Many people in recovery have suffered a unique trauma that was often a cause of their addiction. Usually, that trauma stems from childhood and the kind of massive adversity that can arrest mental, emotional, or physical development. One of the most sensitive populations where addiction is not uncommon are people who have been relinquished. Nancy Verrier, the author of The Primal Wound, has said, “Whether adopted from birth or later in life, all adopted children have experienced some degree of trauma. Trauma is any stressful event which is prolonged, overwhelming, or unpredictable.“
We know now that negative emotions stemming from trauma, such as depression, anxiety, or fear of abandonment, often lead to substance use. Numbing the emotional pain with drugs, sex, or food is a maladaptive way of coping for those of us who have never had the benefit of therapy. I believe it’s vital for mental-health professionals to understand the unique challenges that people who have been relinquished present when in treatment. There will be trust issues, there will feelings of powerlessness, feelings of loss of control, and problems with intimacy and relationships. A trust eroded so early in one’s life will take years of work to rebuild, and a therapist has to be aware of the challenges.
Sending a client to a 12-step meeting might not be the best idea if the person is struggling with identity loss and self-esteem. As helpful as they are, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are often based on the “tough love” approach where telling a newcomer to “shut up and suit up” or calling their reasoning “stinkin’ thinkin'” is par for the course. And even if a person can abstain from alcohol as a result of going to meetings, it’s important to note the root of their commitment. If it’s fear-based (“if you don’t go to meetings you will relapse”), it won’t work in the long-run because it won’t do much to contribute to the person’s growth. The sense of inner conflict, guilt, and shame for not feeling it will prevail, and another identity crisis might be in the works. This is not conducive to any type of recovery. I know a lot of people who are sober from alcohol (they don’t drink), who go to meetings, and who are miserable in their recovery. They stay quiet about it because the general consensus is that being drug-free should make you instantly happy. But can you imagine the anguish of always having to be in conflict with yourself?
Sending a client to a 12 step mutual aid group might be beneficial in many instances, but it’s imperative that a therapist understands how 12-step programs work, and that the client is able to talk about her experiences with it freely and without judgment. These groups should be seen as a recovery tool, not the only way to recovery.
Of course, there are other issues when it comes to working with people who have been relinquished. A counselor herself has to understand the sensitive nature of therapy and the fact that its success is based on honesty. A client who hides her truth, who is worried about pleasing their counselor and who is unable to talk about her issues with addiction, will not benefit from therapy. Patience, respect, and compassion are crucial when dealing with someone who suffers from the double-whammy that is addiction and relinquishment. Having a client with those kinds of challenges is a unique opportunity to develop a practice that honors and celebrates people who haven’t been able to thrive elsewhere.
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