May 27, 2020

Connecting the Dots: Past Experience and Addiction

Identifying and acknowledging the role life events play in addiction is often the first step to healing. Those willing to bravely face where they have come from are best positioned to for long-term, successful recovery.


By Thomas Beck
The relationship between life experience and addiction is indisputable. In fact, recovery often hinges on a substance user’s acknowledgment of past events and the role they play in escalating addictive behaviors.
Consider the following scenario:
A young girl is verbally abused by her parents beginning at a very young age. Over time, the child develops a diminished sense of self-worth and begins blaming herself for the abusive behavior. At 14 years old, her friends introduce her to alcohol — the effects of which provide confidence and temporarily subdue feelings of guilt and self-condemnation. As the teenager grows into an adult, she increasingly uses alcohol as a means of overcoming feelings of inadequacy. Eventually, her substance use spirals out of control, becoming a coping mechanism for daily life stressors.
Cycles of behavior often develop early in life and are fundamentally linked to interactions with others and the environment around us. Factors contributing to these learned behaviors can become so ingrained in our consciousness that we have difficulty seeing past them, even when they are unhealthy. That’s why a substance user’s ability to recall his or her life story and identify key events that contribute to harmful thought patterns is critical to long-term success with recovery.
Recalling past events is not always easy. It can be painful and messy. In addition, it can sometimes seem impossible — especially in cases of trauma where painful memories have been suppressed.
Consider another scenario:
A young boy is sexually abused by an uncle beginning at age 4. Over time, the individual suppresses the early negative emotions and feelings of guilt by normalizing the incidents. He transfers the trauma to a belief that he enjoys the activity, and it is acceptable behavior. This suppression leads to an inability to say no to other forms of destructive behavior, such as alcohol and drugs.
In truth, any disconnect from the past or failure to acknowledge its role in addiction becomes a roadblock to effective treatment and recovery. Life story therapy provides the foundation for defining rational thought processes, establishing healthy behaviors and eliminating the vicious cycle of addiction.
Group and one-on-one discussions involving life-story therapy is a vital part of treatment, helping substance users overcome obstacles to identifying and telling their life story through these six steps.

Create a Timeline of Events

Sometimes images of the past appear muddled and lack clarify. To improve recall, create a timeline of past events. Then, the ability to identify, compartmentalize and process milestone experiences become easier. It’s best to begin with small steps, such as listing 10 to 15 events leading up to where you are today. Trying to recall too much information at first can be overwhelming. Also, starting with the most recent events and working backgrounds is an effective strategy.

Fill in the Details as They Become More Evident

Once an initial outline of 10 to 15 events is established, you often begin remembering more, so you’re able to fill in wide gaps that may exist in your story. As this information is uncovered, you have greater capacity to break down and simplify overwhelming amounts of past knowledge.

Allow Yourself Room to Grieve

Grief and loss are common triggers of substance use. Often, substance users fail to make this connection because they associate grief and loss solely with the death of a loved one. Painful events create the same feelings. Individuals may grieve the loss of childhood, relationships or opportunities missed because of circumstances beyond their control. Once identified, a counselor can help them process the painful event, address this underlying trigger of addiction and establish a way forward.

Give Yourself Time to Grow and Learn

There is no time limit to life story therapy as every situation and individual is unique. For instance, you may feel overwhelmed by a group setting at first. In this case, it makes sense to begin the process of identifying the past through individual counseling. Others may be more apt to thrive in group therapy right from the start. Regardless of the setting, allowing time for processing each event individually is critical to this step. This way, substance users can better establish feelings associated with an event and compare emotions with destructive patterns of behavior.

Recognize the Benefits of Group Therapy

Ultimately, life story groups are effective treatment goals for all substance users as these models allow patients to learn from one another, gain confidence and grasp that they are not alone in their struggles. Listening to the stories of others often helps patients recall life events and emotions that have been suppressed. Eventually, individuals who start in individual therapy can find the right group where they will feel safe and accepted.

Continue the Process

Remember that life story therapy is an ongoing process — one that can’t typically be completed in the 30 to 50 days often allotted to patients for inpatient treatment. Once the process is started, it’s critical to continue processing difficult memories with professional counselors or in support group settings. Otherwise, the potential for relapse is high.
Identifying and acknowledging the role life events play in addiction is often the first step to healing. Every life journey is unique, and understanding how the past shapes who we are is critical to establishing new, healthier behaviors and patterns. Those willing to bravely face where they have come from are best positioned to for long-term, successful recovery.
Thomas Beck is an addiction counselor at Gateway Foundation in Springfield, Illinois. With a master’s in counseling and an LPC license, Beck has experience in the addiction and human services industry including working with troubled youth in juvenile detention. Each day, Beck says his main goal is to simplify life one day at a time by helping to build strong minds, strong bodies and a strong community.  

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