Don’t Blame Trauma for Your Addiction Problems

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

I am on record as strongly opposing the modern trend to attribute addiction—and much else—to trauma. I write against Gabor Maté’s trauma explanation for addiction (and for just about everything else) in Substance.com and my book, with Ilse Thompson, Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict:

What makes this [the trauma] approach so compelling is that it homes in on addicts’ urges to embrace any evidence supporting their deeply held belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. Now, at last, you have an explanation for your problems; you have a place to rest, however negative this perch is. There is a certain satisfaction, a seeming solidity that comes with discovering your “real problem.” Now fixing yourself becomes an entirely straightforward proposition: Heal your inner child; rewire your brain; take a medication; relive your trauma; quit sugar; find groups of fellow sufferers to rehash your experiences with. However, you may know from personal experience that none of these approaches will remedy your addiction. Instead, defining yourself as damaged and deciding you are spiritually or physically impaired can reinforce your worst behaviors.

As Ilse and I point out, “The causes and manifestations of addiction are infinitely complex.” But it is always better to look to your good side, to your ability to compensate for your life deficiencies. There is nothing more essential for you to rely on than your resilience if you want to avoid, or overcome, addiction and much else. I am reassured when a person tells me, proudly, “I am a survivor.” They are not focusing on their trauma. They are focusing on their strength.

There is nothing more essential for you to rely on than your resilience if you want to avoid, or overcome, addiction and much else.-Stanton Peele

So I don’t dwell on childhood traumas in working with people, and I worry when a client returns again and again to them. Of course, bad things in people’s lives must be reckoned with. But, to quote my mother, “what’s done is done.” Focusing on bad experiences, especially as an explanation for current—and future—problems is weighing yourself down with added burdens. Therapy is, instead, about the potential for the future, about change, about optimism.

As a model for myself and others, I rely on people whom I admire.

How many remarkable people could readily point to terrible traumas? To pick a few out of thousands, in the recent PBS special, “The Roosevelts,” President Franklin Roosevelt, our greatest president since Lincoln, was “energized by his personal victory over polio.” Instead of being depressed by his disability, the four-time president “used his persistent optimism and activism to renew the national spirit” during the Depression and World War II.

Meanwhile, wife Eleanor Roosevelt had a picture-postcard emotionally deprived childhood after both of her parents and a young brother died. And she had personal problems as a result. This was also true of her:

Roosevelt was a controversial First Lady for her outspokenness, particularly her stance on racial issues. She was the first presidential spouse to hold press conferences, write a syndicated newspaper column, and speak at a national convention… She advocated for expanded roles for women in the workplace, the civil rights of African Americans…

I was moved to think of all of this when I followed up reading the 2011 best seller, The Paris Wife, a fictionalized memoir by Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, written by Paula McClain, by reading McClain’s earlier childhood memoir, Like Family: Growing Up in Other People’s Homes.

Like Family: Description
After being abandoned by both parents, she and her two sisters became wards of the California Court System, moving in and out of various foster homes for the next fourteen years. When she aged out of the system, she supported herself by working as a nurses aid in a convalescent hospital, a pizza delivery girl, an auto-plant worker…

Despite not being a Roosevelt, McClain went to college, distinguished herself as a writer, teaches now at New England College, and created a family of her own. Ms. McClain ends her acknowledgements for The Paris Wife as follows, “I owe my family much for their unending patience and encouragement, Greg D’Alessio, Connor, Fiona, and Beckett, D’Allesios far and wide… and finally my wonderful, unflappable sisters…” Seemingly, she has maintained her original family connections, as truncated as these were, while creating a supportive family environment for herself.

Oh, McClain was sexually molested by one foster father as a small girl, and another attempted to kiss and touch her as a young teen. Worse in McClain’s telling, she was beaten and emotionally abused by the wives of these men. McClain reported both of the foster fathers who molested her (with dismal results). But she doesn’t dwell on these specific traumas. She had bigger fish to fry—unfortunately, bigger negative fish. What anguished her most was the absence of a loving parental figure. This was a problem throughout her young life that she couldn’t personally remedy, and she does not give it short shrift.

But she overcame it.

Photo Source: istock

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