A Theme of Trauma – A Conversation with John, Angela and Steve K.

By Steve K

I recently took part in a live AA Beyond Belief (AABB) podcast recovery based discussion with co-hosts John S and Angela B. It was their first European live stream episode and I was invited to take part as their very first guest.

I’ve known John since he started his website AABB in the autumn/fall of 2015. A short time after he started the site I submitted an article to him for publication and he’s posted several others of mine since then. He’s been a genuine advocate of my writing and my blog, 12-Step Philosophy.

I was nervous about doing the podcast, particularly as it was a live show and I’m not great with technology. My self-worth still isn’t good, although better than it once was, and I suffer with anxiety as a result. I did end up experiencing some difficulties with sound at the beginning of the podcast, but this was soon resolved and then I settled into what became a relaxed, very organic and interesting discussion and a theme of trauma and chronic stress seemed to emerge as the conversation developed.

The podcast started with John introducing his co-host Angela B, who’s also in long-term recovery and very well informed and insightful, particularly in respect of trauma and its influence in relation to addiction. Angela and I both share an interest in the developmental causes of addiction, the impact of trauma bio-psycho-socially, and the endeavour to heal from traumatic life experiences as a fundamental aspect of recovery and emotional sobriety.

The discussion begins with Angela talking about her interest in this area and a documentary called ‘resilience’ which focuses upon Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and how these can lead to health and social problems (addiction included) in later life. The information contained within the film is now being used to create programs aimed at educators, social workers and legislators helping them to become trauma informed in their work. She also mentions that the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) has information about ACEs on their website and links to the original Kaiser Permanente – CDC research study.

John and I then briefly talk about my history, and the difficulties I had with addiction and offending behaviour until my mid-twenties. I experienced a certain amount of emotional abuse and neglect throughout my childhood and adolescence, and grew up within an alcoholic home. I left school at age 16 with no formal qualifications and began working as a builder’s labourer. I would spend virtually every penny I earned from work on alcohol. I spent the next 10 years more or less in constant trouble with the police and court system. Apart from the various court fines and community punishment orders I received, I was also sent to prison on two occasions for the relatively short periods of 12 and 18 months. I was released early on both sentences, in relation to the 18 month sentence I was released on parole after just 6 months.

The conversation then moves forward to where I’m at in my recovery today. I explain that in terms of my physical sobriety I feel very stable and committed, and that my real interest lies in developing my emotional sobriety, which I feel is the ongoing work of long-term recovery from addiction. I mention that in this respect I’d just agreed to take part in a series of therapeutic men’s group workshops based at a local community interest company (CIC), called the big room, that I have involvement with. We discussed the benefits of men and women only groups and why they are needed. I feel that these type of groups can be particularly helpful in the processing of trauma and chronic stress and in managing or healing its bio-psycho-social negative effects.

The workshops I’ll be taking part in are based upon similar principles to that which underpin the work of Gabor Mate, and his holistic approach to health and healing. He’s particularly interested in the mind/body relationship and how trauma (overwhelming or chronic stress) and our societal and cultural conditioning impact upon the person’s mind and physical health and well-being. His book ‘When the Body Says No’, based on research and his clinical work, explains the impact of hidden stress (often caused by emotional repression) and how it often results in chronic physical illnesses.

In the book, Mate describes in scientific detail how chronic stressors, such as emotional repression, specifically affect the central nervous system, the hormonal system, the immune system, and digestive system in a detrimental way. In fact, he also suggests that trauma and chronic stress negatively affect every organ and tissue in the human body; including the heart, lungs, kidneys, blood vessels, tendons, ligaments, and even an individual’s bone density.

Mate’s book makes me realise the vital importance of trying to limit, and resolve if possible, trauma and chronic stress in my life, if I want to be mentally, emotionally, and physically healthy and prevent my early demise. A primary goal of recovery from addiction is a healthy and happy life, it’s a tragedy when an alcoholic/addict escapes an early death by finding recovery only to succumb to another preventable illness or disease. We can significantly alter the course of our health and well-being by engaging pro-actively with our physical, psychological and social natures.

In the final chapter of his book, Mate describes what he calls the ‘Seven A’s of Healing’; which are acceptance, awareness, anger, autonomy, attachment, assertion and affirmation. I interpret them to mean: self-acceptance and compassion; emotional awareness and congruence; experiencing healthy anger rather than its repression; good boundaries and a healthy sense of oneself; supportive and loving social connections; true self-worth for our basic humanity; and a valuing of our creative and spiritual natures. These prescriptions for healing outline wise advice with regard to the mind/body/spirit relationship, with the aim of preventing, as well as reversing illness and disease. They are also a healthy prescription for developing and maintaining the emotional sobriety that many of us seek in recovery.

The podcast conversation then turns towards an article I wrote at the beginning of July of this year to mark my 15th year of recovery from alcohol addiction. I’d just finished reading a memoir by the British journalist Erwin James, and thought I’d make some comparisons between his rehabilitation and redemption from his formative years and my own life story. The article is called ‘Redeemable – A Story from Darkness to Hope’, which is available to read on my website.

James experienced severe physical and emotional neglect throughout his childhood and adolescence – to a much greater degree than myself I must emphasize. He lost his mother at a very young age and his father abandons him in favour of his alcohol dependency, women, and a lengthy period in jail. James spends much of what remains of his childhood in the UK care system. The trauma of his youth no doubt played a large part in his own reliance upon alcohol, his deep self-loathing, itinerant rough sleeping and offending lifestyle. He eventually finds rehabilitation and his redemption while in a high security prison, through a caring therapist, education, and from somewhere deep within himself a spirit of resilience and an inherent urge to fulfil his creative potential.

I explained to John and Angela that despite the differences in mine and Erwin James’s stories, there are some general similarities and that I particularly identified with his internal make up (his emotional insecurity, low self-esteem and anger), and in certain respects his drinking behaviour. I’d like to clarify that James doesn’t identify as an alcoholic/addict in his book and I’m not diagnosing him as such. However, he did use and depend upon alcohol in a similar way to myself.

Angela then reflects upon how she is often inspired by others’ recovery stories and that despite differences she can empathise with them and feel grateful for her own recovery.

In relation to the process of seeking emotional recovery, Angela then talks about how she learnt that the emotional over reactions and defenses that once served her, but no longer do, were first discovered through the inventory Steps and listening to the stories and experiences of others in the rooms of AA. We talk about emotional extremes and over reaction (poor self-regulation) and Bill Wilson’s 1958 letter in relation to emotional sobriety. His realisation that he needed to surrender his unhealthy demands and dependencies, including unhealthy dependency upon AA.

We discussed the need to develop recovery in the longer-term by widening interests and friendship groups beyond that of 12 Step fellowships. If we are to continue in our personal growth and development it’s vitally important not to over rely upon AA groups and friendships in my personal view.  John and Angela both share this opinion and have made efforts to develop their lives beyond the boundaries of recovery fellowship. 

We discussed Bill Wilson’s difficulties and human imperfections and for me this makes him more relatable rather than a bad example of recovery. He no doubt tried to live up to recovery principles and ideals, but like us all fell short at times in his life. However, he also served as an example of someone who often succeeded in overcoming his own ego and demonstrated great humility in his dealings with the AA fellowship and people and organisations outside of it.

I recently listened to a podcast interview I came across on Youtube with Gabor Mate and Russell Brand, which included brief comments about Bill W and his faults as a man. Mate pointed out that Bill was a traumatised individual due to being abandoned by his parents in his childhood. Having read Susan Cheever’s biography about Bill, I agree with Mate’s diagnosis. Wilson adored his parents, particularly his mother Emily, and was heartbroken around the age of 9 or 10 when they separated. His mother also had mental health issues and his father was a man who liked to drink, socialise and womanise by all accounts. Alcoholism ran on the Wilson side of the family.  Both parents left Bill in favour of their own interests and he was then raised by his maternal grandparents, who were emotionally austere and distant. As an adolescent, Wilson was already prone to deep self-doubt, insecurity and depression.

I identify with Bill W and Erwin James in some key respects. All three of us experienced early parental abandonment, emotional neglect and abuse. My early life wasn’t ideal either, my biological father was in and out of prison during the first few years of my life and was probably an alcoholic or addict of some type. According to my mother, he would go missing for days on end with the house keeping money and spend it all in the pub and on gambling, leaving no money for food for my mum, me and my younger brother. He was also a habitual thief and was in HMP Manchester (Strangeways Prison) while my mother was pregnant with me. I’m pretty sure my parents got married at this point and the wedding ceremony was in Strangeways jail. They were divorced by the time I was 3 or 4 years old and I’ve never seen my father again since.

Strangeways Prison, Manchester

My mother remarried a few years later to another alcoholic, unfortunately he was also a man unable to love the children he’d taken into his care.

Returning to the comments made by Gabor Mate in relation to Bill Wilson and AA. Mate suggests that if he was to find fault with the 12 Step program it would be that it doesn’t explore the underlying causes of addiction enough with respect to historical trauma. This is where the work of outside professional therapy and treatment must take place, if we hope to adequately address the impact of our troubling past. Bill W, Erwin James and myself all found help, support, understanding and compassion via this therapeutic route.

Angela also mentions during our discussion her efforts to go outside of the rooms of AA, for further help and awareness in relation to the traumatic events of her past.  Although, she also suggests that her ongoing commitment to service work helps with her insecurities and to heal her trauma issues to a degree, particularly through listening to and sharing with others in recovery (identification, true feeling, empathy and connection).

Towards the end of our conversation John talks about how doing these AABB podcasts help to fulfil his creative instinct and natural urge, and at the same time maintain and further his interest in recovery and helping others. Thinking about Gabor Mate’s 7th A of Healing (Affirmation), John is helping himself to heal and grow through being true to himself and following his self-actualising tendency by expressing his creative nature.

Angela and John are both fantastic examples in their efforts to recover. Their commitment to service work and being true to themselves is no doubt a fundamental aspect of their continued growth and development as great, although, I’m sure they’ll be the first to admit, not perfect human beings. Very much like myself, Bill W, and everyone else I know trying their best to recover from addiction, and the all too common adverse childhood experiences that often accompany this destructive condition. We all aim for progress, not perfection in healing and life.

Definition of Trauma

“Trauma is not what happens to a person, but what happens within them. In line with its Greek origins, trauma means a wound—an unhealed one, and one the person is compelled to defend against by means of constricting his her own ability to feel, to be present, to respond flexibly to situations.

Nothing overtly dramatic needs to happen to a young human being to induce trauma: it is sufficient that she or he is wounded without an immediate capacity to heal the wound. Thus, a parent’s emotional distance or depression, in the absence of any intended or implied abuse, is enough.

Young children can be traumatised simply when their need for attuned attention and responsive interaction with the parent is unmet—often due to no conscious awareness on the part of the parent.”

Dr Gabor Maté.

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