Addiction Recovery Should Include Trauma Integration

Gillian May

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I’m six and a half years sober and have no desire to go back to drinking at this point. I’m past the point of needing to tame my inner alcohol demons. I no longer need to take things one day at a time, as I feel free to live my life without the weight of alcohol looming over my shoulder.

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 stay aware of that part of ourselves that wants to get high every day.

The first year of sobriety was more 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. It got me thinking — what was it that made my commitment so strong? And what is it that keeps me sober and not craving alcohol at all?

The answer is that I worked on integrating and releasing my trauma for years before I decided to quit drinking, and this made all the difference for me.

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’ve 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 even though I couldn’t accurately name this in the early part of my life. 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 approaches 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.

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, 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 then, 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.

I want to mention though that trauma integration is a life-long process and you don’t need to have it all together. I am still, after all these years, still uncovering trauma that I hadn’t seen back when I first got sober. So I think the key is to at least start the process and get a few steps in to the point where our nervous systems begin to relax a bit.

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 gloss over trauma and treat it like the elephant in the room. Because for some, integration may be possible, while for 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.

  1. Provider and Consumer Perceptions of Trauma Informed Practices and Services for Substance Use and Mental Health Problems
  2. Addiction as Trauma’s Shadow
  3. Addiction Still Eludes a “Magic Bullet” Cure
  4. In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts
  5. Trauma, Addiction, and Recovery: Addressing public health epidemics among women with severe mental illness
  6. The Primal Wound: A Transpersonal View of Trauma, Addiction, and Growth

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I'm a former nurse turned freelance writer. I have extensive experience in administration, frontline care, and education in mental health, public health, and geriatrics. However, after 20 years, I needed a change and always wanted to write. I have personal and family experience in mental health and addictions, so I'm passionate about advocacy and education in those areas. I'm also a traveler, photographer, and artist. I funnel all my various expertise into my writing and hope to provide valuable content that is entertaining and educational.

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