a while and grieve. We allow all the pain to return as we notice the colors, shapes, feel, and quality of the fabric. Eventually, we become familiar with the forgotten fabric, and the feelings become easier to manage.
Then, we weave it into our lives. We don’t forget what it is, as we see the color and shape of the fabric within the tapestry. We accept it as part of who we are, but it no longer haunts us or weighs us down. We can speak about this fabric to ourselves and others without the need to cover it or tell a false story about it.
Addiction is often a symptom of a much bigger root problem — unintegrated trauma.
This isn’t to say that we can’t be successfully sober without having integrated our trauma. Many have done it, but I think it’s much harder. I also think that staying sober is more daunting when we’re sitting with unintegrated trauma, continually reminding us of pain we have yet to acknowledge.
Our addictions serve the purpose of dulling the pain we feel from our unintegrated trauma, so how can we expect ourselves to stop self-medicating suddenly? How can we sit with earth-shattering pain that feels completely unknown and misunderstood?
For me, once I unraveled my trauma and began to weave into the tapestry of my life, I was able to understand the quality of my pain finally. I was able to have a feeling and then point to it and say, “there it is.”
My dark displaced feelings no longer eluded me like a ghost lurking in the corners. Instead, they became tangible and external. It was only then that I was ready to stop self-medicating and learn how to feel. And only after I was able to feel, was I prepared to be in the world as a sober person.
Since we understand now that trauma is highly correlated with addictions, then my story makes perfect sense. But my story is unique to me. Trauma and its manifestations are unique to each person, much like how each tapestry is unique, as well.
As a recovering alcoholic and a former mental health and addictions nurse, I know very well that the process of integrating trauma is not an easy one. Also, there’s no set formula that can work for each person.
Another fact we can’t ignore is that for some people, trauma has re-wired every cell of their bodies, which means that integration may be genuinely impossible for them.
Perhaps this is why we continue to igloss over trauma and treat it like the elephant in the room. Because for some, integration may be possible, whilefor others, it may not be. And unfortunately, there may not be a perfect answer or solution to these discrepancies.
However, we also know that denial of the truth is another serious problem that keeps trauma from becoming integrated. So at the very least, we can acknowledge that trauma is a perpetuating force in the lives of both addicts and recovering addicts.
Without a concerted effort to shine a light on this truth, it may be difficult for us to get sober or maintain sobriety.
Below is a list of research and books that informed this article. If you are struggling to get sober or stay sober, I highly recommend reading some of these resources.
- Provider and Consumer Perceptions of Trauma Informed Practices and Services for Substance Use and Mental Health Problems
- Addiction as Trauma’s Shadow
- Addiction Still Eludes a “Magic Bullet” Cure
- In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts
- Trauma, Addiction, and Recovery: Addressing public health epidemics among women with severe mental illness
- The Primal Wound: A Transpersonal View of Trauma, Addiction, and Growth