Substance abuse and addiction are still widely misunderstood, both culturally and by many medical providers.  Because of this misunderstanding, we have created a legal process and healthcare system that often punish those with addictions, exacerbating their already poor circumstances.  Many people who find their way into a courtroom or a hospital due to substance abuse are made to feel as if they are morally corrupt or innately weak-willed, and given something of a “quit or else” ultimatum.  This strategy is incredibly ineffective and often lands those struggling with addiction back in those same unfortunate rooms. There is a new movement, however, urging those who create the structures for some of our most critical institutions to see addiction in an alternative light.  

Disease or Symptom?

Addiction was once genuinely believed to be a sign of weakness or poor character.  People who lost their jobs, families, and health while abusing substances were thought to be irresponsible, selfish, lazy, and destructive.  Eventually, medical research and psychology began to confirm that addiction shared many of the qualities of physical disease. By treating addiction as a disease, healthcare providers and addiction recovery centers could offer a compassionate hand to those whose lives had become overrun with substance abuse.  Explaining addiction as a disease also enables friends and family members to put themselves in the shoes of their loved one and understand that their self-destructive behavior is not entirely a personal choice. When addiction is described as a disease, it is considered chronic, meaning that managing the symptom of substance abuse will likely be a lifelong balancing act of self-care and accountability.

More recently, some addiction experts have begun to encourage others to view addiction as a symptom, rather than a disease.  Dr. Gabor Mate argues that addiction is a sign of unaddressed trauma and that the experience of trauma is the true illness that needs to be treated.  Mate, seeking to open the minds of medical providers and those involved in the legal system, says “When we understand that the people who are addicted are traumatized people, now we have to take an approach that will help them heal that trauma, rather than make it worse.”  This perspective has the potential to create a more evolved sense of compassion for those with substance use disorders, which in turn will help us to offer strategies for lifelong wellness after trauma and addiction.

What is Trauma?

Trauma can happen to anyone at any age and can include a wide variety of incidents and circumstances.  Someone who is abused or assaulted may experience trauma, but someone who witnesses abuse or sudden violence may be equally as traumatized.  Trauma can also occur during unexpected tragedies such as car accidents, natural disasters, and the death of a loved one. Children are especially susceptible to trauma because their brains lack the proper coping mechanisms to emotionally recover from upsetting events.  This is why so many people are living with unresolved childhood trauma, and many of those people go on to develop substance use disorders in an effort to suppress their pain.  

Many people who live with the aftermath of trauma exhibit signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.  PTSD is often associated with military veterans after witnessing graphic violence during battle. Symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, sleep issues, severe anxiety, depression, and impulsive behavior.  People with PTSD are also far more likely to develop an addiction while using drugs or alcohol to numb their emotions and prevent distressing episodes such as flashbacks.  

How is Trauma Connected to Addiction?

The connection between trauma and addiction is complex and nuanced, but what is clear is that addiction can’t be overcome without healing the wounds of trauma.  There is still a great deal to learn about this relationship, but one common correlation is the sedative effect of drugs and alcohol used to numb emotional pain.  While emotional suffering is not always taken as seriously as physical pain, mental stress can cause severe physical symptoms and debilitating depression. We wouldn’t tell someone who is drinking to numb the pain of an open wound that they need to quit drinking before we found a way to treat their injury.  

Similarly, we can’t begin to treat substance use disorders without first identifying and treating underlying trauma.  Many people living with trauma have used drugs and alcohol to suppress their memories and emotions for many years, and therefore acknowledging a painful past and beginning to heal will take work and commitment.  By implementing trauma-informed care, medical providers and addiction treatment facilities can approach each patient with the knowledge of their likelihood of a traumatic past, and help these individuals to uncover the source of their addictive behavior.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction and mental health issues, now is the time to seek help.  At Burning Tree Ranch, we specialize in long-term care that produces real results, especially for those who have experienced relapse.  Here you will find a team of qualified and compassionate professionals, ready to help each client through a customized treatment program that addresses all aspects of addiction, including the identification of co-occurring disorders.  We know that the journey towards recovery doesn’t end with the conclusion of an inpatient program, which is why we provide extensive aftercare programs to best support our clients during their transition into lasting sobriety. We also know that addiction affects the whole family, and therefore loved ones are encouraged to participate in the recovery process and take advantage of all our support resources.  For more information, call us today at 972-962-7374.