How Childhood Trauma Leads to Addiction

In my recent post on Men and Addiction I described some theories and ideas that influence my approach to working with men who struggle with addiction. The most significant of these ideas are inspired by addiction specialist Dr. Gabor Maté, who’s perspectives on the causes of addiction go somewhat against the grain of traditional thinking on the subject. This engaging short illustrated video is a great introduction to Gabor Maté and his work with what he calls the Hungry Ghosts of addictions.

Men and Addiction

Most men struggle with addictions of one form or another. Frequently we struggle with more than one. When we’re being really honest with ourselves we know this to be the case.

Of course women struggle with addiction too, but unlike men, women are usually not taught so rigorously as children how to repress their emotions in order to fit in, so as adults they are often more familiar with their emotions than men. They may be no less confusing and painful, but at least they are less alien.

With many years of experience reflecting on my addictive tendancies, I understand now that they are coping mechanisms for dealing with the bewildering complexity of my emotional life, for keeping this complexity safely at arm’s length.

I was taught by my stoic father (who was fathered by a war survivor, who taught him) and my mother too that in order to conform to society’s expectations of what it means to be a man I needed to repress my feelings of fear and sadness, but perhaps most significantly my feelings of anger.

These emotions, often deeply repressed at a very young age, come back to haunt men in later life, and we develop elaborate strategies which help us to ignore them and keep hiding them away. These strategies frequently develop into addictions of various kinds, which addiction specialist Gabor Maté calls Hungry Ghosts.

The spectrum of addiction

When we think about addictions we can be forgiven for assuming that they are only a problem when they are clearly destructive in some way, like the alcoholic who loses his job and ends up on the streets or the gambler who blows his family’s savings on one weekend in Las Vegas. But what about the rest of us? What subtle and not so subtle ways might our own coping mechanisms show up as addictive patterns and behaviours?

Depending on our personality type, our addictive patterns will show up in different ways. For every man whose addiction shows up in ways that are clear for all to see, there are a hundred others who are quietly struggling in much less dramatic and destructive ways.

For those of us who are at the other end of the spectrum to the raging alcoholics and the compulsive gamblers of this world, those who enjoy some measure of success in our jobs, our friendships and our intimate relationships, the way our addictive patterns show up will likely be much more subtle and apparently under our control. Our loved ones may tolerate or collude with them or we may keep them carefully compartmentalised and safely hidden from those who might have an issue with them.

Are we really in control?

We may believe that we have them under control, but to what extent do they really control us? At what point does a consistent pattern of repetitive behaviour become an addiction? At what point does it become unhealthy? One answer might be when it begins to have an adverse impact on our quality of life. Another might be when it begins to have an adverse impact on other people, our friends, family and loved ones. Gabor Mate’s definition of addition is:

“Any behaviour that a person finds relief in and therefore craves in the short term, but suffers negative consequences in the long term and doesn’t give up despite the negative consequences.”

His definition significantly lengthens the list of addictions to include things that we wouldn’t typically understand as such. The list below is certainly not exhaustive.

  • Alcohol
  • Tobacco
  • Drugs (over the counter, prescription and illegal)
  • Pornography
  • Gambling and risk taking
  • Food
  • Sugar
  • Caffeine
  • Work
  • Routine
  • Sport
  • Exercise
  • Sex
  • Shopping
  • News (“news junkies”)
  • Television
  • Gaming
  • Social media, the internet and other forms of “screen addiction” (e.g. “doom scrolling”)
  • Religion and spirituality (“spiritual bypassing”)
  • Power
  • Anger (“rageaholics”)

It’s interesting to reflect that none of these things are, arguably, unhealthy in their own right, many of them are clearly healthy and some profoundly life enhancing. So what’s wrong with them?

As I’ve already suggested, they can be seen as reasonable and healthy coping mechanisms we use to help us manage and provide meaning and structure in our lives in an increasingly complex and uncertain world. In this sense, they’re completely understandable and okay. However, the bad feelings we might feel as a result of engaging excessively in some of these behaviours are a clue to what might be going on underneath. Whether we feel these feelings directly as guilt or shame, or indirectly as a result of the ways we structure our lives to hide them from ourselves and others (e.g. depression, stress, anxiety and physical symptoms – aches and pains, hangovers, comedowns and illnesses), they tell us that there’s something out of balance in our emotional lives, that there’s something we’re avoiding.

What are we avoiding?

So, what might we be avoiding? The simple answer to this question is emotional pain. The experience of the vast majority of men whom I have met, developed friendships with and had the privilege of working with as a counsellor, is that emotional pain often feels unbearable, and the threat of it creates a fear of complete loss of control (falling apart) that is overwhelming. After all, it’s our ability to be in control of our feelings, and by extension, in control of the world, that defines men, particularly in our patriarchal culture.

Allowing ourselves to feel out of control is therefore completely unacceptable to the majority of men.  It’s fascinating to reflect that many of our addictive patterns and behaviours allow us to feel more in control while many others allow us to feel out of control, but in safe and familiar ways. For example, the shy man who gets drunk in order to feel more confident and in control in order to seduce someone and have wild unselfconscious sex with them.

The illusion of control we have over our feelings and over our lives often equates to the illusion of control we have over our addictive patterns and behaviours.

It’s incredibly hard to face up to our illusions. We might have a pattern of going from relationship to relationship, always keeping our addictions just about under control or out of sight, telling ourselves that we can get on top of them without help, until inevitably we cannot keep them hidden any longer. Our loved ones might feel extremely angry, hurt, confused and betrayed by the ways we’ve kept these aspects of ourselves hidden from them, not understanding that they are reflections of the way we, as men, keep our feelings and emotions hidden from ourselves and others, safe under lock and key.

When we’re faced with moments of reckoning like this, perhaps again and again throughout our lives, when our loved ones ask us directly or indirectly to face our addictions and by extension our pain and our fear, we’re faced with a choice. Do we choose to continue living with our illusions that we are in control or do we take the incredibly courageous step of turning away from them and towards our emotional pain, perhaps for the first time?

Steps we cannot take alone

Turning away from our illusions and changing our addictive patterns are steps that we cannot take alone, no matter how hard we try. Finding a safe, supportive, non judgmental space with others who are beginning to confront their own illusions, or are a few steps ahead of us on the path, is an essential part of the process of outgrowing the patterns and behaviours that don’t serve us any more. It’s a process of recognising our basic need for brotherhood, community and solidarity at a time in history when the illusions our individualistic and patriarchal society has presented to us about the nature of manhood are crashing down around our ears. It’s a process of beginning to grow into the men we have always aspired to become. In order to access our full healthy, life enhancing power we need to learn how to access our vulnerability.


Further reading