Why is My Loved One Acting This Way?
For family members of people with addictive behaviors, the why questions are difficult to reconcile. Trauma-informed care can provide answers.
It’s a question almost everyone who’s been touched by addiction asks: Why? Why does my daughter abuse alcohol but my son, raised in the same household with the same biological parents, doesn’t? Why does my brother, who’s less than a year older than me, seem to have a problem with pills but I don’t? Why did my wife, who was raised in a loving home with healthy, stable parents, just get her third DUI? If you’re wondering whether your loved one is suffering from an addiction, these questions make sense.
There’s no shortage of theories, including genetic predisposition, spiritual malady, psychosocial issues, brain chemistry and more. Many of these theories were groundbreaking when they first came out. For example, the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, published in 1939, had a truly revolutionary view of alcoholism as a two-part disease: a physical craving accompanied by an obsession of the mind that, like an allergy, causes alcoholics to react differently to alcohol than normal people.
Trauma-informed treatment options
The American Medical Association’s designation of alcoholism as a disease and myriad theories have brought us ever closer to an understanding of addiction—and more importantly, inspired compassion instead of condemnation for addicts. Many more people now understand that addiction is not a moral failing. And that’s a good thing. However, many of the theories about what makes someone an addict are now being replaced by groundbreaking work pointing toward “developmental trauma” as what is behind addiction and other behavioral issues. In my opinion and experience, this trauma-informed thinking about addiction has the best recovery traction. And what’s wonderful is, it’s a perfect match with many treatment modalities, especially the 12-step program created by Alcoholics Anonymous almost a century ago.
Canadian physician Gabor Maté, a renowned expert in addiction, theorizes that adverse events in childhood, such as abuse and neglect, raise a person’s susceptibility to addiction. Pioneering treatment centers like The Meadows focus on dealing with childhood trauma in helping people recover from addiction and other behavioral health issues. Renowned psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk has been trying for years to get “developmental trauma” recognized by the American Psychiatric Association with his evidence-based research and diagnostic criteria. Our partner Dan Griffin of Griffin Recovery Enterprises works with the specific trauma experienced by males in our society.
If you’re the parent of a child you suspect might be suffering from addiction, right about now you may be guiltily wracking your brain for what you did to traumatize your kid. We all have childhood trauma, even those of us from the most loving homes. When most of us think about trauma, we think about big events, like a car accident or a house burning down or being the victim of a violent crime. But trauma can result from patterns of less than nurturing experiences, and it’s not always at the hand of the primary caregiver. And what makes something traumatic is less about what happened and more about how a person reacts to it. That’s why one sibling’s feelings about a parent might be anger over what she perceives to have been abuse, while her brother might appreciate the strictness and high expectations placed on him.
What excites me is the potential for healing and recovery that trauma-informed modalities present. In my experience, both personal and professional, these modalities are particularly effective when paired with a 12-step program like Alcoholics Anonymous. Both trauma-informed treatment modalities and AA emphasize practices that provide healing through becoming more relational. If you’re concerned that a loved one is building to a crisis with addictive behavior or mental health issues, we highly recommend seeking help that has its eye on the underlying issues as part of its treatment modality.