Has every alcoholic experienced trauma?

Updated: Sep 22, 2019

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about resilience. This trait has always mystified me. My friends used to joke that I would identify potential boyfriends on the basis of whether they were resilient. Out of college, I worked at a software company which selected for resilience, specifically, in its project managers. They wanted people who could deflect negative feedback and who had a high tolerance for chaos. Oddly, I thought these same qualities would come in handy dating me.

I have never identified as particularly resilient. The other day at a meditation meeting, an older man strode up to me after and looked quite caringly into my eyes. Something about my share, or perhaps it was the way that I held myself, worried him. He assumed I had a Past with a capital P. “Are you okay?” he asked.

Normally, when men walk up to me after meetings, I flinch. Although it is almost always well-meaning, I simply do not have the flexibility nor the willpower to unlearn my fears and assumptions at this point. Maybe someday that will change. In the meantime, I would always rather talk to the women.

And so, I braced myself. He means well. After assuring him that I was okay, he knowingly followed with: “You know, I don’t think every person who has experienced trauma becomes an alcoholic. But I do think all alcoholics have experienced trauma.”

I suppose I was meant to feel understood. You read my mind! Instead, I was reminded of my own lack of resilience. I was reminded of how traumatized I seem for how little trauma I've actually experienced. I mean, seriously: depression, anxiety, eating disorder, alcoholism. I've had 'em all, and all are more common among those who have experienced trauma. And I have not.

Certainly, there is such a thing as subjective trauma. And if the next version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual doesn't include it, flaming liberals - a group previously opposed to book-burning - will probably hire a boyscout to build them a bonfire. As it’s currently outlined in the DSM, however, the sort of trauma which qualifies one for PTSD is pretty specific:

“Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence in one (or more) of the following ways:

1. Directly experiencing the traumatic event(s).

2. Witnessing, in person, the event(s) as it occurred to others.

3. Learning that the traumatic event(s) occurred to a close family member or close friend. In cases of actual or threatened death of a family member or friend, the event(s) must have been violent or accidental.

4. Experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event(s)"

I was never subject to violence. I never witnessed or nearly witnessed death. And as a general rule, home schoolers do not experience “serious injury,” which is often acquired in the context of team sports or miscellaneous risk-taking. I've never even been in a car-crash. My parents counted all 100 of my qualifying practice hours before I got my license. At the time, I thought it was anal-retentive. These days, I wonder why we didn’t spend another 25 hours just on parallel parking. Could’ve saved me a lot of embarrassment.

The man’s comment lead me to wonder: Why do I have the air of a traumatized person, if I’m so, um, normal?

The other day, my sponsee humorously wondered the same thing. She has never experienced any “qualifying” traumatic event. However, she remarked that living in her own brain is traumatic enough.

I am inclined to agree. I can enter an uninterrupted, six-hour period of solitary work in a good mood, and emerge from it totally furious. When the alcoholic brain really applies itself, everything's a problem.

I joke about lack of resilience, but I actually think that living a day in my brain would give even the toughest project managers a run for their money. In the morning, my first thought is often: Did I sleep enough to be bright enough today? When I begin writing, my first thought is Will this be good enough to post? When I arrive at work, I soon wonder Have I done something wrong? When I leave work, I routinely check Have I done enough? And don't even get me started on how I spend my free time: Did I work out hard enough? Have I been to enough meetings? Did I eat enough? Too much? Am I in bed early enough? Too early? Enough, enough, enough.

I have to wonder whether living in a brain which says, "you're not enough!" is all that different from living with a partner who says the same thing. We are more than capable of inflicting emotional abuse on ourselves. It's still not a qualifying "traumatic" event, as per the current DSM - but perhaps it's a good enough reason to feel a little restless at a meditation meeting.

People are typically understanding when someone has a hard time leaving an abusive partner. And so they should be: other people can rewrite a narrative more convincing, more real, and seemingly more right than the one we've written for ourselves. My hope is that people are just as empathetic towards their friends and family members with mental illness, who live in the very same brain as an abuser. It's quite hard to leave.

But it's not impossible. If living with an internal abuser counts as trauma, then crawling out of mental illness - and all the baby steps involved in that process - counts as resilience.