Trauma and Addiction: Reflections On My 38 Years

On June 15, 2021 I marked my 38th year of recovery from alcoholism. As is often the case I am stunned by the passing of the years, and also shocked to be reminded that I am that old! Oy vey! In this case I am profoundly grateful for the years, and the many hard lessons, and amazing blessings they contain. 

In 1983 I was a profoundly depressed 28 year old, lost soul.  Like most all survivors of trauma and neglect I was on an endless quest to find a safe place in the world; and beyond finding a purpose, justify my sorry existence.  Like all other survivors my addled nervous system ricocheted ceaselessly between high anxiety and numbness; “hyper-arousal” and hypo-arousal” searching for the elusive moment of calm and ease, or at least relief. I was a distance runner, covering between 6 and 20 miles per day; I weighed 100 pounds (about 45kg). And each night, alone in my apartment in Berkeley, I drank a quart (roughly a liter) of straight Bourbon, Old Crow $6.95 a quart. I don’t know if they still make Old Crow. That was my “go-to.” It was what they called “rot gut” and I am sure it was! Then I would quietly pass out on the living room couch, with my journal or the latest book I was attempting to read, and my cat arrayed around me. A graduate of the University of California, and this was the best I could do? or so began the morning diatribe.

In the mornings, the face in the mirror horrified me. “What am I doing to myself?” I’d put on my sweats and go out to run. Those long stretches on the road, one would imagine I was thinking? I thought of nothing at all, it was raw flight.  But I could not get away from myself. I would come home, somewhat sobered by sweat and the cool air of the wee hours, and make proclamations about quitting that day. Sometimes I would go to the length of writing a detailed plan of how I would do it, and then by evening, it would all begin again.  I was like a rat on a wheel. We have all heard plenty of these boring “drunk-a-logs” as they are called in AA, and mine is not even colorful, racy, or funny. It was “pathetic” as I angrily told myself, and enduring.

Now looking back through a far different lens, it is a different story I see: it is the endless cycle of a traumatized brain and body desperately seeking “regulation” and calm, or at least relief, from the agony of unending flight.  The alcohol was a momentary escape from that agony, moments at a time… until as they say, it wasn’t.

The most salient lessons of these 38 blurring years, is that the drinking, the running, or it could be eating, love, shopping, whatever the obsession du jour, is yet another desperate attempt at momentary regulation, the ability to calm oneself down.

I learned just recently of old research using neurofeedback to treat addiction, that alcoholics literally use the alcohol simply to feel “normal.” The measured “alpha” level, or the baseline nervous system calm equilibrium in the non-alcoholic control group was matched only by approximately 6 shots of hard alcohol in the alcoholic group. In effect, it took them 6 shots on average to get to “normal…”  and that only briefly. As Sebern Fisher has so eloquently proclaimed, we are not really endlessly seeking a mother, but rather we are endlessly seeking regulation, and ultimately most of all, self regulation.

This is no “pink cloud” story. It did not get better overnight, by any means. I am eternally grateful and will always love AA, Alcoholics Anonymous, and no, one does not have to believe in God to benefit or to “fit in,” in most fellowships. I went twice a day for the first two years of recovery: 6:00AM and 7:00PM and for those two years, those quiet hours in smoky church basements (and yes, in those days everyone smoked cigarettes!) were the only little islands of peace that I knew. I owe my life to that motley old organization. And my therapist Joan, yes the very one who inspired me to become a therapist after I saw that she really saved my life, recognized that it was the alcohol that kept me alive for those worst years of my 20’s, until it started to and would have succeeded at killing me. Blessedly she had the wisdom to know the difference. 

My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” is out now. It  provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.

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