‘Time heals everything’ is often a saying people use to comfort someone who is grieving. For some, bad experiences may simply be bad experiences. For others, it can be a traumatic event. Painful memories can create challenges for individuals in many ways. It can affect a person’s mental and physical health, create difficulties in developing resiliency, and influence their views on life, work and relationships.
In fact, a study published in the Journal of Behavioural Medicine discovered there was a relationship between trauma exposure, PTSD, and chronic medical conditions. Individuals with PTSD were more likely to have a chronic medical condition than those who were considered non-traumatized individuals. Some of those chronic medical conditions included arthritis/ rheumatism, back/neck pain, headaches, chronic pain, heart disease, and ulcers. Individuals with PTSD require a health professional to begin the process of healing. At the Edgewood Health Network, we have a specialized program for first line responders who have been diagnosed with PTSD/ Operational Stress Injury (OSI) and substance abuse.
Painful memories or trauma are common issues our clients share when they enter our addiction treatment centre doors. It’s those experiences that most likely led them to start drinking or drugging. It’s those unspoken stories from the past that they continue to hold onto that prevent them from making real progress in their recovery.
We spoke with Wendy Cope, Clinical Manager for Outpatient Services from Bellwood Health Services about the consequences of holding onto the past and finding ways to move forward in life. Many of our clients have been through traumatic experiences. In some cases, it’s painful childhood experiences or work-related experiences that have deeply affected them. Wendy Cope believes dealing with painful memories can differ from one person to another, “To process those experiences while a person is also going through physical and psychological withdrawal, can be very destabilizing. Therefore, it’s recommended that a person first obtain sobriety before they begin to look at those experiences. For some, it may not be appropriate to delve into those memories until they’ve been a year into recovery. So these painful memories may come up in Continuing Care.”
PTSD vs. Painful Memories
There is a difference between PTSD and painful memories. Wendy Cope explains, “People with PTSD have specific symptoms, such as flashbacks and nightmares. People with painful memories may not necessarily have those symptoms, but they’re still holding onto a lot of pain and resentment. This can certainly interfere with their sobriety.”
Rewiring the brain
For our clients, moving forward is crucial because it affects their sobriety. Many of them have a difficult time letting go of the past. So, is it a matter of rewiring the brain? Does a person subconsciously hold onto resentment for a reason?
Wendy Cope clarifies, “To begin this process, we start to look at what’s stopping you from moving forward. What are the psychological barriers? Once we analyze those factors, we must question, ‘Is it easier to blame others?’ Truth is, it’s easier to remain in a victim stance. If you stay in your anger and painful memory and you keep ruminating on it, then you don’t have to look at your present life. You don’t have to take responsibility for your current behaviour. Therefore, you avoid taking responsibility for your addiction and for anything else that’s going on in your life.”
“People tend to stay with what is familiar and what is known.” – Wendy Cope
It’s no secret. Change can be a scary thing for many individuals, especially for our clients. It’s particularly difficult when that change is required for our own personal growth. Wendy sets the record straight,
“If the painful memory is what is familiar and known it can become your go-to place. As long as you keep going to what’s familiar, you don’t have to face what feels risky and challenging. You don’t have to think and feel differently or move forward. So if you want to actually deal with that resentment, it does imply that you have to change. People are resistant to change. We want what’s familiar and safe. It may be hell but it’s my hell!”
In early recovery, clients are encouraged to look at the relationships in their lives. Clients must identify which ones are toxic and which are worth keeping. Holding onto toxic relationships can often trigger relapse. Wendy shares, “If you’re in early recovery, it’s important to look at the quality of the relationships you have with people. Look at which ones are better to discard or distance from because it’s too dangerous for your recovery. You must choose relationships with people that have potential to grow with you. Surround yourself with people who are on a similar journey, who are healthy, and who are positive role models about how to live a balanced life. I see it in our aftercare groups. The bonding that takes place, the deep care that they have for each other, how they check in with each other during the week and how they celebrate milestones together. That’s the type of support network you should have in your life.”
Family relationships are unique in that those people will continue to be a part of your life. So how are you going to manage them? “You can’t discard them. At this point, you need to make a decision within yourself. You must have clear, direct communication and negotiate with that person on what you both would like the relationship to be like, setting boundaries and sticking to the agreed boundaries.”
Apologies may or may not be given and when they are they are not always accepted. “Apologies don’t necessarily result in the peace that you are hoping will come and it is disheartening when someone continues to hold on, like those deathbed apologies! They don’t satisfy because really an apology is just words when there is no action or change in the communication and quality of the relationship.”
The best approach to start healing the wounds that have been with you for such a long time is to:
- Name it and recognize it. You have to name that you are wounded. Wendy states, “It’s amazing how many people don’t name it. Especially someone in recovery because they’ve been numbing their feelings with their addictive behaviours. Some clients may not even recognize that they are wounded because they’ve been so focused on blaming everyone and defending themselves.”
- Find a way to express it. In cases where the person has passed on, Wendy Cope recommends writing as one of the ways to heal. “Writing a letter about what you would have said or what you would have liked to have heard. Sometimes I encourage people to ritualize that. That might mean sharing it with some people. Others have gone further by creating a ceremony and burning the letter or burying it so that there is a way to symbolize putting an end to that painful memory. It doesn’t resolve it but there is that moment of closure that comes with it. The grieving may not completely disappear but there’s still that image of seeing a person buried. I believe you can do that with emotions that need to be buried.” Music, art, and drama are other creative ways you can express your emotions and thoughts to help you begin the healing process.
- Make a healthy choice to move beyond resentment. You must make a choice on whether you will continue to give that resentment power. “Everyone holds onto resentments. I don’t believe anything disappears. I think once they enter your psyche it’s there. The difference is how much power and credence you give to it. So it’s more about managing it.”
If you or someone you love needs help with moving forward in recovery, please contact us. Our Continuing Care programs, Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP) for individuals and IOP for family members are a means to providing you with the proper support to begin your path towards healing.
1 Sledjeski, E. M., Speisman, B., & Dierker, L. C. (2008). Does number of lifetime traumas explain the relationship between PTSD and chronic medical conditions? answers from the national comorbidity survey-replication (NCS-R). Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 31(4), 341-349. doi:10.1007/s10865-008-9158-3