Tuesday July 29th 2014

The victim mentality in addiction treatment

What is a victim mentality?

Past trauma is a common thread that weaves its way through addiction treatment. Negative historical events are often so big that survivors tend to define themselves by the experience and find it difficult to succeed at life because they are stuck in their victimhood. They experience a constant state of vulnerability that leads to hyper-vigilance and learned helplessness. They find it difficult to adapt when things don’t work out the first time because all their energies are directed at keeping themselves safe rather than devising a creative Plan B.

Drugs and alcohol offer an effective way for people who have experienced trauma to reduce their fears and increase social functioning – at least for a time. Of course, tolerance is soon built up to the drug and it loses its initial effectiveness, leaving the person to seek more drugs in order to achieve the same effect. This leads to a cycle of addiction.

Positive thoughts can help manage trauma

While we don’t ever want to deny or minimize the trauma, I have learned in my clinical practice that focusing too much attention on the event (or events) tends to unnecessarily re-trigger panic and cement the client’s identity as a victim. Rather, I find it more effective to pour positivity into the person’s life so that, proportionately, the trauma shrinks to a more manageable size. The intensity of feelings related to the trauma are diluted and made more bearable when the trauma survivor adds new activities, people, skills, enjoyments, etc. into her life, thereby scattering the darkness of trauma with a flood of new light.

I will often use the following metaphor in session to illustrate this point.

Living with trauma = a spicy stir fry

Imagine that you are cooking dinner. You’re making a stir-fry, mixing sizzling ingredients in a large pan on the stove. Suddenly the phone rings and you answer it. You continue to cook while chatting on the phone. But now, undetected by you, your daughter wanders by wanting to help. She grabs a hot spice from the counter – the one you use to add an edge to the taste – and she dumps half the jar into the pan. You didn’t notice while your back was turned, so you continue stirring until the hot spice is completely mixed into the meal. When you take a taste your face turns red and you run to the sink to put out the fire in your mouth. What do you do now? You could throw the whole thing away and start over, but that would be a big waste of food. You could serve it and eat a disgusting meal. Or, if you’re clever, you will begin to cut up more ingredients and add them to the dish until the spice becomes diluted and the dish becomes palatable again.

This narrative is very empowering to an addict because it teaches that instead of defining and overwhelming one’s existence (like the hot spice in the story), trauma can actually add an edge and taste to life – as long as it can be reduced to a manageable proportion. It is easy to see how lessons imparted through trauma can add depth, wisdom, empathy, and compassion. Suddenly, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s statement, “Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger!” makes a lot more sense.

How to live post-trauma without drinking or drugs

Like it or not, memories of trauma remain forever. At the very least, a person has to learn to function without being debilitated by past trauma. Optimally, by making life “bigger”, a survivor can actually get to the point where she can thrive, not in spite of the trauma, but actually because of it. She is no longer a victim because she has regained initiative and hope. This can reduce the compulsive need to use drugs and alcohol and opens up new and healthy pathways for life.

Photo credit: catbagan

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About Nachshon Zohari, LCSW

Nachshon Zohari is a licensed clinical social worker and the Program Administrator for Mental Health and Substance Treatment in a major U.S. city. His private practice includes individual, couples and family counseling; parenting classes; substance abuse education and treatment; and individual and group clinical supervision. He is an expert in the holistic practice of family focused addiction treatment.