Trauma Addiction: Freud Would Be Proud

There’s a certain trauma theory that I’ve come across a few times in the last few years that disturbs me—trauma addiction. That’s not trauma and addiction. That’s addiction to trauma.

I’ve mostly seen it come from people uncomfortable with the pain of trauma when they make statements like, “Why do you insist on reliving it?” or “You need to just let go.” I’ve only encountered in in one professional therapist that I went to briefly.

Several days ago, though, I came across the theory of trauma addiction in Psycholotical Trauma by Dr. Bessel A. van der Kolk. I guess I had just assumed it was the expression of ignorance, but to find that it’s supported in some psychological circles was truly shocking.

As both a survivor and someone who is studying trauma, I feel very uncomfortable with this theory for a number of reasons.

For one, the theory seems to make some huge assumptive leaps. In the book, van der Kolk lists the following examples of trauma addiction to support his point:

“Voluntary reexposure to trauma is very common. Veterans may enlist as mercenaries or seek other dangerous occumpations; incest survivors may become prostitutes; abused children may expose themselves to dangerous situations or engage in physically self-destructive behaviors.” (van der Kolk, 73).

He later even refers to a study that he himself did (but didn’t publish) that found a significant number of war vets who watch war movies.

The problem is that he goes from describing behavior to determining motivation without any supporting evidence to show that the behavior stems from that particular motivation (an unaccepted enthymeme fallacy). How could he possibly know why all war vets enlist as mercenaries? Or why they watch war movies for that matter?

It seems that these vets are caught in a double bind. If they voluntarily continue with the occupation they’re trained in, then they’re “addicted.” However if they do something that countless other people are able to do without being pathologized (watch movies), they’re still “addicted.”

The second example bothers me even more though. It takes the assumptions a step further and assumes that prostitution is necessarily the same as rape. But a voluntary prostitute (let’s assume he’s talking about voluntary because the implications of him talking about sex slaves is even more disturbing) has complete control over the sexual encounter. She is the one who chooses her clients. She is the one who sets the boundaries. If she’s not, then she’s not really voluntary and I would consider the sexual “encounter” to be rape.

Contrarily, incest involves the violation of boundaries and non-consentual sexual violence. The only connection between rape and voluntary sex work is the involvement of sexual organs. If prostitution is seeking out and reliving trauma, then so is having sex with a spouse.

Lastly, the cutting.  Ugh! I’ve listened to so many psychologists try to explain cutting in a way that makes them happy. It’s always the one thing that seems to play into and prove whatever their pet theory is around depression, anxiety, or PTSD. However, it rarely holds much accuracy to those who actually do cut.

Although there are as many reasons for why others cut as there are individuals who cut, I think it definitely has strong connections to trauma. But the connection isn’t an addiction to trauma.

It is a conditioning of trauma.

In high school, my cutting and hitting stemmed from the belief that I deserved to be punished for my mistakes. It helped to justify the punishments I received from my parents. It helped to distract from the terrifying thoughts and memories that plagued me. It helped to give me something physical to actually cry about because it was horrible living with wounds that I couldn’t see, couldn’t name. It was a coping mechanism for trauma, and if I was “addicted” to cutting, then it was because I didn’t have any other coping mechanisms to fall back on, not because I was addicted to trauma.

Which brings me to my second disagreement with the trauma addiction theory—the definition of addiction becomes too broad to hold any value.

Yes, battered partners can fall into a pattern of abusive relationships. Children can fall into a pattern of self-destruction. A broken sense of self is hard to love and hard to nurture. Old scripts are hard to unlearn. New ones are hard to learn. And to some extent, the familiarity of a negative situation is going to feel more comfortable than the unfamiliarity of a positive one.

But if that’s addiction, then addiction becomes anything from relational or social schemas and models to coping mechanisms to conditioned behavior, which means it covers pretty much every aspect of human interaction and personality and, as a result, covers nothing.

Aside from the fact that such a broad definition isn’t fair to people who are actually struggling with addictions, it does a disservice to trauma survivors. It disempowers survivors by making them feel trapped into their behaviors. It makes them their own enemy by framing the behaviors that helped them survive as “bad,” and it diminishes their ability to change through learning new coping skills and redefining their relationship models and identity.

My final objection to the trauma addiction theory (and I think the most important) is its vast capacity for victim blaming. Addiction implies the abuse of something. So addiction to trauma implies that a person is . . . what . . . abusing trauma?

It leaves the door wide open to say that the victim is the one seeking out the trauma to feed a desire/need. Technically, the victim should know better and avoid trauma, except that their need for it is so strong that they seek it out to their own detriment.

It sounds so much like the rape culture mantra “she was asking for it” that my skin crawls just to think about it, especially considering that one of the largest traumatized groups is women and girls who are sexually and physically abused. Like Freud’s theory that women make up rape fantasies because of some masochistic desire, the trauma addiction theory has far too much potential for devaluing the pain of victims and diminishing what was or is being done to them.

Perhaps in Freud’s day it was unfortunate but understandable that the theories around trauma would be both rudimentary and subservient to the status quo (men who didn’t like women talking about their rapes); however, I would hope that we’ve come far enough in our understanding of trauma to no longer need the manipulations that Freud resorted to with his patients/trauma victims. There are other theories that do a better job of describing the behaviors, thoughts, reactions, motivations, and wounds of trauma survivors that don’t resort to unaccepted enthymemes, broad generalizations of specific conditions, and victim blaming.

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4 thoughts on “Trauma Addiction: Freud Would Be Proud

  1. nicolesassy123 says:

    I read something I resonate with: “I will let go of IT….when IT lets go of….me.

  2. coolcat188 says:

    i heard of Dr. Bessel A. van der kolk when he was teaching a class about trauma @ Kripalu (a yoga retreat). i believe the words “addiction” or “addicted” are not applicable to this subject matter. anyone who self harms, returns to abusive relationships, prostitutes themselves, uses drugs or alcohol, or gravitates to any type of harmful behavior, is typically numbing their pain. the person is running as far from their trauma as possible & in doing so, they usually act out in destructive manners. are they ADDICTED to their trauma???!!! no, i don’t believe so. i believe these actions are typically a result of the way trauma conditions one to feel about themselves & life. if anything, the addiction in these situations is the continuous attempt to escape, but the addiction is not to trauma itself! sometimesmagical, i must add that i disagree with your view of prostitution. i’ve known male & female prostitutes & by no means are they safe from harm or have complete control over the sexual encounter. they are often robbed of their boundaries, just as victims of incest are robbed of theirs! no risky behavior is without some form of consequence, however i agree these behaviors are far from an addiction to trauma, but instead are just as you stated “a conditioning of trauma”.

    • Most of what he has said in his book has been good, but that one chapter really infuriated me.

      I wasn’t saying that sex workers are free from risk of harm, I was saying that voluntary sex work is not automatically pathological. At least, not more so than other voluntary sexual activities. Yes workers can be violated, but I see that as a problem with lack of legal protection for sex workers and a problem with the attitudes of clients.

  3. HoneyBeeMcGee says:

    Well written. It is mindblowing just how Very alive and strong the victim-blaming mentality towards sexual trauma is, not only in mainstream public thought, but indeed in many mental health circles as well. It is the dominant discourse on sexual trauma, sadly; however inaccurate and damaging it is. You might be interested in a book by Judith Herman, ‘Trauma & Recovery’. Clearly written, speaks about the reasons behind the patterns we find and repeat, the reasons for the compulsions, ways through this to the other side– also tracks Western society’s response towards trauma survivors. I myself am a survivor of sexual abuse, blessed that through years of therapy have hacked my way through that jungle and emerged on the other side. And only possible, in my case at least, because I found a therapist who had the RIGHT bloody trail map of how the trauma mind works. Thanks for your post Xx

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