“We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”–Alcoholics Anonymous, 12 Steps
Our step work to this point has opened memory networks and experiences we long buried. We felt broken, raw, and experienced intense emotions. Nevertheless, we persevered. Many of us had the gift of desperation to follow suggestions and do the work required for long-term recovery. What choice did we have? We could continue to live in amnesic denial and suffer or we could risk everything and recover. Some of us stopped step work at this point feeling outside our window of tolerance. Others made a chose to dig deep and heal. We recognized half-measures could not keep us in recovery. Recovery requires us to venture into new unknown territory. In order to find liberation and wholeness we trudged forward with faith, trust, honesty, open-mindedness, willingness, and the understanding that our journey guides would help us in our healing process.
Our last post established a connection between dissociation and addiction. We introduced the concept of fragmentation of the self and establishments of parts. In this post we will dive deeper into self-alienation, compartmentalization, and fragmentation common trauma and survival responses which affect people in recovery. We talk colloquially in parts language. It is not uncommon to hear a person say, “part of me wants ice-cream, but part of me knows that I shouldn’t”.
Survivors of abuse, neglect, abandonment, and other traumatic experiences note with consistency and frequency the value of compartmentalization plays in daily life functioning and avoidance of traumatic memories. As an addictions and trauma specialist therapist I have had countless clients describe how and why it became necessary to stuff events, emotions, sensations, thoughts, actions, and images deep into the catacombs of the psyche. The self that seeks recovery may sometimes feel like a fraud, fake, or not real.
Life is painful. Addiction is based on survival. The person who acts out, drinks, or uses has often lost the pleasure in their addictive behavior. What drives the person to keep the compulsive behavior going is the need for normalcy. Without the compulsion the world in which the addicted person lives would cease to exist. Chaos would consume us. Addiction is not a disease of choices. Rather, it is a disease of the choice centers of our brain. Addiction overrides our basic physiological and safety needs. People with addictions put their addiction before food, water, shelter, and other necessities of life. Therefore, recovery is not simply about having enough free-will. A trauma-informed approach to recovery takes into consideration parts of self, survival needs, and the function of behaviors in which the addicted person engages.
Our treatment centers and 12-step communities need to begin normalizing dissociation within the addicted person’s experience as an adaptive trauma response. Trauma is often left out of the discussion in addiction treatment and recovery worlds. Anyone currently unpacking their own dissociative history and experiences will begin to question their sanity. Trust the process and do the work to heal. Experiencing symptoms of dissociation does not make you crazy, broken, or flawed. The dissociative mind is a beautiful thing. Learn to embrace its wisdom and healing power.
The Haunted Self: Structural Dissociation and the Treatment of Chronic Traumatization, a ground-breaking book on trauma and dissociation, written by Onno van der Hart, Ellert R.S. Nijenhus, & Kathy Steele, proposes human beings are not born with an integrated personality. Our early formative life experiences shape our personality, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. In healthy development our caretakers help us to meaningfully integrate and adapt to our environment. Attachment wounds stemming caretakers who could not meet our essential needs, sooth us, and provide us with restorative experiences sets the stage for fragmentation of the self.
In distressing events it is common in the months preceding to have intrusive thoughts or feel overwhelmed. These aftermath experiences generally dissipate within a timeframe of weeks or few months after the incident. As a person experiences chronic or ongoing traumatic events, a fragmentation within the psyche occurs to help the person adapt and live with the current extreme stressor. Events in and of themselves are not inherently traumatic. Our subjective experience of the event and its impact within the fabric of our psyche defines whether the event is perceived as a wound. We know recurrent wounding has a deleterious effect on survivors. The objective characteristics of a traumatic event (the who, what, where and when) and the subjective characteristics that define a person’s integrative capacity (mental energy + mental efficiency) or ability to assimilate and encode information.
A cursory overview of the Structural Dissociation model is needed to help us understand its theoretical and clinical framework. For a nuanced and in-depth appreciation of the model readers are encouraged to read The Haunted Self. Our overview will prepare us to draw connections to how structural dissociation relates to 12 Step work and a trauma-informed approach to embracing our dissociative parts. We will challenge the notion of character defects as it is traditionally understood in recovery circles. The term defects of character does not align with a trauma-informed approach. Clearly, the steps work. Millions of people have recovered from a hopeless state of mind and body to live long lives in recovery. What I am proposing is to view what we commonly call defects within 12-Step Literature are more accurately viewed as dissociative parts of self that impede spiritual progress, acceptance, connectedness, healthy relationships, and recovery. I recognize this perspective and approach may offend some traditional members of any twelve-step fellowship. I believe the spirit and essence of 12-Step Recovery heals trauma. Further, I believe this trauma-informed approach deepens working the Steps to help move people past stuck points in their journey and heal old wounds.
The conception of dissociative parts of the personality is not new. The theory of structural dissociation of the personality is the most cogent, comprehensive, and concise description of dissociative parts. The theory holds every person has what is commonly referred to as an Apparently Normal Self (ANP). The ANP is the survivor self or the core persona that is seen by others in public, holds a job, raises a family, forms attachments, and does everything that we often ascribe to the executive functioning in our brains. In response to a traumatic event the ANP fragments with the formation of an Emotional Part (EP). The EPs form to protect the ANP from the wounding that has occurred.
The self as EP displays evolutionary defense mechanisms, emotional reactions, and action systems to protect the core self. Action systems guide us to notice and be drawn to stimuli. They restrict our field of consciousness to relevant stimuli and promote certain action tendencies while inhibiting others. For example, when a fire alarm suddenly goes off, the self as EP may signal “Danger, Danger, Danger!” and the action system related to panic may activate. The action system related to rational thought and decision making may be disinhibited. These mechanisms include responses based on flight, fight, freeze, and submission. If a dissociated part is fixated in a particular action system or subsystem, they may be unable to cope or perceive with their situations because their perceptions are colored by the goals, and a restricted field of consciousness will be restricted to stimuli relevant to that subsystem.
I believe Dr. Bob and Bill W vision of step work helps us to heal our structural dissociation. Step 6 invites recovery seeks to dig deep and invite our EPs into their healing journey. Up to this point in our recovery experience we have accepted the nature of our addiction, we took steps to find a new path, embraced a belief that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity, made a searching and fearless inventory, faced our dissociation, and now we are tasked with integration. Bill W’s commentary on Step 6 homes in on the addicted persons compulsive tendency for self-destruction and annihilation. We work against our instinct for self-preservation. The commentary goes on to describe structural dissociation like language in discussion of how our drives far exceed their usefulness. The founds of Alcoholics Anonymous understood parts of self. Bill W. writes “when our instincts drive us blindly or willfully demand that they supply us with more satisfaction or pleasure than are possible or due us.” He is talking about an EP. Bill recognized EP operating within recovery seekers more than 80 years ago.
The goal of Step 6 is not to eradicate our EPs. Total, integration of all dissociative parts of self will not happen overnight. Some parts of self with mature or extinguish. Others will take a lifetime to heal. Parts work & trauma work like working the Steps is circular. We may need to go through the Steps several times to gain a new way of relating in the world. The wisdom of this Step is we are cautioned to “be content with patient improvement”. It is important to seek proper therapy with someone skilled in dissociation and parts work who can help you understand the emotional parts of your personality. In our parts work some of our parts may not want to work on the spiritual aspects of the program. Some might attempt to destroy the whole system. We did not will these EPs to exist. Our minds fractured in a beautiful way to keep us safe, secure, and protected. However, the actions, thoughts, and impulses of our EPs caused us insurmountable problems as we sought to change old patterns.
Change is difficult. Sometimes we get into a routine and become complacent with our EPs. Take procrastination, for example, which is a form of sloth. In not completing a task on time one does not have to risk failure. This EP could be protecting us also from people hurting us by seeing our vulnerability. Turning in assignments late or showing up on time for appointments means our EPs remain in control of who gets to see our vulnerable side. Procrastination, like other destructive tendencies, could be an EP part designed to hide reality from us.
Our EPs have secondary gains which make it difficult to heal them. Skillful work in this area will explore the systems and rules at play. We will not be perfect in this work nor do we need to be. In Step 6 we work to renegotiate the boundaries with our EPs and the alliances between them. Our work here is to meet our needs in more adaptive ways so our lives as ANP is fuller, richer, and more meaningful.
In my recovery experience I relied heavily on EMDR therapy, sponsorship, and the 12-step recovery meetings and literature to heal my fragmented self. I believed I could be restored to sanity. I trusted my Higher Power would allow me to get where I needed to go in the often hard and emotional trauma work, I set for to complete. I had a mindfulness and yoga practice that helped me settle inward to listen to my emotional parts. I had faith in my therapist who guided me through parts work and trauma reprocessing. I was able to see for the first time how my EPs impinged on my ability to live unchained. My EPs were my minds grasps of relating to a world which no longer existed. We must face facets of our personality which do not paint us in a good light. The Shadow side of the personality we must not fear. Step 6 and parts work are reparative processes. What I have learned is I do not have to live in survival mode any longer. Because of this work I can meet needs without reliance on old compulsive behaviors. I can risk authenticity and vulnerability without fear of rejection.
Parts work is on par with Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s/Heroine’s Journey. We dive deep in the depths of the soul to transform ourselves and make right our relationship with self, others, and our higher powers.
Step 6 Prayer: “HP, help me become willing to let go of all the things to which I still cling. Help me to be ready to let You remove all of these defects, that Your will and purpose may take their place. AMEN” (Page 76 BB)
The 6th Step represented a major component to my trauma and addiction healing process. When I became open about my dissociative parts and other dissociative experiences, I reached a new level in my recovery. I felt this deep inner peace when there was once an ocean of moving water, waves, and squalls. As painful as the work to heal has been at times I would not change or give it up for anyone. We owe it to ourselves to be whole people and healed.
I once heard someone say at a meeting “we take a step up when we come into AA.” I think that same message applies to trauma work. We need more people in the rooms and in treatment to open their hearts, minds, and souls to their own dissociative experiences. Remember to have H.O.P.E. Hold on Pain Ends.
Recovery has given us the power to choose a life that is worth living.
May you choose a path grounding in healing today and always.