"When we have fully accepted our addiction, our past alcohol and drug use will no longer have the power to hurt us."

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Episode 141 -- August 19, 2021

Four Ways to Find Safety, Serenity, and Freedom from Trauma

Many of us with substance use disorders have a history that includes trauma. We tried to numb or forget our feelings, but our alcohol and drug use almost always caused more pain and more problems. We might not even remember some of the things we said and did when we were drinking or using. Worse, if we remember parts of those episodes, we may prefer to keep it all forgotten.

As we become sober and gain some time in recovery, we start remembering more and more of what has happened to us and what we've done—and we need to know what to do with that. In this excerpt from Passages through Recovery: An Action Plan for Preventing Relapse, Terence Gorski explains the effects of repressed memories and how working with others in a safe environment, whether with a counselor or in a Twelve Step group, can help us come to an understanding of our past experiences. This can help us process our feelings and be more honest in our recovery.

We need to work through the pain and trauma of our past because they are not going away. The more we accept our memories as a part of our history, the more we can talk about them, and the less power they will have over us.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

Acceptance of Addictive Disease Acceptance is the ability to think about what happened while we were using alcohol and other drugs without feeling pain. It is an emotional process that involves the resolution of shame, guilt, and unresolved painful experiences that occurred during addiction. Many recovering people carry these unresolved painful memories for years. Most of the time they feel fine, but when they think or talk about past drinking and drug use, the pain, shame, and guilt come back.

Many of us try to cope with those feelings by not thinking about the memories that produce them. This works in the short run, but eventually the feelings come back. These painful feelings can be resolved by working a Twelve Step program, perhaps getting involved in counseling or therapy, and learning to identify and talk about memories and the feelings they cause. When we have fully accepted our addiction, our past alcohol and drug use will no longer have the power to hurt us.

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous tells us that we are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness, that we will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door upon it, that we will comprehend the word serenity, and that we will know peace. In spite of our past history and all the pain and problems we have caused to ourselves and others, we can know serenity and peace of mind.

To resolve our painful memories, it is helpful to understand why we still have them and how we maintain them in sobriety.

We keep our memories unresolved when we have painful or traumatic experiences and refuse to talk about them later. The worse the trauma, the more unresolved the pain. Most of us experienced pain or trauma while we were either intoxicated or in withdrawal, but we often dismiss these as meaningless. After all, we say to ourselves, I was drunk at the time and drunks can't feel any pain. Why worry about it now that I'm sober?

What happened to us then does have long-term emotional consequences. The pain and trauma is recorded in the unconscious mind. Later, something can trigger the memory and the painful feelings come back. This is called a flashback. This is the way the unconscious mind gets us to think and talk about the memory so we can resolve it.

The painful memory is maintained by trying to dismiss it from our minds whenever it intrudes. This works for a little while, but the memory and feelings will come back again. We get in the habit of blocking out memories that carry painful feelings. We can get so good at it that we do it without thinking. Unfortunately, this doesn't make it go away for good. The memory will return again and again until we think and talk about it.

One woman, Joanne, had many blackouts during her drinking career. When she got sober, she had nightmares of her trauma. At first, the memories were painful and fragmented, and she pushed them out of her mind, but with the help of a counselor she was able to remember what happened. Although the feelings of pain, helplessness, and betrayal were intense, each time she talked about the abuse she experienced the pain subsided. One night she talked about it at an AA meeting. Several women in the group had had similar experiences, but were afraid to think or talk about them. They got together after the meeting and, by talking to each other about them, the memories gradually lost their power to hurt so much.

When we experience trauma, adrenaline floods our system, causing a rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and severe muscle tension. If the trauma is bad enough, we go into shock. If it is intolerable, we black out, unaware of what is happening. In shock, we are unable to feel the physical and emotional effects of the trauma. We shut down to protect our nervous system from becoming overloaded. We become numb and dazed. There is often a vacant or distant stare in our eyes. If we are drunk or high at the time, other people can mistake our shock for our intoxication.

This is followed by a "rebound" stage. We begin to feel restored to the pre-shock state. Our bodies begin to rebalance and the emotions that were shut down begin to surface. Now we have a desire and a need to talk. If the event is talked out, it can be resolved. If it is blocked out, it will come back.

Many of us feel intense shame and guilt when the rebound stage begins. We may believe the traumatic event was our fault, or feel that if we had not been drinking or drugging, it would not have happened. We experience shame. We feel that we must be defective because of what happened, and we are afraid or unwilling to talk with anyone about this. We often begin drinking or using drugs to get rid of these unresolved painful feelings.

At the beginning of early recovery, you may feel helpless about what you did while you were using. You probably feel helpless because you believe there is nothing you can do about the past and there is no way to make the pain go away. This isn't true. There is a way to resolve the pain associated with these memories. A number of principles can guide you.

Resolving the Pain of Addiction Experiences
All people with substance use disorders have painful memories. There is nothing wrong with this. It is a natural consequence of having the disease of addiction. In sobriety, these painful memories will periodically come back and make us feel uncomfortable. This is "a need to resolve." It is natural and normal for this to happen.

We need to think and talk about these experiences to resolve our pain about them. If we simply push them out of our mind, they will come back later.

We don't need to do it alone. Most people are unable to think their way through this unresolved pain because their unconscious mind is protecting them.

If we are in a dangerous or unsupportive environment when the need to resolve emerges, we don't have to think or talk about the memories until it is appropriate to do so. When a painful memory surfaces, it is important to get to a safe environment, where there are people who will listen to us, understand what we're saying, take us seriously, and affirm that the experience was real and important. Most AA meetings are safe places. So are most support groups or private therapy sessions.

Once in a safe environment, it is important to describe our memories to others as clearly and accurately as possible. As we begin discussing the experience, we will cycle in and out of vivid memories and painful feelings. Our emotions may shut down; we may overreact; we may even experience intense visual images and body sensations that are similar to what we experienced at the time.

You have already lived through the situation and survived. The memory of it does not have the power to physically hurt or kill you. Re-experiencing the feelings will be uncomfortable, but, if done in a safe environment, it will not seriously hurt you.

Each time we talk through the memory, we will experience less pain and tension. Eventually, we will experience a sense of relief and be able to think about the memory without feeling any pain. We will become free of the memory.

There are four ways to resolve the pain of our memories. These are by

  • listening to the stories of others,
  • telling our story,
  • participating in counseling, and
  • working the Twelve Step program, particularly Steps Four through Seven.

About the Author:
TERENCE T. GORSKI, MA, CAC, was a nationally recognized lecturer, an acknowledged leader in the field of addiction and recovery, and a workshop facilitator specializing in relapse prevention, intimacy in recovery, and treating adult children of alcoholics with substance use disorders. From his more than twenty-five years of clinical experience and research, Gorski revolutionized the field of relapse prevention. He is the author of Getting Love Right, Managing Cocaine Craving, and Staying Sober (with Merlene Miller), all available from Hazelden.

© 1989 by Terence T. Gorski
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