The experience of addiction is a complex process that involves dissociation. Dissociation can take the form of disconnection between the mind, body, and emotions. This post will explore the topic of addiction by observing the realization aspect of trauma and dissociation. The term realization “ involves the mental action of developing awareness of reality as it is, accepting it, and then reflectively and creatively adapting to it” (van der Hart, Nijenhuis, & Steele., 2006, p. 12). Realization, or awareness, was described by van der Hart, Nijenhuis, and Steele as having two psychological components to it that together integrate into a sense of identity while developing our perceptions of self. “The first type of action involves integrating an experience with an explicit, personal sense of ownership” and the second “is that of being firmly grounded in the present” through an integration of the individual’s history and future (van der Hart, 2006, p. 12). These two components appear significant and beneficial as to how an addict, or the ego, may develop an identity.
I was not really sure what direction to pursue this week as the theme has taken some time to solidify (or coagulate, as the alchemist’s would say). I have wanted to focus on the individuals who are addicted, those who have experienced dissociative states throughout the addiction, or who have found themselves in a traumatic situation that might trigger the compulsion to use. As I discuss trauma I am acknowledging the chaos or emotional toil instilled within addiction. Though abstinent or sober, for the addict there is a perilous experience of hopelessness and helplessness that may thwart powerlessness upon the individual’s perceptions and identity. So I would like to further the discussion of the experiences of addiction and trauma. There are various intrapsychic elements in the formation of addiction; the intention is to interpret the experience, or allow for the intellectual content to ferment and reduce into a more effective substance, or lingering residue.
In addiction, the element of realization is a necessary component in order to identify, or acknowledging, that one is an addict. Van der Hart et.al. (2006) have drawn from Pierre Janet’s way of conceptualizing the term realization, and they state that it “runs from the mundane and practical to ascribing philosophical and spiritual meaning to our lives” (p. 151). Van der Hart, et. al., (2006) drew from the writings of Pierre Janet to discuss the occurrence of non-realization within the symptomology of trauma. I decided to begin with the term realization to address the issue of society expecting or assuming that the addict has the ability to utilize reason in order to combat the intrapsychic toil of addiction. However, as a society, it is also necessary to remember that addiction involves the experience of being powerless, as well as the intolerable torment, toil, and anxiety that permeates consciousness when caught in the addiction.
“It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom” (Poe, 2003, p. 67).
Realization is a process that can lead to integration. Integration “includes the uniquely human ability to make meaning and create a cohesive sense of time, reality, self, and experience” (van der Hart, et. al., 2006, p. 151). For the individual that has experienced trauma, the realization of, or acknowledgment that a trauma has occurred is imperative for the individual’s interactions to be based in reality. “The inability to realize involves many was of not knowing” as the “traumatized individuals often have difficulties with realization not only in regard to their traumatic experience but also in daily life” (van der Hart, et. al., 2006, p. 151). Imagine the addict who has developed an identity, even a persona based upon the compulsions, impulses and behaviors of dissociative states. Here we witness hopelessness where the addict is identified with a desire for wholeness, but seeks it through addiction. The addict is seeking a sense of control, yet is unable to experience the intolerable affect that lead to being overwhelmed. When discussing dissociative states and the inflictions, or results of trauma, a sense of agency is fragmented and estranged. The dissociative states in response to trauma do not allow for cohesion to exist in order to hold on to what fragments are tolerable.
Trauma triggers the intrapsychic elements of addiction, including the behavioral components. Realization appears to haul with it undercurrents of intolerable experiences and memories. Though we are talking about the acknowledgement of trauma, how can someone who is addicted, or struggling with traumatic triggers, be able to withstand becoming overwhelmed and not disconnect? Realization is about being able to use the mind to process experiences, yet these experiences are what have led to dissociation and addictive behaviors in the first place. I have written several sections on trauma due to its complexities in addition to the various components of addiction. Imagine having overcome the psychological state of helplessness/hopelessness, of being powerless, yet there are experiences in life that will continue to thwart your ideals and confidence; to have lost hope and direction through an experience that left intolerable memories. As an individual explores the intrapsychic elements of his or her addiction, this individual gains knowledge of the experience. From the exploration, meaning, and understanding is infused within reason.
Trauma is not something that necessarily goes away, just as I would argue that addiction does not disappear, yet the compulsions and impulses may dissipate. Let us not forget that addiction is an experience, and experiences may remain as memory and imprints. Psychologically, addiction is not to be forgotten, but understood and integrated. As we discuss realization in regards to the traumatic experience, we have yet to fully explore the element of an experience being psychologically integrated. Integration “includes the uniquely human ability to make meaning and create a cohesive sense of time, reality, self, and experience” (van der Hart, et. al., 2006, p. 151). Creating meaning out of the chaos, that is addiction and trauma is the task at hand.
Meltzer, M. (2003). Edgar Allen Poe: A biography. Minneapolis, MN: Twenty Century Books.
van der Hart, O., Nijenhuis, E., & Steel, K. (2006). The haunted self: Structural dissociation and the treatment of chronic traumatization. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
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Erik J. Welsh, PhD
– Author of The Addiction Complex