Addiction, Attachment, and AA

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The theory of the causes of addiction that most resonates for me is that addiction is born from attachment injuries. Dr. Gabor Maté reflecting on this in an article for the Globe and Mail in 2007: “Addictions always originate in unhappiness, even if hidden. They are emotional anesthetics; they numb pain.  The first question — always — is not “Why the addiction?” but “Why the pain?”

What is happening in our brains as we experience a sense of connection and belonging or dis-connection and isolation?

Relating to one another, one on one, in couples, or families, or in larger social groups, is the most complex thing human beings do, more complex than writing a symphony or running a business or solving global warming. The need to relate, to be emotionally and socially intelligent, has driven the evolution of the human brain to be the most complex anything in all of existence.

The experiences in our early relationships encode in the neural circuitry of our brains by 12-18 months of age, entirely in implicit memory outside of awareness; these patterns of attachment become the “rules”, templates, schemas, for relating that operate lifelong, the “known but not remembered” givens of our relational lives. 

When those early experiences have been less than optimal, those unconscious patterns of attachment can continue to shape the perceptions and responses of the brain to new relational experiences in old ways that get stuck, that can’t take in new experience as new information, can’t learn or adapt or grow from those experiences. These are attachment wounds.

What do early attachment wounds look like?  How do we know if we are wounded in this way?  We look at our relationships:  our relationships with others; and our relationships with self.  What are our patterns of anger?  How often do we slip away and abdicate responsibility, finding ourselves unable to move, almost paralyzed?  Do we struggle with our addictions, finding substances, food, alcohol or activities more compelling than connecting with others?  Do we need our addictions to even be able to think about connecting with others?  Do we have pockets of self-loathing, despair, shame or rage that ambush us suddenly, as if we’ve just stepped on a land mine?  If you are nodding in response to any of these questions, you are living with unhealed attachment wounds.

Secure attachment offers us a safe haven, a safe harbour, a place of loving acceptance. Contact with intimate others is the primary way humans have evolved to deal with anxiety and fear. My experience is that only in recovery did I learn to be emotionally present, to build emotional connection. It is the compassion and empathy modeled for me in the rooms of AA that gave me the tools I was able to translate into becoming connected and emotionally present with my others. In my practice I work with clients in recovery from addictions as well as with clients who come from families with a history of addictions. I find that having a client that is in AA or NA or CA gives the couple a model that demonstrates what secure attachment in a relationship can look like.

 AA is messy, untidy, full of sketchy addicts and drunks ( I should know because I am one of those!), and absolutely should not work – but it does. It helps us heal our attachment wounds. If it looks strange to you from the outside let me assure you that it is equally strange on the inside. It comes from a homeopathic similia similibus curentur (“like cures like”) mode of treatment. And it works better than anything else I am aware of. It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you have done, you are welcome in the rooms of AA. This unconditional love and acceptance is a model of secure attachment, a safe harbour, in action.

Addiction theory from an attachment perspective holds one basic and simple premise about treatment: until alcoholics and addicts develop the capacity to establish mutually satisfying relationships, they remain vulnerable to relapse. As AA and other 12 step programmes show us, gathering together like people together to share their stories imbues a kind of wordless strength, a safe harbour, helping to regulate the Limbic System in our brains. Our brains link with those people close to us. These wordless and powerful ties help determine or moods, stabilize and maintain our health and well-being and change the very structures of our brains.

This is why simply going to an AA meeting is often enough to help me feel better in sobriety. Before the sharing, before the speaker, even before the Chair invites us to say the Serenity Prayer together…simply by being in the presence of other alcoholics and addicts, I will feel better. Attachment is an emotional bond that forms in a person over time with caregiving, familiarity, and continuity. That sounds a lot like what we encounter in AA.

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