When sobriety triggers trauma

The best I’ve ever heard it spoken, “Every time I get sober I remember, and every time I remember, I get drunk.”

Every few years, the “experts” in dual diagnosis treatment reinvent the wheel based on what research tells us about folks who are seeking recovery from both Substance Use Disorder and mental illness. What tends to be researched and discussed far less is the relationship between trauma and addiction.

I’m not a fan of research studies. They’re usually funded by Big Pharma and they most often utilize a one size fits all approach that’s broken down into things like measurements of 1-5. Our experience doesn’t lend itself to rating scales.

I like simple – always have. The best research I’ve done has been in the trenches, talking with real people about their struggles. The way I see the need for recovery from both Substance Use Disorder and trauma was best explained to me by an older woman who described herself as a “low bottom drunk.”

She tattooed her truth on my heart when she said

“It’s simple. Every time I get sober, I remember, and every time I remember I get drunk.”

She went on to interview me. She wanted to make sure I could handle hearing her stories. She had suffered over four decades of being in and out of recovery. She had suffered every form of abuse imaginable as a child and as an adult. She had met with more than a few therapists, and none of them seemed at all comfortable listening to her narratives of abuse.

This is all too common.

Passive approaches don’t work for us. We need to advocate for ourselves and we need to find people who have lived experience, who do not judge, and who frankly, have the guts to go where we need to go.

I often hear from folks who have questions about particular therapeutic approaches or techniques. I know that these have value; but I say it’s more important that the practitioner be genuine and comfortable with themselves.

If you find that abstinence means a sharp increase in nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and/or generally being afraid, my heart goes out to you. You’re like me. My hope is that you will reach out for help and specifically that you ask for tools and strategies that promote your sense of safety.

It’s the most important of all human needs – to be safe – and yet it’s the thing we tend to talk about the least. We are shame based and emotionally, we feel like no one can possibly be as big a mess as we are. I promise you that you’re in good company. I don’t have research studies to back me, but my experience is that folks in recovery rate have about a 99% prevalence rate of surviving traumatic events.

We need more safe people and more safe places in order to be sober and heal.