I’m a clinical psychologist and have worked and trained in psychology, and specifically, childhood trauma and addiction for 23 years.  For almost an equal amount of time, I have engaged in my own psychotherapy to ‘fix’ my own childhood trauma.  When clients come to me it is almost always because they are trying to stop an addiction.  Maybe they stopped the addictive behavior and they are confused that even 6 months later they are still in pain.  They are desperate to ‘feel better’ or at least to feel less pain.  I wish I could better convey to them that there is one way through addiction treatment and childhood trauma recovery and it’s not gonna feel great for a while.  At all.

What I’ve learned from my own recovery journey and the many clients I’ve worked with, is that the fastest and most effective way to resolve addiction as well as the effects of childhood trauma is to first, change your behavior.  Full stop.  Change your addictive, compulsive, negative behaviors that feel impossible to change, they must be stopped or changed first.  Once you do that, your thoughts will start to correct, and then, eventually, you’ll feel better.  Once you quit or change an unhealthy behavior, painful, negative core beliefs about yourself and the world will rise to the surface and those thoughts will hurt without the compulsive behavior to numb them.  When you can’t get the usual relief offered by the addictive behavior, you will have to change your thinking and find new healthy soothing behaviorsOnly then do those desirable, or what we call “good emotions” like calm, contentment, joy, passion, and love come to roost.  In a few months or a year or two.  Clients love that.  “You aren’t going to feel too much better for at least a few months” I say with an empathic smile.  If you have complex trauma, e.g. big and little T (trauma events), it will likely be longer.  You will also learn in stages.  You will continue to need to learn new healthier behaviors, that will only generalize to other areas (love, work, parenting, sex, etc) with time.  You will make many mistakes.  You won’t be done with recovery in 6 months, or even a year.  It sucks, but it’s almost invariably true.

That isn’t to say that you won’t have a lot of letting go that will feel like a “lightening” of a load you are carrying.  When you quit the addictive or numbing behavior, you will begin to notice discomfort, fear, have dreams or nightmares, be triggered and feel generally raw and like your skin is crawling.  At times, you will be scared, angry, and hurt; you’ll fear you are being “too much” and that it will push people away from you.  If you dedicate your life to healing yourself, and commit to the best practices prescribed by an empathic and well-trained therapist, you will have ‘aha’ moments of realizing that what happened to you wasn’t your fault, and really had nothing to do with you or your worth.  You’ll realize you deserved better and it was invariably about them.  And you’ll have to do that hundreds of times and the learning will add up through behavioral experiences (actions) that change neuronal networks (thinking), then those peaceful, relieving emotions (love, joy, peace) will eventually show up.   It’s honestly really difficult and you’ll have to have faith, or hope. 

In early trauma recovery, when you give up that behavior – that once was your answer to your pain and actually served you well, whether it be drinking, sexing, loving, fixing, care-taking, being perfect, shopping, famous-ing, one-upping, etc., you’re actually going to feel like shit.  At first.  You will likely feel nervous and guilty, and feel like you are “breaking the code”.  The original code of behavior that was set in your childhood.  Just as we know there is a “critical period” of language acquisition where the brain is forming between ages 0 – 4, early trauma affects brain neurodevelopment.  Which is to say, you are learning what works and what doesn’t in your world and that information is getting laid down in behavioral and emotional neural pathways that get harder and harder to change as you age.  As a child, you had to adapt in some way to tolerate:  being ignored, being beaten, being sexually violated, to receiving overt (or covert) messages of “you’re not enough”.  For those of you who “don’t have any childhood trauma”, the messages of not enough are often not overt messages.  They are the messages that come from an experience like crying in front of your dad when a kid was mean to you, and he says nothing, but turns away from you with micro-expressions of disgust on his face.  Got it, dad – vulnerability is disgusting and gross.  I’ll get rid of weakness.  Because I need your love more than anything and I mean ANYTHING.  

I was recently approached by a publisher to write a “journaling book” for those who wanted to heal from Complex PTSD.  Seriously?  Wonderful tool, but I won’t be party to furthering the myth that trauma can be healed by one, or even a few, quick, easy fixes.  When I was a graduate student and was prepared to heal myself, I kept wondering what was wrong with me that I wasn’t ‘better yet’.  How I wish the problem was resolved through a psychology education, a year in therapy, or how it’s often depicted on tv, in a few episodes.  In today’s media, I am encouraged to be watching and listening to more raw and accurate narratives about trauma and addiction, how it grows and morphs into your own hell, and how it is treatable, but motivation and tenacity are the most important factors.  I often say to my clients that a few simple behaviors are really the fastest and best way for recovery.  Suiting and showing up to therapy and other recovery-like environments, quitting any addictive or unhealthy behaviors, and increasing behaviors of self-care.  It’s not easy at all, but it is relatively simple.

Please take some advice from a long time trauma therapist, quit the behavior first.  Do it!  You probably won’t until it causes enough chaos and pain to make you need to stop.  I know because it happened to me too.  I hope you will join the journey and have hope.

Lara Dye, Ph.D., CSAT