Where does addiction originate and what is trauma?

In this article, I shall borrow extensively from the 12 Step program of ACA (Adult Child of Alcoholics & dysfunctional families). It is free, abundant online and open to anyone who has a desire to recover from family dysfunction and let’s face it we have all got some of that.


Oftentimes clients will come to me concerned about substance misuse such as alcohol, drugs, food, sex or gambling. One explanation of addiction is the concept that something outside is going to make the person feel better inside. Addicts/alcoholics feel an underlying sense of not being good enough, of somehow not getting the life handbook everyone else got, feeling alienated.

One can liken the addictions people use to baubles on a Xmas tree. That there is more going on here. Babies don’t come out of the womb and reach for a whiskey and a cigarette, although babies born of using addicts could be born in withdrawal. 

The earlier addictions, sometimes called ‘processing addictions’ like, co-dependency were used by the child as means of making reality more bearable far earlier than alcohol or drugs may be available. Behind this lies the link to addiction, which is unprocessed, unexplored trauma. 

That all of this processing addiction was used to mask the terror the child felt of being abandoned, either emotionally or physically.

What is trauma and why stir it all up, can’t I just watch Netflix and chill?

You can, but how is that working out for you? Are you sleeping well, do you operate from a calm centred sense of self or do you fluctuate to extremes of anxiety, despair and depression? Unsure of yourself, constantly checking with others for their approval and affirmation. 

Trauma can be experienced as either sexual, physical or emotional. It is only recently that emotional trauma is being more recognised and acknowledged as having a long-lasting effect on the way people relate to themselves and others.

Trauma can be experienced at any time. This article is focused on unresolved childhood trauma that may be holding clients back and not letting them live to their full capacity.

A child that experiences trauma can adopt behaviours that are then carried over into adulthood. They were essential as a child to survive the baffling terrain of life but not so helpful when you are dealing with adult life but operating from the perspective of a child. That is where the term ‘adult child’ comes from, an adult using childlike behaviour and reaction.

How often do we see adults having tantrums or numbing out like teenagers? What is called for and addressed in depth by ACA is integrating these parts of the self, becoming ones own loving parent. Learning to accept and calm the inner critic.

In childhood we don’t have adult tools to negotiate difficult emotional landscapes, we use survival tactics. The child might become a people pleaser or be very afraid of criticism, see it as a personal attack. All of this contributes to the insecurity of the developing sense of self. This leads to a lack of trust or faith in self and a disconnect from the authentic or true self.

This is more evidence of a diminished sense of self, where the person doesn’t really know what they like or want because their own feelings have been so obscured by others and the message received has been that they do not count and are not valid. Other adopted behaviours which are then not useful in adulthood are disassociation or zoning out.

Alcohol, drugs, sugar, sex, gambling; all these are mood-altering behavioural choices that can give the self some relief and peace. They do the job well (there are a few big industries built up on the back of them!); the trouble is they themselves can have dire consequences.

The 12-step fellowships are free (a nominal donation is suggested at the end of meetings) and an excellent way of dealing with the baubles. I would always recommend that any client who comes to me with addiction issues try them. There is a power in the group and the mirror principle of being with others with a similar issue, there is an understanding and a shorthand. I would not suggest a client sit with me and just tell me week on week out how much they drank last week and how their world is. The baubles need to be addressed. I have often heard recovering alcoholics say how they would mislead their therapist and continue using substances but feel justified because they were ‘getting some help’.

What is co-dependence and what is the problem with it?

We are all co-dependent to some extent. The problem is when it is out of balance. An example of this is when a person is going to another to get ‘soothed’ emotionally and is unable to self-regulate. In co-dependent relationships this tends to be transactional, I help you with your issues and help regulate yourself and you do the same for me. It becomes a kind of hidden agreement. The issue with it is it subtly undermines the true self and doesn’t allow the person to develop and learn to self-regulate.

Co-dependence can lead to feelings of ambivalence in relationships with others where anxiety festers and dwells.

I am interested in helping clients develop their own internal therapist and learn to self soothe. That is not to say they cannot continue in relation to people they may have been unhealthily attached to but there is a reframing and redefining of the relationship. It is almost like cleaning up the relationship. This can be particularly helpful with parents and siblings. In the new way of relating, I am not here to fix you and you are not here to fix me. I am here to support and love you.

What does this mean for me as an adult?

The result of relying on childhood coping strategies as an adult is a disconnect with the authentic or true self. This can be where anxiety and depression and mental health are born, this split and sense of internal ambivalence is detrimental to optimum mental health. Once a person can really connect with their authentic self they have the real gift or god within, they have accessed their personal pot of gold. 

Healthy boundaries, breaking co-dependency

If a person is used to living in a co-dependent way in their relationships and has experienced enmeshment, that is being so close to someone that there is a sense of being overwhelmed which can be frightening.

What I offer clients is a way to more fully inhabit themselves. 

Practically using boundaries can help a person feel safer, an example of this might be to limit the time one spends with people, listening to oneself more consciously, really connecting to the inner self.

What I am trying to bring to the client and what does it look like?

A roadmap, not the only one by any means but a way to reconnect with the self. To go back and re-experience the emotional disturbance that as a child the client was unable and most often unsupported to process efficiently and thereby become in touch with one’s own pot of gold.

I am trying to remind the client of something that they already know but may have lost sight of. I bring nothing new to the table, just hopefully a handy accessible reminder. Many Eastern traditions point toward the idea that the real riches are within. 

ACA can be a great way to work with the internal family and begin to integrate parts of the self that may be contributing to distress and mental health. It was founded by therapists and looks into the client's full history and is based on the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. It differs from AA in that it was established in the 1980s as opposed to Alcoholics Anonymous which grew up in the Christian bible belt during the 1930s.

It is also suggested that working with a therapist is an important support and guide during this work. It is not for the faint-hearted, it is an epic hero’s journey. Go within and know thyself. The idea is that the ‘healing is in the feeling’ and ‘the issues are in the tissues’.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, SW12
Written by Dominic Ingham, Individual member of BACP. Dip.
London, SW12

My name is Dominic Ingham I am a fully qualified therapist. I often work with clients who are struggling internally and uncertain of their purpose or goals. Working to connect the client more fully with themselves can release great internal energies and direction. It is an inside job!

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