How Life Experience Informs Addiction Therapy
By Michael Rass
Why do some people continue to misuse drugs and alcohol despite negative consequences? Finding the answer to that question is central to a successful recovery from addiction. Many people experiment with drugs and alcohol, but only some develop a substance use disorder.
Modern addiction treatment no longer subscribes to the concept that moral weakness is the cause for substance use disorders. Most people do not choose to misuse drugs and alcohol for hedonistic reasons, but rather in an attempt to numb emotional pain. Once they become addicted, the choice to use vanishes. To be effective, treatment needs to uncover the underlying psychological reasons for the addiction and address them in therapy. A careful assessment of a patient’s history, including their substance use, will determine which therapies will best meet their needs.
“Different people bring different developmental experiences into a therapeutic community.”
– Dr. Philip Hemphill, Chief Clinical Officer of Lakeview Health.
Many of them have experienced traumatic events in their lives, and it is important to explore how that has affected them. “For example, if they experienced trauma at a younger age, patients may have a different approach to the therapy process than someone who had that experience in adolescence,” says Hemphill. “Where a person was in their life experience when the trauma occurred informs their psychological setup significantly.”
It is vital that addiction professionals be aware of the prevalence of trauma as an underlying condition of substance use disorder. All staff at Lakeview—from the dietary and environmental staff to senior leadership—have been trained in trauma-informed care. Creating a safe space for patients to address their trauma openly is crucial in early recovery.
The precise circumstances of the trauma make a difference. Some patients were sexually abused as children, some were raped when they were teenagers, and other patients experienced extreme violence as members of the military.
“Someone with trauma early in life might have a more difficult time opening up in individual therapy sessions and may need a longer period of time to develop a bond with their therapist,” explains Dr. Hemphill. Those patients often find it difficult to trust anybody, and they might be uncomfortable being one-on-one with their therapist. “On the other hand, somebody who experienced trauma later in life might have more difficulty in group sessions and feel intimidated by social pressure,” says Hemphill. While some patients may make better progress in group sessions while other go deeper in individual counseling, both forms of therapy are important. All Lakeview patients receive both.
Trauma tends to be different in men and women. In recent years, addiction professionals have increasingly recognized this gender difference and changed their approach to therapy accordingly. The majority of women who enter treatment for substance use disorders report significant traumatic events in their past, including sexual assault and domestic violence. With men, addiction is often connected to social expectations of male behavior and the drive to succeed.
At Lakeview Health, men and women receive gender-responsive support in separate buildings. That way, patients of the same gender can talk more freely in group therapy sessions and bond to support each other in early recovery.
Trauma isn’t the only underlying issue. Many patients require dual-diagnosis treatment because they suffer from a mood disorder or mental illness. If a patient presents with depression, it might be the result of a traumatic life event. Some patients will have a genetic predisposition, especially if addiction runs in the family.
Since trauma or mood disorders are often the real reason for the substance use, these conditions need to be addressed in therapy. The integrative health approach at Lakeview Health goes beyond the cessation of drug and alcohol misuse. Lakeview Health’s abstinence-based, comprehensive care addresses the whole self of the patient to ensure a sustained recovery from addiction.