Life experience and addiction are intrinsically linked. It’s an unquestionable fact, yet many substance users fail to make the connection before a condition spirals out of control.
The reality is that we learn cycles of behavior and thought early in life through our interactions with people and the environment around us. As these factors continue to influence the way we think and act, it becomes increasingly difficult to see past learned behaviors. And sometimes, life events and experiences can lead to the development of unrealistic and harmful thought patterns of self and society.
For instance, children who witness or experience physical abuse while growing up often develop their own ideas for why it happens. They may feel responsibility or blame themselves for the inappropriate actions of others. While these beliefs are not grounded in reality, they can have a dramatic impact on how children view the world.
Or, consider how some children learn behavior from their parents. If a child watches a parent drink alcohol to manage anger or stress, this behavior may appear as an acceptable coping skill. As such, a child who learns this behavior may repeat it as an adult.
Negative life events, a skewed sense of reality or learned behavior can play a significant role in the development of a substance use disorder. If not identified early or treated properly, a person’s past may continue to haunt them, leading to a desire to escape painful feelings through misuse of drugs or alcohol. Consequently, making the connection between life events and addition is critical to successful recovery.
Life Events and Addiction: The Connection
Suppression, the conscious act of eliminating a thought pattern, is a fundamental contributor to behavior that leads to substance abuse. People who suffer from addiction commonly use drugs or alcohol to aid in suppressing painful memories, traumatic events or feelings of guilt and shame.
Often, suppression becomes a roadblock to addiction recovery. The more we ignore our past, the further we move from reality. Addiction then becomes a disconnect from rational thought processes, which hinder our ability to remember and address life events in a healthy way. Substance users may become increasingly confused, contributing to feelings of anger, shame and guilt, and ultimately creating a vicious addiction cycle.
Effective recovery from addiction requires a baseline understanding of life experience to keep this cycle from exacerbating. For this reason, we ask patients to write out their life story as a first step to recovery. Once a patient understands his or her past, he or she can break down life experiences, compartmentalize them and begin processing events that have influenced thought patterns.
Every life story is different, and triggers of substance abuse come in many forms. Without this baseline understanding, treatment is less effective in holistically treating the individual and helping them develop healthier thought patterns and behaviors.
Identifying, Letting Go and Creating New Patterns
Many substance users who have suppressed thoughts over time find it difficult to remember the past. In these cases, it helps to write a timeline of 10 to 15 events that led them to where they are today. Often, this exercise brings more memories to the surface and allows you to fill in the gaps of your life story. Then, you can better break down and simplify overwhelming amounts of past knowledge.
For instance, grief and loss is often a trigger of substance use, yet many people fail to make the connection. If you write out a timeline of events, you can see where an addiction formed or got out of control, and subsequently identify its association to a grief and loss event. Once identified, you can work with a counselor to better address the underlying trigger of addiction, process the painful event and establish a way forward.
The best setting for writing out a life story varies. Some patients feel overwhelmed by a group setting at first and are best suited to start the process of identifying the past through individual counseling. Others may be more apt to progress quickly in a group setting. Ultimately, all patients can benefit from life story groups, as this framework helps substance users learn from each other, gain confidence and grasp that they are not alone in their struggles.
The process of identifying life events and letting go of destructive thought patterns takes time, but it is the first step to healing. Once we begin verbalizing our pain and learning from past experiences, we can then begin letting go of painful memories and thoughts we want to suppress. It is at this stage that new patterns of behavior are possible.
Every life story is categorically unique; our individual experiences shape our existence and are incomparable to others. The journey to recovery begins with our life story. By looking back, we can understand the triggers of addiction, address guilt and shame and ultimately, create a new way of thinking.