Trauma is not Codependency: Part 1

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What Box Do I Put These Feelings In?

When a partner gets into recovery all sorts of emotions tend to come to the surface. These emotions may at times feel in opposition, with hope next to fear, relief side-by-side with anger, and so on. If you have experienced these swings then you know how confusing and overwhelming emotions can be, sometimes rapidly go from one feeling to another: triggers can seemingly come out of nowhere. You may think that something is wrong with you, perhaps feeling like you are crazy. It may very well be that the recovering partner may be experiencing the same emotional roller coaster, at times feeling gratitude for recovery, and other times really struggling with all the newness and uncertainty of early recovery: “How am I am going to get through this?” “What happens next?” “How do I manage all these emotions, sober?” “My relationship? I can’t even go there!”

La Ronde's Le Boomerang Roller CoasterAs the recovering addict and partner experience these swings and ups and downs, twist and turns in their emotional life, an awareness can creep in, with increasing anxiety: “Does this mean I am really messed up?” I have heard people in early recovery ask me, “Do you think I am bipolar?” “What’s wrong with me, I should be grateful and relieved, and sometimes I am…but other times I feel sad, angry and fearful”.

Sometimes these feelings are explained as an “emotional relapse” a regression into an unhealthy emotional state, which for the addict precedes behavioral relapse. For the co-addict an emotional relapse is negative self-talk or emotions that are associated with codependent relapse: controlling behaviors; enabling the partner’s addiction; perfectionism; and low self-esteem, putting one’s own needs last.

Obviously, it is really important to figure out what emotions are being experienced and whether there is a risk of these emotions leading to relapse. For the addict and alcoholic managing emotions sober is a whole new ball game, for the co-alcoholic/addict self-care may be a new mind-set. Recognizing one’s own needs and the importance of caring for self means asking for support and help; this is not always easy, so you may need to start with giving yourself permission to reach out.

However, not all strong negative emotions related to addiction (and recovery) are a sign of unhealthy emotions of emotional relapse or of codependency. Sometimes these feelings are related to re-experiencing traumatic feelings triggered by emotional memories of the addiction. This is as true for the addict/alcoholic as it is for the co-addict. Most people have heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but probably have not heard this associated with recovery very often. We tend to think of soldiers returning from the battlefield when we think of PTSD, but chronic trauma, and addiction is certainly that, can leave a person vulnerable to the symptoms of PTSD. The National Institute of Mental Health defines PTSD (http://1.usa.gov/cc8g:)

1. Re-experiencing symptoms:

Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating
Bad dreams
Frightening thoughts.
Re-experiencing symptoms may cause problems in a person’s everyday routine. They can start from the person’s own thoughts and feelings. Words, objects, or situations that are reminders of the event can also trigger re-experiencing.
2. Avoidance symptoms:
Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the experience
Feeling emotionally numb
Feeling strong guilt, depression, or worry
Losing interest in activities that were enjoyable in the past
Having trouble remembering the dangerous event.
Things that remind a person of the traumatic event can trigger avoidance symptoms. These symptoms may cause a person to change his or her personal routine. For example, after a bad car accident, a person who usually drives may avoid driving or riding in a car.
3. Hyperarousal symptoms:
Being easily startled
Feeling tense or “on edge”
Having difficulty sleeping, and/or having angry outbursts.
Hyperarousal symptoms are usually constant, instead of being triggered by things that remind one of the traumatic event. They can make the person feel stressed and angry. These symptoms may make it hard to do daily tasks, such as sleeping, eating, or concentrating.
It’s natural to have some of these symptoms after a dangerous event. Sometimes people have very serious symptoms that go away after a few weeks. This is called acute stress disorder, or ASD. When the symptoms last more than a few weeks and become an ongoing problem, they might be PTSD. Some people with PTSD don’t show any symptoms for weeks or months.

While PTSD can trigger an emotional relapse, a distinction between codependency and PTSD helps us to put the feelings in the right box in terms of understanding what is happening. The adverse effects of addiction may be likened to the concept of second-hand smoking. “Second-hand alcoholism”, or second-hand addiction, refers to the negative impact on others emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and relationally because of someone else’s of addiction. Rather than assuming the person is having a codependent relapse, consider that these feelings can be understood as a reaction to trauma.

As science continues to provide tremendous gains in understanding addiction as a brain disease, beliefs and attitudes about dependency are finally shifting away from the moral model of addiction – that is, blaming the alcoholic for having a moral weakness. Similarly, I believe that a better understanding the concept of second-hand addiction removes judgement and assumptions about partners affected by addiction as a symptom of unhealthy codependency.

More on trauma, codependency, and second-hand addiction to follow in the next blog