When Unknown Traumatic Events Fuel Addiction

image of book The Body Keeps ScoreIn Bessel van der Kolk’s latest masterpiece, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma he writes about a study specific to traumatic memory that I believe has significant implications for those who struggle with addiction. The study takes us into the science of repressed memory, and helps prove that often traumatic events from the past that fuel present addictive behavior, cannot be remembered.

Study on Women’s Memory of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Back in the early 1970s, Dr. Linda Meyer Williams was a graduate student studying sexual abuse.image of sad girl She interviewed 206 girls (ages 10 to 12) who had been admitted to a hospital following a sexual abuse incident. She also interviewed the parents, confirmed lab tests, and made sure that all the information was meticulously recorded in the medical record.

Then, 17 years later she tracked down 129 of the children and interviewed them again about their prior abuse experience to find out: 

Do people actually forget traumatic events such as child sexual abuse, and if so, how common is such forgetting?

The outcome of the study: 38% did not recall being sexually abusedThis study is just one among many that help us to understand that traumatic events are often completely forgotten. One reason is that when the events occur, they do not get recorded in the memory systems of the brain in the same way as other memories. They get recorded as dissociated fragments of experience and disconnected sensations in the body, thus a coherent story of the event simply does not exist in memory.

Traumatic Events and Addiction

Fast forward years later. You seek treatment for drinking, drugging, gambling, or perhaps acting out sexually or with food, and the interventions you receive focus on helping you develop a recovery lifestyle. But how successful are your efforts to abstain following treatment, when the flame that fuels your addiction is not even known?

To successfully overcome addiction most often requires some work on resolving past traumatic events, even when such experiences are foggy or forgotten. Fortunately, it’s not absolutely necessary that trauma be fully remembered to treat it and remove its influence on addictive behavior. But – and this is a big but – to treat trauma requires more than talk therapy. It requires an approach that involves the body, emotions, and integrating the head and the heart. And it requires patience, safety, and in most cases help from a trained clinician.

If you have been to treatment for addiction and continue to struggle, exploring the potential role of unresolved past traumatic events may be the missing key that allows you to permanently turn a corner on your addiction.