Dr. Gabor Mate, renowned addiction and trauma expert, says the most important question when treating addiction is, “not why the addiction, but why the pain?”. I have heard countless people tell their recovery stories and the first chapter of almost every story is how they felt different before they ever picked up a substance. I remember one speaker saying, “If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say they felt different growing up, I would be a millionaire.” The room nodded their head in agreement, but I was always left with the question, why did they feel different?
If one has had experiences in life where seeking connection from others resulted in pain, they may learn to disconnect and withdraw. When this instinctual need for connection is unmet, people search out connection in any way that provides it for them. There is ample evidence showing that substance use ignites the same chemicals in the brain that connection with another individual provides. Substance use may provide people with this feeling of connection and help ease the discomfort of their pain. However, getting that need met through substances may lead to addiction, creating a vicious cycle of seeking connection and experiencing pain.
Therefore, as a treatment provider we must create a safe and healthy community where clients can find positive forms of connection, meeting this fundamental need. However, our job is also to help identify and address the pain that drove them to use in the first place. That starts with helping our clients figure out what the substances were providing for them. By healing the underlying pain, clients are prepared to seek out positive forms of connection. When the need for connection is met and the pain begins to relieve, the desire to use substances lessens. Ultimately, a sense of connection, belonging, and safety is vital to lasting recovery.