The Trauma of Addiction

To introduce her new course, Healing the Trauma of Addiction, Becca Gerlach, LMSW, CAADC, revisited her October 2018 blog post addressing the trauma of addiction.

Addiction is a way to hide

Let’s talk about addiction as trauma. I am sure we have all worked with someone who struggles with substance abuse–maybe a parent of a child client, maybe a teenager. I am also certain we all have a family member or friend who has struggled in some way or another with substance abuse, gambling, or some other addictive behavior. It can be hard work to love and care about people who seem intent on destroying themselves. It is important work though, and it is urgent that we begin to look at this struggle in a different light. Our clients and loved ones are not intent on destruction, but intent on hiding—intent on not feeling in such a big, scary way. We need to ask what has happened to this person, not what is this person doing.

From degrees and certificates to curiosity and empowerment

I worked for an agency whose primary focus was substance abuse treatment. I never imagined as a young social worker, recently graduated and feeling knowledgeable, that I would work in a substance abuse setting. But there I was. I learned a lot in that job, and I also learned what I believed to be helpful, and what may not be, to people in early recovery. Around that same time, I attended the Starr Commonwealth summer conference for the first time, and so much of what I learned there made sense in terms of the adults and teens I was treating for substance abuse. The impact on the brain seemed similar, and this made sense to me in a way my CAADC and MSW coursework did not. I felt empowered with information and armed to help people in a way I had not been. I went from feeling like I was a competent therapist to a therapist armed with information and compassion. I was comfortable with not knowing and with admitting that I did not know much at all actually, but that I have the capacity to be curious about another’s experience.

Partners on the path to resilience

We need to remember that no matter the client, no matter the issue that brings that person to treatment, they are the expert on themselves. We as helpers need to remember that we are in a position to walk alongside, over time perhaps be a guide, and ultimately to be a partner with the person we are working with. Rather than telling a client struggling with substance abuse “you need to go to AA, or you need to do x, y, z,” we need to ask, “What do you think feeds the healthy part of you? What fills you up?” We can help our clients, parents of clients, and family members acknowledge their recovery as their own, and that it must be nurtured in order to flourish. Recovery is a time to find peace within the self, and Starr’s Mind Body Skills and Healing the Experience of Trauma: A Path to Resilience manual and journals are really helpful here. People who have been using substances, and then cease, get flooded with the feelings that they were likely running from initially. If we can help our clients to regulate and sit with those feelings, we can come to know what their experience was like, what those feelings are, and we can be curious with our clients who may be wary of being curious about themselves.

Through my new course, Healing the Trauma of Addiction, we can provide education about the brain, trauma, and substance abuse, as well as provide connection. We can build resilience in our clients and loved ones. Using Starr programming along with substance abuse knowledge, we can assist our clients to regulate, to learn about themselves, to experience recovery and what that means for them as an individual. We can provide a containing experience for big emotions, and bear witness to what occurred before, during and after the substance abuse. Substance abuse itself is a trauma, after all, and while not always, there may have been a trauma before the use began. We can offer our clients and ourselves grace to begin again each day, to learn something new each day, to sit a little longer with our emotions each day. One day at a time.

By Becca Gerlach, LMSW, CAADC

Becca Gerlach, LMSW, CAADC, is the Director of Behavioral Health for Starr Commonwealth.

About Starr Commonwealth

Starr Commonwealth is dedicated to the mission to lead with courage to create positive experiences so that all children, families, and communities flourish. We specialize in residential, community-based, educational, and professional training programs that build on the strengths of children, adults, and families in communities around the world. To schedule a training or consultation, please contact or call 800-837-5591.