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Abuse and Addiction

With all the recent sexual assaults/abuse/allegations, many have questioned it whether or not these behaviors constitute an addiction. This is probably because the perpetrators have been going to addiction treatment. My answer is categorically a “yes” due to the nature of abuse and addiction, my experience with treating abuse and addiction, and the context in which these abusive behaviors occur.

My therapeutic and personal philosophy is “D) All of the above” because if people believe their answer to be true then I have to be prepared to engage in all answers. Whether their/our answers will stand the test of time is the real measure. As a therapist when a question is asked, the act of asking a question (and how it is presented and worded) sheds light on where the person is at in their psychosocial, spiritual/moral development, and their level of awareness on the topics presented in the question. It is commonly understood by therapists that people already have the answers to their questions but many times people are not conscious of them. So, if people are not aware of their answers then people are more than likely not aware of the outcomes the answers produce.

In America, there is an awareness rising socially and culturally around the topics of abuse and addiction that gives me the opportunity to tie the topics of abuse and addiction together. I believe is worth exploring not only these topics but also the relationship between opposing opposites like pain (abuse) and pleasure (addiction/pain relief), safe and unsafe, healthy and unhealthy, known and unknown, and conscious and unconscious because it is this relationship that produces human behavior. The issue with not understanding the conditions of what is fully going on with the relationship between opposing opposites is that we make assumptions that ultimately create a misinformed opinion.

Abuse and addiction are really the same pain/pleasure process, represented in the pain/reward pathway of the brain. However, two key factors to understanding the conditions of this process are usually missing. First, what fuels this relationship dynamic is our unconscious survival system (fight, flight, freeze, and appease) and secondly that our unconscious survival system is rooted in our collection of unresolved memories that are unconsciously playing themselves out in our lives, particularly in our relationships (Ecker, Ticic, & Hulley, 2012). With these two key factors stated, it stands to reason that it is the conscious choice to pick pain or pleasure and our unconscious processes that produce our behaviors, hence it is our relationship between the conscious and unconscious that needs to be addressed.

My stance is that trauma is addiction and addiction is trauma because they are philosophically apart of the same process. So since abuse and addiction are the same processes then active abuse/trauma and active addiction are both conscious and unconscious processes because they come into being together. The extent of which they go to the extreme is a manifestation of the conditions/environment in which they exist. With an understanding of these two key factors and the conclusions derived from them, they help end the debate of choice vs. disease. For these reasons, I believe that it is the relationship between abuse/trauma and addiction that needs to be better understood in order to heal them individually and societally. Furthermore, since the unconscious is based on unprocessed memories, then the unprocessed memories of where we learned these behaviors is where I believe that we need to be targeting in treatment if we are going to identify ourselves as treating these conditions.

I believe that these abuses that are coming to light are the result of the toxic relationship between abuse/trauma and addiction that we as individuals, society, and as a culture have been living in denial about, particularly, where they originate. Our healthy and unhealthy relationships are learned through our shared experiences (i.e. family, socializing, and culturally sanctioned norms) and when unhealthy behaviors are present it is because we have unmet wants and needs (and the inability to tolerate not getting our wants and needs met i.e. delayed gratification). Additionally, deeper into the denial system is when a want is labeled as a need, which to me is the root of our addictions. So, since any form of abuse is fueled by an unmet want/need, then being abusive can be considered an active addiction. Conversely, any state of active addiction can be seen as abusive.

So then, often enough, the questions of “who, what, why, when, and how” come up when the topics of abuse and addiction are discussed. Many times these topics and answers are deflected or ignored because it is difficult to make sense of all of it all but by avoiding the conversation we end up creating more abuse later and for the next generation. I am going to answer the “who, what, why, when and how to stop them” questions of abuse from this trauma and addiction perspective because solutions to trauma and addiction are available if people are ready to break through the denial system built around these subjects.

Who abuses? Answer: D) All the above… We all do – either directly or indirectly. Abuse falls within the range of human behavior because it happens so regularly that it considered normal. There are varying degrees of abuse so the idea of seeing abuse as on a spectrum is valid to me. The varying degree of abuse depends upon the level of unmet wants/needs and these are created when extreme measures have been taken/modeled to meet unmet wants/needs previously (unresolved memories of abuse).

If we want to hate the game then that is reasonable but it is how we play the game that is in question. However, we have to understand the rules of the game first before we can decide if we want to play and then address how it is being played. These are the rules of the human game as I see it. Our needs/actions will hurt people and others will hurt you in order to get their wants and needs met i.e. in order to eat, something that is living has to die. By existing, we impact others. Everyone has to live together on this giant floating ball of water and rock so if we see that both the perpetrator and victims are somebody’s son or daughter, student, friend, co-worker, or neighbor, we can start to see that the rules of the game are everyone’s responsibility to follow.

So, what is abuse? Abuse is any act i.e. physically, psychologically, sexually, or through neglectful means of creating pain on someone else or oneself. Abuse is any action or inaction that causes intentional or unintentional pain. As pain is a matter of subjective experience, all pain is valid no matter what and is not fixed in time. Abuse can be direct or indirect, hence abuse can be conscious or unconscious, and so abuse is any action, non-action, or behavior that consciously or unconsciously causes harm to the development of an individual. Abuse can be directed towards another or be self-administered i.e. substance ABUSE. It can be presented as a selfish or selfless act and any abuse is present and will continue to be present when there is a lack of understanding, direct and effective communication, empathy, and resources. Culturally sanctioned forms of abuse can take on the forms of a right of passage, peer pressure, and societal influences. Also, like addiction, abuse is progressive and can take a life of its own on when it goes unchecked.

Abuse can come in both positive and negative forms, dependent upon one’s perception. As negative forms of abuse are the ones I just identified, but the not so clear forms stem from our expressions of loving someone/something too much like addiction and enabling. “Too much” is the main qualifier in any form of abuse or addiction. Abuse is also any violation or act of aggression (indirect or direct) of ones right to choose what is right for themselves. Entitlement is the result of enabling and enabling is abusive because it undermines the freedom of choice.

For the individual who is in a state of being abusive, it is a reach for control because they feel threatened or righteous. Reaches for control are based on previously not being in control of another similar situation and now are claiming their right to exert it or are protecting themselves from happening again. All abuse/addiction is a form of transference/projection and transference is a form of trauma re-enactment. Transference is an unconscious process of transferring emotional processes onto someone/something else (Ogden, Minton, & Pain, 2006). Trauma re-enactment is an attempt to resolve a previous unresolved experience through the re-enactment of similar experiences in the present moment (Ogden, Minton, & Pain, 2006). These are very unconscious processes and are reproducing patterns of what was taught/modeled and learned in an attempt to resolve them, hence why abuse/addiction are progressive, cyclical, and why they repeat.

If people were actually conscious of their trauma re-enactments, then they would be able to actually stop them from continuing. More rational people see it as something that someone can stop, but this logic gets turned on its head if I were to ask the rational people to stop rationalizing. It does not make rational sense to hurt the ones you love, but we do. However, when we add emotions to the equation, it does make sense given the fact that there are unmet wants/needs at play. Abuse and addiction are not rational. They are emotionally based, which is why I say that it feels like people can stop using drugs or leave an abusive relationship, but emotionally, they feel justified and are justified. The ability to stop is usually dependent on when the person realizes (becomes aware or conscious) that they are abusing themselves, someone, or something that they do not want to be hurt. They intern struggle with the conflict of getting their needs and wants met in healthy ways from an environment that they see as hurting them. They are aware that they are repeating the pattern in the moment but since their wants/needs are unmet they feel justified to continue the behavior. Factually, yes, they can stop, but emotionally they cannot stop until an emotional need is met. A person can be conscious of it happening but not be fully conscious as to why it is happening. Just like in substance use, the person is consciously aware that they are abusing themselves but do not always have the full context as to why. Without the “why” you cannot get to the “how to stop it” and this is why I see addiction as self-abuse. This take on abuse and addiction reinforces my observations that addiction is trauma and that addiction and trauma are a part of the same process.

So why do people abuse? Answer: i.e. Transference and when abuse/addiction are happening they are attempts to get an unmet want/need through re-enactment. People in a state of abusing feel justified in abusing because they feel that they were abused. In the act of abusing they feel like they are being abused because they have unmet wants/needs. When we have been hurt and are currently being threatened, we respond through our survival response i.e. fight, flight, flee, or appease which are unconscious responses and limit higher order of brain functioning i.e. compassion and empathy, due to the biological process of survival (Seigel, 2011). When judgments, assumptions, or preconceived notions are present we feel protective and feel as though we are being abused or could be abused. Also, people will abuse preemptively because they are anticipating being abused out of fear of not getting their wants/needs met.

Not all abuse is a direct result of re-enacting a specific trauma but rather an associated similar one or one that has become habitual. The mind and brain work on associative properties and the core of the information comes from our previous experiences (memories) that are emotionally coded to help us navigate the associated feelings in order to get the desired outcomes (Seigel, 2011). The root feelings are often fear and love, which fuels an external reach for control. When we understand the fear response and our need to connect we understand the intention. It is the preservation of self and the self is merely a collection of stories that were either told to us or we tell ourselves.

Now it is unrealistic for everyone to have all their needs and wants to be met on every subject and/or everything, but that is rational thinking. However, emotionally we say things like “you deserve to be happy.” When emotions get in the way of rational thinking, the facts become subjective. Any response that is out of portion (positively or negatively) to a normal range (neutral), it can be assumed that there is something deeper and unresolved i.e. a memory that represents an unmet want/need. This is seen as a good thing when it drives positive behaviors like working or loving someone, but when they are applied to negative attributes of human behaviors like abuse and addiction they are shamed and stigmatized.

When do people abuse/commit crimes of abuse? Answer: When they are under the influence of an actual or perceived stress/threat of not getting their wants/needs met. When a stress or threat is present to the observer, it triggers the observer to try and meet their needs through the use of controlling someone else or a situation (abuse) or an unmet need getting met through abusive means (addiction). Stress (positive or negative) or (actual/perceived) threats bring out states of abuse or addiction. Because negative manifestations are seen as violations they are stigmatized but positive manifestations have their root in the same process. There are so many forms of abuse and addiction that it is confusing and all too often a double standard is present that complicate the matters even more. (FYI The double standard is something that we can do something about!) To complicate matters more and for the purposes of furthering the conversation, from a philosophical perspective, acts of abuse and the things that we are addicted to can be seen as neutral because it is our relationship to the want/need/behavior or addictive behavior that is really the issue.

When we take a broader definition of addiction, which includes acts of violence, gambling, Internet, shopping, care-taking, enabling and abuse, which includes jokes, prejudices, verbal aggression, emotional and neglectful means, and self-abuse, then we stand to see that we are all addicted and we are all victims of abuse. The relationship between addiction and abuse (trauma) is the plight of all individuals, organizations, institutions, societies, cultures, and species have to address if they wish to see healthy growth. If there is an inability to make healthy growth, can it be assumed that the reason why is not possible is that they are addicted to the norm? Consequently, this is the point that we see start to see that we are addicted to our story and trauma/drama has become the addiction. I am hopeful that people can find the courage to change and heal because healing is a part of our collective story too.

Coincidentally, we can also look at the solution of addiction recovery to help solve abuse. So, how do we stop it? Change the only thing you can; yourself. This might hurt but hurt and pain are great teachers if one is ready to learn the lesson. To avoid the pain is to avoid the lesson. Since hurt and pain is at the core of our traumas and addictions, what do we stand to learn? If someone is hurting you, they are themselves hurt and are transferring their hurt. When hurt has happened and is happening it is a form of re-enactment. All feelings are valid but it is when people have been un-validated or invalidated that one feels they have to respond in kind.

All of this points us to the question of who is responsible for abuse and addiction? Answer: Every living being that has ever lived or will live. Our collective history and our collective destiny have been transferred to us through the echoes of time through trauma i.e. prejudice, hate, fear, and genocide and addiction i.e. advancement, power, control, convenience, and materialism. We are all players on the stage and all have our hands in the pot. History includes our collective history but also our collective future, so the better question to ask now is, since we have solutions, who is responsible for abuse and addiction continuing? We all are responsible if we are not working a healthy solution.

The “If had I known, I would have done something different” moment is a precious one because this is the moment when reality and truth are no longer matters of perception because the context of the situation has been realized. Reality and truth are a matter of time and place for the observer, but there are eternal truths. One of them is: we are all a product of our environment and the environment is a product of what we produce. We have to choose between healthy or unhealthy, it is no longer a matter of right and wrong. Obviously, these problematic topics go a long way back but more of the question now is when are we going stop the cycle of abuse and addiction within ourselves? In the matters of abuse and addiction, a major issue is with responsibility. It is never the victim’s fault at all but it is not 100% the fault of the perpetrator/person addicted either. The conditions in which these behaviors are sanctioned have their responsibility as well. There are always other forces at work when violence is going on. In the context of historical facts, trauma and addiction are normative and are human realities. Something was done to all of us at some point but when the family, society or culture does not have the means or ability to empathize or support healing, then more hurt will happen.

Abuse and addiction are the symptoms of our toxic relationship to ourselves. The extreme nature of our symptoms speaks to our systems inability to either directly or indirectly protect each other. Our main support systems i.e. families, society, and culture along with our mores, values, and norms are ultimately at fault too. These were handed down to us in the form of stories. The stories that we tell ourselves are powerful and seep deep into the unconscious, just like abuse and addiction. From the unconscious perspective, none of us are fully responsible for our actions but once we become aware of our unconscious patterns and resulting behaviors, it is fully our responsibility to engage in the solution. In general, people, institutions, and systems are perplexed by abuse and addiction because they are trying to rationally understand emotions and unconscious processes. Artists throughout history have been speaking to the dangers of not understanding the relationship of opposites. This is where we are at in our story: awareness of everyday abuses and addictions are increasing thanks to the brave people who are willing to share their story and admit that abuse and addiction are happening. It is the responsibility of everyone else to humbly listen, identify instead of compare, and then apply the moral of the story to his or her own way of living.

Ecker, B., Ticic, R., & Hulley, L. (2012). Unlocking the emotional brain: Eliminating symptoms at their roots using memory reconsolidation. New York, NY: Routledge.

Ogden, P., Minton, K., & Pain, C. (2006). Trauma and the body: A sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Siegel, D., Bryson, T. P. (2011). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. New York, NY: Bantam Books Trade Paperbacks.

by Adam O’Brien LMHC, CASAC, EAS-C is the owner/clinician of Mutual Arising Mental Health Counseling, PLLC in Chatham NY. He works primarily with people suffering from their addictions but is also a trauma therapist working with victims of crime. In these freelance writings, he brings a variety of experiences and points of view to entertain and educate. He is an EMDRIA certified EMDR therapist/Consultant-in-Training and is trained in Progressive Counting and Brainspotting.

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