Addicts are particularly vulnerable to retraumatization because it allows them to check out, to live on autopilot. A case in point is Alexa, who, as an adult, set up the conditions to repeat the trauma she experienced in her childhood.
Alexa, like so many sex addicts, had a difficult childhood story. An older brother abused her physically and sexually, and despite Alexa’s pleas to her mother, nothing was done to protect her or to see to the boy. (When children act out sexually, it may be a sign they have been abused themselves.)
Alexa’s parents were well-to-do, and cared very much what others would think. They buried and denied the issues and modeled this strategy of denial to their children. By the age of 12, Alexa had discovered alcohol and marijuana, and began spending time with kids her parents disapproved of. Alexa’s substance use quickly became excessive, but rather than intervene, her parents chose to criticize their daughter. How dare she humiliate them! Their intense disapproval became the only attention she received. Soon, Alexa’s behavior vaulted from substance use to promiscuity. At 15, Alexa was found in a hotel room with a 43-year-old man who sat beside her father on a board of directors. Despite the age and power differential, Alexa was blamed for having “seduced” him.
By 40, Alexa had acquired a record of unhappy relationships. She unconsciously sought out men who were unavailable, emotionally or physically. In each of these relationships, the men went from being unavailable to withdrawn, critical and contemptuous. As this happened, Alexa herself changed from the sweet and pacifying girlfriend to someone who drank too much and ran around. She cheated on every man she had committed to, and each time found herself roundly condemned—called “slut” and “whore” and “worthless.” She didn’t seem to know another way to engage romantically or otherwise. Her instinct to sleep with off-limits lovers or to become involved with unavailable men was as strong as her cravings for booze and powders. Each of these things came with its limited reward, and each of them caused more problems than the high was worth. Still, the compulsions were unstoppable for a long time.
Throughout her childhood and into her adolescence, Alexa experienced the traumas of sexual abuse, and the trauma of neglect – of not being protected by the individuals whose responsibility it was to care for her. These traumas served to condition certain expectations and responses. Alexa expected to be blamed for the negative things that happened to her. The only attention she received was as a result of negative behaviors, though it should have been clear that at age 12, substance use and promiscuity with older boys and men was an unconscious cry for help.
By becoming involved with men who were emotionally identical to her parents, and by responding to their dissatisfaction by escaping to drugs, alcohol and sex, Alexa was repeating the story of her childhood. She was retraumatizing herself.
Retraumatization happens as a result of trauma bonds – relationships that are formed through harmful experiences. Alexa’s family bonds were insecure, even damaging, nevertheless, they were the ones she knew. The older men in her life represented her brother and her parents. She established sexual and emotional bonds that were not only insecure and damaging, but she did this of her own accord.
Breaking the Cycle
Because Alexa was taught to deny and hide the truth, she experienced problems even recognizing the truth at age 30. She set up the conditions to traumatize herself again and again, which is not to say that others weren’t accountable for being cruel or dismissive. It is important to realize that Alexa played the major role in the shaping of her story after she became an adult, and she chose to repeat the story from her childhood. Many traumatized people do, much to their detriment.
As we mature in awareness and understanding, we become more capable of healthy and authentic responses to our circumstances. As Aldous Huxley explained, “Experience is not what happens to you; it’s what you do with what happens to you.” To break a cycle of trauma, to flip the script from an old and damaging childhood story to a new, clear, in-the-now story, we must start by becoming aware of our tendencies to engage with the world as though the time were yesterday, and the people were players from our past. Ask yourself why you communicate the way you do with those you love, and if in answer, you find yourself blaming them, reevaluate. Take ownership. Ask again. Why have you chosen these people and this way of relating? How much power does your past have over you today?
Addicts in particular are vulnerable to retraumatization because it allows them to check out, to live on autopilot. Trauma is what they know, and all the damaging relationships that occur as a result only reconfirm their unhappy beliefs about themselves – I am not worthy. A critical part of sobriety is learning to take the wheel, to turn off auto-pilot and to respond to life creatively. Sobriety means not allowing old damaging stories to write our futures anymore.