Trauma Reactions Are Not Codependency
In my article, Trauma is Not Codependency: Learning the Difference, I address the importance of acknowledging and understanding that active addiction creates trauma for both the person with the addictive disorder as well as for partners and family members.
It is important for couples to recognize and accept that the impact of addiction often follows couples and family well into recovery. This is normal and to be expected in most circumstances.
Why Emotions Can Switch So Quickly
Despite initial feelings of relief that a partner is now in recovery, there may be ongoing struggles with feelings. Fear of relapse, experiencing an enhanced state of sensitivity to the partner’s behaviors (hypervigilance), and being on guard, are all normal reactions post active addiction. Some partners may experience nightmares, startle responses; depression, and generally often feel triggered and on alert.
The partner in recovery from an addictive disorder may very well feel similarly. Often shame and guilt follows everybody into recovery.
My research couples consistently identify managing emotions as one of the toughest parts of recovery. It’s not surprising. Partners need to develop ways to understand and cope with the roller coaster of emotions without numbing or falling back into old patterns. Research supports the idea that sharing and expressing emotions in a healthy way is key to successful long-term recovery.
Feelings verses Behavior
Person with an Addictive Disorder
A relapse isn’t a relapse unless there is the actual behavior of drinking or using. Having thoughts, cravings, or ideas of using may be warning signs for possible relapse, but it isn’t a relapse. Learning to identify potential relapse triggers and developing a plan is key.
Feelings and thoughts are different than behaviors in defining relapse. The partner who feels responsible for their partner’s addiction but doesn’t act on it hasn’t relapsed. Instead these feelings warrant exploration and understanding to develop strategies to manage those feelings
What About Emotional Sobriety?
Definitions of the term emotional sobriety vary. One common feature of the many definitions relates to the concept of acceptance. Understanding one’s own limitations to create change in others is a hard feeling to embrace when we worry about the people we love and care about.
Additionally, accepting one’s own feelings, especially the feelings we don’t like, or that we struggle with can challenge our own feeling of wellness.
Lack of emotional sobriety doesn’t mean having the “wrong, unhealthy feelings”, as a sign of pathology. I believe it is more useful to think about emotional sobriety as the ability to recognize and accept those feelings, regardless of what they are.
Learning to challenge the beliefs underneath those feelings provides the key to managing feelings that otherwise might lead to negative self-perspectives, or to self-judgement for having those feelings. Acceptance of feelings, and what we do with those feelings ultimately will define emotional sobriety.
An Experiment In Thoughts and Feelings
You get the idea. Sometimes we get stuck in trying to not think about something. That just doesn’t work very well, especially when we try even harder.
Likewise, feelings can come and go very quickly, they don’t have to define who we are. What we experience in our emotional lives comes from our histories, psychology, and the way our brains are wired.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Addiction
Carlo and Maria
Carlo and Maria (not their real names) came into a session very upset. They stated that they had a major breakdown in their relationship. I asked what happened.
In the prior week Carlo came home from an AA meeting later than usual. He called to let Maria know he would be late, that he was hanging out with some AA friends getting coffee after the meeting.
Carlo reported, “She was a mess when I walked in the house, she totally lost it. I didn’t do anything wrong, I called”. Carlo added sarcastically, “What else could I have done, get a hall pass from my sponsor?”
Maria reported that when Carlo called to say he would be late she felt a little uncomfortable at first. Almost immediately after hanging up her feelings escalated into raging anxiety, dread, anger, and fear. She described feeling nauseous, “Sick to my stomach, I couldn’t help it”.
So, did Maria have a full blown codependent relapse? Is this a sign of her pathology and her need to control Carlo’s schedule and whereabouts?
I think a more useful way to understand Maria’s reaction is that she was experiencing Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These feelings are triggered from previous trauma of the countless times during the active drinking years that Carlo would come home late. He would call with lies and excuses, and come home intoxicated. He usually denied or minimized his drinking . Their interactions would escalate with Maria’s aggressive and accusatory yelling and Carlo’s defensive counter-attacks.
Maria’s feelings are normal in the sense that it is understandable why she reacted the way she did given the trauma she has experienced. The triggers were embedded in Carlo’s phone call. The issue isn’t that Maria had these feelings, it’s more about identifying and learning to manage these trauma reactions.
Carlo didn’t do anything wrong but he did need to understand – as did Maria – that her reaction was an involuntary trauma reaction triggered in the parts of the brain designed to protect us from danger. The hippocampus (memory) and amygdala (emotions) are linked through an emotional memory sequence that aims at identifying possible threats.
I don’t believe it’s ever helpful to pathologize these reactions, but rather, I explore where they come from and help couples understand trauma reactions. When Carlo understood Maria’s reaction was PTSD, and not about him “screwing up again”, he was able to move more toward compassion.
Similarly, when Maria was able to see her reaction as a full blown PTSD, then she was able to better let go of her guilt and shame for her feelings. We discussed what to do in the future when there are strong reactions that likely have been triggered. This isn’t to say that additional individual focus like extra support wouldn’t be helpful or appropriate as well. We also explored these options.
Identifying and understanding triggers and PTSD is an essential tool for couples in navigating recovery, individually and as a couple.