What does it mean to belong? This is a question that’s always been on my mind—ever since I knew I was relinquished, ever since I was a child. Did I belong to my family if I wasn’t biologically connected, or did I belong to the people who gave me up, which meant I didn’t belong anywhere? The uncertainty about my belonging/ not belonging brought on a sense of shame, feeling as if I was being observed under a giant microscope by all the people who seemed to belong. Unlike them, as a relinquishee, it was as if I was one foot in and one foot out in my community. I didn’t feel understood. And rightfully so—my first childhood experience, of sharing with friends that I was adopted, was a negative, traumatic one. They made me feel that I did not belong, as they were appalled by my revelation. But was it their fault? Or was it the fault of having been misinformed about adoption—was it the fault of their parents, the community in general?
My trauma of having been relinquished and uneasy about my place in the world followed me into adulthood and has greatly contributed to me becoming addicted to alcohol. You see, for me, alcohol gave me a sense of connection even though it was a false kind of connection. And alcohol numbed the anxiety about my place in the world. Even when I had my own family, still unsure about my roots, I used alcohol to fill in the blanks of my identity. And they had no idea what to do with me. Were they misinformed? You bet. Did they love me? You bet. Were they traumatized? You bet. It was only after both sides—me and them—worked together that we started getting better.
“The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. It’s connection. It’s all I can offer. It’s all that will help [you] in the end. If you are alone, you cannot escape addiction. If you are loved, you have a chance. For a hundred years we have been singing war songs about addicts. All along, we should have been singing love songs to them,” said Johan Hari, the author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, in his now-famous TED talk. This we know, now. It took me a number of years, a lot of sobriety—and a lot of digging into my past—to finally feel whole and feel that I belonged and was truly connected to others.
But let’s twist this a little bit. Who are these others? Well, they are our friends and family, our communities. And as an addiction professional, I know that yes, we must be trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive in our approaches with people with substance use disorder, but we must also support and facilitate attachment in families and communities. Helping a person with trauma is a group effort and the members of the group should also be helped. This might mean therapy (for family members), 12-step support groups; this might mean public education about trauma, reducing stigmas through disseminating the correct information.
People who have gone through trauma affect those around them—in turn possibly creating further trauma. A way of preventing that is guiding everyone through—helping with trauma is a two-way street. We need to be sensitive to the needs of families and communities and be ready to provide information and services—otherwise, the chance of losing the person with the substance-use disorder increases as the ignored and misinformed families and communities want nothing to do with “the addict.” Among other things, belonging means acceptance, and we can gain acceptance (and, further recovery) if the person with substance-use disorder feels loved and supported. The love and support might not happen on its own, we need to be ready to facilitate it.
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