Trauma and addiction are interrelated. I was listening to a talk yesterday by Dr Gabor Mate, a western medical doctor and wounded healer I have a lot of respect for. He said simply, if you can’t fight, flee, or ask for help, your brain dissociates – you freeze to survive. Freezing is meant to be a temporary state we heal from to regain integrity and peace when the survival threat has gone. But what if it isn’t temporary? (Isn’t there a reason Frozen resonates with so many people? Image from here.)
A few years ago, I chose to traumatise myself by going through a PhD program to change my career path. It’s better for me to be a researcher than connected with the legal profession, because I find it easier to work in ways that are aligned with my values. And while I do spend time listening to people and their stories still, but I also still spend quite a bit of time staring at a screens. I do this to maintain relationships with loved ones, to watch something with my partner, or to use US late night TV to process current events with some humour. I don’t feel I can practically avoid these screens. It’s part of my survival, and though I’m working with some people who know how to live off their lands and could teach me things, they can’t even survive fully living that way today. But I feel an addictive quality to my relationship with these screens sometimes. I feel pulled to be on the phone or computer instead of doing creative tasks with my hands or doing something less stimulating like sitting outside and listening to birds. With a father who was a pioneering computer scientist, I started staring at screens in infancy. Watching people in the US cross a busy street staring at their screens without even checking for cars scared me. I used to call out to them out of concern, and a few thanked me and realised the danger but most yelled at me to mind my own business. Thankfully, I’m not in that space with screen addiction, but I still want to work through some compulsive feelings. (Image from here. Why don’t we talk to people around us anymore, or observe the space and relax?)
In the talk I watched yesterday, Dr Mate reminded us that “infants and children are narcissistic, no matter how old they are.” We’ve been witnessing this daily with the behaviour of supposed social leaders in the media, our workplaces, and communities. I agree with Dr Mate that it’s often as simple as this: when we as children feel unwanted, we naturally, narcissistically, think we’re ‘not good enough’, because we are in a phase of life where we are forming an identity. Just one unprocessed trauma that causes a frozen dissociation can persist, even intergenerationally, with layers of addictive behaviours, emotional disregulation, and attachment disorders around it until someone digs into those thoughts, feelings, and beliefs and reaches into that core wound to heal. That is my journey, and perhaps yours too if you’re reading this. So how do we heal? And what if we’re still not in safe environments? Some dangerous, unstable people have a lot of social power right now.
“You want to make people grow? Make it safe for them to be vulnerable.”
-Dr Gabor Mate
Some people seem to spend a lifetime feeling little safety (physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and culturally). I count myself among them, though over time that’s been slowly changing for me. Here are three interrelated approaches that work for me:
- Acceptance + infinite patience approach – space making for mess, focusing on compassion and accepting the moment without judgement. Lukas and others I know find Buddhist practices helpful with this, and I like to meditate and express myself through art. This is really hard when we’re passionate about something that doesn’t feel okay to accept, like ongoing abuse or something else that goes against our values. (Image from here. I actually meditate lying down but this is such a common image.)
- Choose any survival strategy to avoid the freeze – even if that means fighting a big battle or fleeing intimate relationships or familiar environments that will bring great pain and grief into your life and may require you to seek help to process. This can be costly in time and energy and may feel at times like ‘picking your poison’, but it will enable you to be more in integrity and feel more alive. I choose the pain of being alive to the numbness of living without passion. And I choose fighting for change and experiencing isolation over accepting abuse or neglect.
- Create safe space – for yourself and others to be vulnerable. Be honest and change what you can, even small things like taking a minute a day to meditate or pray can make a huge difference. Changing our environments, boundaries, jobs, etc can increase our sense of safety. And supporting others to heal and work through things helps us mature and make meaning from our own trauma, addiction, and pain. A third grader may be better at supporting a first grader in learning some things because he’s closer to those lessons. And an adult teacher may be better at other lessons because she embodies more wisdom of lived experiences. Being self aware and honest about our own healing journeys (including seeking wise advice at times) helps us know what space we can safely hold.
That’s survival, isn’t it? Striking a balance between serving our human and non-human kin and keeping alive and well ourselves. And allowing addictions to emerge and heal frees us to be more fully here.