“Trauma doesn’t cause addiction.” 

Nearly every time I’ve made that statement publically, the blogosphere erupts with angry people telling me how unthinking, callous, and mean I’m being when I make this claim. Here’s the problem; they assume I’m saying past traumas have no bearing on addiction whatsoever. To be clear, I’m not saying that. But I’m also not saying that behind every addict’s or alcoholic’s desire for substances lurks an inevitable latent trauma either. If you want to hold onto that lie, become a follower of Dr. Gabor Mate who is the current guru behind the trauma-causes-all-addiction myth that is being mainstreamed today. 

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Being a survivor of some fairly severe trauma in both my childhood and in early adulthood, I know that traumas can be a factor in drinking and heavy drug use. It certainly was in mine at the time. I learned early on in therapy and in my recovery-centered household that my being beaten and neglected as a young boy, alongside my family’s proclivity for alcohol and drugs, was a golden bridge to addiction. I held that idea as absolute truth long before I ever drank or drugged for the first time. Because the therapists and the people I loved the most were selling this idea, I naturally bought-in. Unfortunately, that idea evolved into a behavior after I began drinking and drugging when I was twelve. I believed my loneliness and trauma filled world was fueling my drug use almost from day one – the mental connection was made. The only way past the misery of my young existence seemed to be substances. The behavior of using substances to attempt my escape from emotional pain eventually turned into habit, and the habit turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy – I felt my traumas caused me to become an alcoholic and a drug addict. I had become a victim of my past traumas and sought relief through heavy substance use. Dr. Mate would be proud, I had become a believer in this victim-centered mindset. Problem is, deep down, I knew a certain amount of this idea was nonsense, and here’s why.

A Budding Researcher

When I was a young boy, new to the neighborhood we’d just moved into, I met the kids from down the street. As the years went by we all became good friends. Some had stable lives while some of the others had lives worse than mine. As time passed by, and early childhood developed into adolescence, I can remember thinking, ‘how come the kids with worse lives than mine didn’t all become addicts or alcoholics?’ Many of them lived in poverty, they had domestic violence issues, some of the kids were fairly violent street fighters and some tended toward lives of crime. Yet, very few drank and/or drugged heavily at all. The trauma-causes-addiction theory was broken right then and there for me. There were just too many people who lived extremely difficult lives around me, who did not exhibit any addictions, to make the causal argument have any teeth. 

In research circles, we don’t throw out the sample that does not meet our hypothesis – we seek out why that group didn’t match what we thought should have occured. These people, my friends, no matter how rough their lives were, had values that didn’t include being a victim. I admired that about them. I never forgot the people that didn’t match what I was told by the well meaning therapists trying to help me at the time. So when I did become a researcher in my early twenties, I already knew more people who lived with trauma and did not have addictions than those that did. I also knew dozens who were like me, who bought into the idea that substances were magical and could somehow fix or blot out their past traumas. 

People drink and drug for a widely varied set of reasons. For example, I’d learned a set of ideas that made my traumas seem insurmountable; I learned that idea in AA and therapy. I also learned the myth that drugs could fix that pain: I learned that at home, in AA, in therapy, as well as out in the street. All of these ideas were wrong. I wasn’t destined to use drugs and alcohol because my childhood sucked. My many friends who were in the same trauma-filled boat, but who successfully avoided the drug scene, showed me that. 

Can’t Unring the Bell!

It was by thinking logically and eventually researching human behavior that I realized that there is a big difference between being “caused” to behave in some way, and “having reasons” for behaving in some fashion. Simply put, if trauma causes you to use – well, you’re screwed. Traumas happen and then they are a part of our undeniable past. If trauma did indeed CAUSE one to use uncontrollably, well then there is no way to change that pattern of use. The past cannot be undone. You can’t unring that bell. So if the connection between trauma and substance use is causal, then uncontrolled use is inevitable and irrevocably tied to your past; there is no undoing the pattern. In this theory, if you think or dwell on your traumas, you will inevitably use substances. Like a match to gasoline, you’re done. End of discussion. 

Some in the therapy industry, and charlatans like Dr. Mate, bank on you believing this causal connection exists. And make no mistake – if you believe that trauma causes your addiction, it will. In the final analysis, your thoughts and beliefs are what always drive our addictions, and this theory is one set of thoughts that is certain to keep you trapped in a cycle of unending use and unending therapy and “recovery.”

Reasons Matter

Do you want to let go of this myth? Are you ready to let the traumas of the past be what they were, and move forward? Are you willing to disconnect the emotional tissue that holds you captive to the past? Are you ready to no longer feel the need to use drugs and alcohol to somehow magically drown out the past pain? 

To make the break, you must first realize that you’re never caused to drink and drug. Rather, you use your powers of reasoning to drink and drug. Trauma might be a reason to get wasted, but that reason can change. You can disconnect the past from the present and move on. You can let go of the idea that you will use substances everytime you think about your traumas. You are not caused to drink and drug by the past – although you might have used it as a reason to do so.

Here is the good news – you can choose to want better for yourself. But to do so, you will need to let go of the trauma-addiction connection. Think about all the people you know who had it bad when they were kids or have experienced unspeakable pain as adults. Now think about how many never got drunk or high. Think about the millions who left horrible circumstances, and never threw their lives away. Heck, many probably could have considered the darker side of humanity and given in to this destructive causal narrative, but didn’t. Just like my friends who showed me how to let go and become successful, you too can let the past be what it is and finally let go of the reasons you’ve used to justify your heavy use. 

My colleague, Michelle Dunbar, and I also both did videos regarding this topic as well this week and I encourage you to take a look for an up-close and personal message detailing this article.  Both are at the bottom of the post.  

For more information about the Freedom Model or the Saint Jude Retreat, call 888-424-2626.


Mark Scheeren Discusses Trauma and Addiction

Michelle Dunbar Discusses Trauma and Addiction