Compassion, addiction and the nervous system.

Posted: February 19, 2020
Category: Addiction, Therapy, Trauma

A personal story of transformation
by Salvo La Rosa

Addiction is a theme close to my heart. Some years ago I struggled with an addiction myself and I have experienced first hand the negative consequences of this addictive part of me taking over. What was once fun led to experiences of shame and isolation. It however also precipitated a process of transformation that led to me getting support in the form of addiction treatment, 12 step fellowships and psychotherapy. It ultimately led me to change career and start retraining as a psychotherapist.

Going away to treatment for a period felt like a kind of rite of passage. Being in a different physical space, focusing on a new way of life, gave me the motivation and the psychological space to move forward in a direction that was more fulfilling for me. Twelve step meetings were really beneficial too and helped with the sense of isolation. In them I found a readily available network of supportive people and free meetings I could go to to fill the emptiness inside me and connect both to other human beings and to a sense of purpose.

Whilst giving free reign to this addictive part of me had also caused quite some trouble, it was also true that by rejecting this part of me entirely, I had neglected to understand its function and what it was really trying to do for me. In a nutshell I now understand that it was trying to help me with self soothing at a time when I hadn’t developed any other way to soothe myself when my nervous system went haywire. It also helped me to express a more vital, playful and spontaneous side of myself that didn’t have enough space in my day to day life. 

This kind of understanding is backed by more recent neuroscience research like Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems Therapy, Bessel van der Kolk and the work of Janina Fisher in working with addiction in a trauma informed way. It is also grounded in transpersonal psychotherapy, yoga, body-based approaches and mindfulness practices that can facilitate bringing about a more open, compassionate and curious consciousness towards all parts of ourselves. 

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In my experience, both personal and in working with clients struggling with addictions in rehabs and private practice, most addictive behaviours that become problematic might be explained as attempts to self soothe and are often linked with early experiences of trauma and neglect growing up. 

Trauma scrambles the nervous system, leaves it overreacting or underreacting to day to day occurrences as if they were signs of danger or even life threat. By trauma, I don’t necessarily mean big and obvious instances of violence or abuse, although they are all too common unfortunately, but even small but repeated experiences of misattunement. 

Examples might be when a parent is themselves struggling with an addictive part or with their mental health, there being fights in the home, early losses or divorce, bullying at school or simply the absence of the necessary emotional mirroring, holding and support. And this is not an exhaustive list.

In addition to traditional approaches to addiction treatment, I feel passionate about including a trauma-informed view that gives the individual more tools to regulate themselves and some focused help to work on the dysregulated nervous system that often drives the addiction. In practice this means working in a compassionate and non-shaming way. It also means including an understanding of dissociation as this is all too common in people going through treatment but is rarely addressed there, in my view.

 For the people that have experiences of trauma or neglect, symptoms of dissociation are a common occurrence. These range from normal spacing out to daydreaming, aspects of a past event being experienced as physical symptoms, feeling separate from one’s body, a sense of unreality. Some people may have the feeling of separate parts of themselves, different self-states, living in separate rooms, at war, not talking to each other, the ‘addict’ being one of them. Other people may experience lapses of memory, shutting down or going somewhere else in their own mind.

I have seen clients in rehabs become overly compliant to whatever the culture of the treatment centre would expect them to do, but in fact, only banishing the addict part to a separate room, only to relapse out of the blue once out. Without an understanding of trauma and dissociation, I have seen well intentioned practitioners label clients as ‘difficult’ or ‘manipulative’, failing to understand the impact of dissociation on the addictive behaviour .

Going back to my own experience, understanding that I was not inherently bad but that it was my nervous system that was dysregulated, helped me find some compassion to look at the addict in me, in all its actions, and to look at him like a kind father would. 

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You wouldn’t throw out your own son or daughter if they were struggling, so why was I doing that for this part of me that was in pain and that was trying so hard to make me feel better? 

There is a famous quote by Gabor Mate that says ‘The question is not why the addiction, by why the pain’ and this rings true for me too. Nowadays my addict part is very much domesticated. He does tend to like coffee quite a bit and can jump to the rescue using technology to help with moments of loneliness or disconnection. It does however also give me great energy and drive in its capacity to stay focused on a task or to give me the ‘get up and go’ to do something when I need to. 

All in all, I am glad that we have made friends again and how surprising it is to find some goodness, a little gold, even in this protective and much misunderstood part of myself. 

by Salvo La Rosa

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