No one in their right mind would compare the self-centered existence of addicts and alcoholics to the battlefield heroics of military veterans, but the two groups do share a similar after effect: trauma.
Specifically, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – and the same therapy endorsed by the U.S. military to help veterans of overseas conflicts heal from their psychic wounds has been modified by therapists at Cornerstone of Recovery to assist recovering alcoholics and addicts to do the same. The Center for Deployment Psychology, in fact, trained the Cornerstone staff members who specialize in CPT, also known as Cognitive Processing Therapy.
Officially, it’s defined as “a cognitive-behavioral therapy (treatment that focuses on thoughts and feelings for PTSD and related conditions.” It “provides a way to understand why recovery from traumatic events is difficult and how symptoms of PTSD affect daily life. The focus is on identifying how traumatic experiences change thoughts and beliefs, and how thoughts influence current feelings and behaviors.”
Addiction and PTSD, our clinical staff members have found, often go hand in hand.
“Treating trauma is foundational for helping addiction, because avoidance is a primary strategy for coping with trauma, and alcohol and drugs are the ways our patients employ that strategy,” says Steve Smith, one of Cornerstone’s CPT specialists.
When patients are first delivered to Assessment and Orientation, they fill out a number of questionnaires, including one that specifically addresses past physical, sexual and emotional abuses. Because of the specific nature of that intake paperwork, a client’s treatment trajectory is then plotted by Cornerstone’s clinical staff, and those who show signs of PTSD are introduced to CPT. Over the course of both individual and group sessions, they begin the process of assigning meaning to traumatic events that haven’t been properly stored in the brain’s long-term memory.
The first step is for patients to write out an impact statement in which they examine the five ways in which the trauma has affected their lives: safety, relationships/intimacy, trust, power/control and esteem. From that statement, therapists assist each patient in determining the “stuck points” – ways in which the trauma has been irregularly processed by the brain. Usually, it’s a combination of self-assimilation, in which they assign an inordinate amount of blame to themselves for events that are often beyond their control, and over-accommodation, in which the role of specific individuals in the trauma are assigned to larger population groups – for example, a victim of a sexual assault might develop trust issues with all men because of it.
Through this process, Cornerstone’s counselors guide patients through the process of identifying the roots of the traumatic experiences and the emotions associated with it. The goal is an eventual breakthrough – an opening of the floodgates, so that the pain and grief so long denied or repressed can flow freely. On the other side of that is healing, and while the thought of embracing anything that might lead to sadness or pain might seem counterintuitive, it’s actually a sign that the memories are being stored in their proper place and that the afflicted are no longer trapped in the cycle of reliving the trauma over and over again.
“Their sense of power and control over the incident changes, and it puts it into perspective,” says Joanna Mansur, one of Cornerstone’s therapists and Director of Family Services.
And when it’s done in a group environment, it’s incredibly cathartic and liberating: Patients who hid or denied their trauma for so long see that they’re not alone, and the feedback, support and solidarity they receive from peers on the same healing path serves to lift them up, carrying them beyond the grief and show them that there is indeed life on the other side.
“We let them know that the group is a safe place, a confidential place, and that they’re not alone,” Smith says. “We show them that there’s nothing we can’t handle together, and that they can feel safe here to handle it.
“If you experience trauma and develop PTSD, it doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently wrong with you. It just means that an emotional circuit breaker has been tripped, and CPT is the way in which we get the system turned back on.”
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