By Sonya Denise Ullrich, MS, AMFT, SEP, ABMP
Here’s a thought experiment: Think of someone you know well who has struggled with addiction; it could be a client, a family member, a friend, or, perhaps, yourself. If you view this person’s addictive behavior as a way of setting boundaries, which relationships come in to focus? Which socioeconomic, structural realities? What need for change? Does the nature and focus of your support change also?
This -- addictive behavior as boundary-setting behavior -- is an overlooked but clinically useful concept for treating addiction. Centering the boundary-setting function of addictive behavior can be an important aspect of building psychosocial skills, distress tolerance, self-knowledge, interactive regulation, and, because of all of these things, sustainable recovery. It goes further than the concept of “coping strategies” and puts relationship at the center of addiction; if addiction does not start out as a relationship surrogate, it certainly ends as one. Addiction as a surrogate relationship and barrier from interpersonal stressors is costly, but it often feels more reliable than other people in the wake of relational trauma. In the words of a high ACE-scoring combat veteran friend choosing a life of alcohol use over his second wife during their divorce, “I like you some of the time. I like alcohol all of the time.” The more general example I share with clients is, “I’m so high that you can’t hurt me in here.”
The well-known ACEs study by Fellitti et al. (1998) produced one of the most compelling statistics related to addiction. Patients with an ACE score of four or more are 4000% more likely to become an intravenous drug user than someone who scores lower on the scale of childhood adversity. Four thousand percent! That makes a strong case for the argument that compulsive behaviors replace the function of social relationships in nervous system regulation when early relationships are themselves dysregulating. Furthermore, the Harm Reduction Coalition (2019) demonstrates the importance of restoring healthy relationships in reducing the harmfulness of addictive behavior with one of its central tenets. It “establishes quality of individual and community life and well-being -- not necessarily cessation of all drug use -- as the criteria for successful interventions and policies.” The decriminalization of substance use, likewise, addresses social relationships by reducing related stigma and poverty and re-engaging drug users in community participation on a larger social scale.
As a specialist in trauma, attachment, and touch skills in treatment programs for both chemical dependency and process addictions, I have introduced the idea of addictive behavior as boundary setting behavior to a diverse range of clients. The usual response is a pause of momentary consideration, then a nod of agreement. Whether you can deconstruct this conceptualization through more widely discussed principles of addiction medicine is one thing. The clinical utility of these ideas is quite another. Centering the relational aspects of addictive behavior in the therapeutic frame begets reliable client endorsement and insight. This, in turn, prepares clients for the therapeutic endeavor in a threefold way: to look to the past to resolve the developmental trauma underlying so much addictive behavior, to the present to enrich and reciprocate social support, and to the future to evaluate relapse risks and take ownership of any skill-building necessary for nurturing satisfying relationships.
Practically speaking, this is a very simple clinical intervention when you understand the reasoning behind it.
Therapist: “Do you feel like you use your addictive behavior to set boundaries in relationships? Where words and less harmful actions don’t work well enough? Maybe something like, ‘I’m so high, you can’t hurt me in here?’”
Client Response: “Yeah . . . totally.”
Therapist: “Really? With whom? In what way?”
Done. And you’ve sparked a self-affirming exploration that will generate effective treatment objectives.
Let’s dig a bit deeper into the rationale behind this approach. The motivational factors most commonly emphasized in addiction treatment include: the mood-altering effects of addictive substances and behaviors; pleasure-seeking; self-medication of underlying disorders; the neurobiology of diminishing returns; social influences that normalize or incentivize addictive behaviors; and somewhat more recently and mercifully, the roles of socio-economic marginalization, traumatization and the need for external regulation of the autonomic nervous system. All of these factors are important and central to the addictive process; communicating boundaries is generally regarded as one of many subsets of skills required for successful recovery.
However, prioritizing relational skills and stressors throughout addiction treatment contributes to compassionate, effective care that is congruent with contemporary neuroscience and trauma-informed care. For someone to engage routinely in the legal, financial, and health risks associated with addiction, they tend to have relational trauma histories or current circumstances that make high-risk pleasure-seeking through altered states a necessity for relief of pain. Whether through the direct anesthetization of opiates or ketamine, the depression-staving dopamine rush of stimulants or action gambling, or the safely distant simulation of social contact that comes with sex addiction, any compulsive consequential behavior becomes a surrogate relationship. For lives deficient in attunement and empathy, the relational impact of addiction can feel like a justified protest/withdrawal or simply the only alternative. The impact of addiction on others invariably takes a backseat to the need to alleviate one’s own pain during the addictive process. Articulating relational boundaries in therapeutic recovery re-engages clients in their relationships; it empowers clients by emphasizing their own unmet needs through actionable goals and offsetting the usual waves of shame and self-recrimination.
Personal Insight and Observations
It was a sunny weekday afternoon, several decades ago. I was sixteen and my brother was eight. I was babysitting, as I often was. I loved my brother deeply, helped deliver him at birth, and I managed to share with him my values related to environmental sustainability and community. I could hear him playing outside my window soon after we arrived home. I wanted to be a loving older sister, however much I resented my parents for forcing me to provide the care for their two other children while giving so little emotional support in return. So, I inhaled a modest amount of crystal methamphetamine to offset my depression and balance the scales with my parents, and then gladly joined my brother in the yard.
As with so many who turn early and hard toward compulsive self-soothing, I was a depressed, anxious adolescent with an insidious trauma history. However, while the etiology of addiction is always multi-factorial, I was using my addictive behavior to establish very private and costly relational boundaries in a family system where many previous attempts to signal my distress, express my needs, and set reasonable boundaries essential to the task of individuation had failed. I had gotten perfect grades and been the perfect baby sitter, but nobody noticed. I spent years on the edge between ortho-and anorexia, but nobody seemed to care. I used tactics borrowed from political protests to register complaints in my home, but they fell on deaf ears. With the agency of a new driver’s license, I acted out my angst, fumbled for nervous system regulation, and fought to complete the developmental tasks of adolescence via my first stimulant addiction.
My polysubstance relapse pattern bore out this boundary-setting relational dynamic. My major relapses occurred when I lacked the psychosocial skills and the responsive social environment to establish boundaries, express needs, and say “no” in any healthier way. As a client with little resilience and an extensive trauma history, I had also been pushed over the edge of relapse by therapy I found emotionally and physiologically overwhelming. I became a practitioner of gentle somatic and attachment-based interventions because they allowed me to understand the nature of my fraught internal wilderness through developing internal tracking skills. They also let me know I was not alone through connecting me to a broader evolutionary framework of my own biology and behavior and gave me enough understanding and perspective to tolerate the risk of communicating my needs.
Case Examples from Colleagues
I have treated hundreds of clients struggling with addiction and have employed this concept to good effect. To honor their confidentiality while providing real-life case information, I introduced the concept of addictive behavior as boundary setting behavior to a range of colleagues who also share addiction histories. As an added bonus, some interviewees volunteered the progress they made through somatic psychotherapy. The case examples that follow are from colleagues, names changed, whom I have interviewed expressly for this article. As much as possible, I have left their stories in their own words.
Brian, a career paraprofessional in abstinence-based addiction treatment and golf enthusiast, used to “drink, drug, gamble and act out sexually” to escape impossible internalized perceived expectations within his family of origin. In his words, “I just needed to blow it all up because I couldn’t deal with the pressure.” In romantic relationships, he describes keeping partners away through keeping relationships superficial and engaging in infidelity, fearing commitment and anticipating not being good enough, as with his family, “even once I was in recovery.” He also describes feeling burned out as an employee in the addiction treatment industry and engaging in “resentful retaliation” by staying out all night engaging in his addictive behaviors while he was on the clock. He described addiction as a surrogate relationship as “a nice, tolerable place to go to escape the pain of isolation.”
Grant, a healthcare administrator, abstinent gambling addict/substance user, and devoted adventure athlete, has a history of sexual abuse, “I had coping mechanisms even then, acting out all the time. I thought I was unlovable and then got into drugs and alcohol in high school. Discovering gambling when I was older gave me the same escape and felt much healthier than when I was getting high. It wasn’t, of course. In relationships, I have a hard time trusting anybody. Because of my molestation history with my brother, I would push women away. Even though I still struggle with trust, I recognize these lifelong patterns. I’m able to and want to stay present after sex. Somatic psychotherapy allowed me to fully connect my adult addictive behavior to my childhood trauma history and fully process my emotions and cry that hard for the first time. It opened my eyes to how profound an impact that made on me. I don’t feel unworthy or unlovable anymore.”
Aimee, a rural crisis behavioral health clinician and motorcycle enthusiast, reflected on where she is at now, psychosocially speaking, as she celebrates a year of abstinence after her one major relapse with methamphetamine. “I just bought a new motorcycle. I realize I have these expensive hobbies that function to push my partner away. They are the hard boundaries that give me autonomy and independence. I still use alcohol as a lubricant. Those are my ‘lubricating boundaries’.” She described her current partner as “like sitting on a still lake” after a long, volatile relationship in which she began using again “to prevent abandonment, to form a bridge, and then to deal with the abandonment once she left.” She described that relationship as “a lot like my mother. She was incredibly violent. I used to peek around the corner and only come out if she, my mother, was in a good mood. I was hiding beer in my cowboy boots by the time I was twelve. She could yell and yell at me and I didn’t care. That was also the year I started getting sexually abused by a neighbor.” She described having, “a long fuse. When I get to a point, before I explode, I jump into addictive behavior to prevent the explosion. Or when my partners or my family demand I show up a certain way.” She described her ability to navigate reduced cravings and negotiate healthy boundaries with her current partner. “There’s no abandonment threat because she doesn’t generate the same highs and lows. She can talk about boundaries.” She added that her somatic therapist has her focus on her breath during moments of sexual intimacy to alleviate panic and to be present with her partner for a few moments.
Brandon, a harm reduction activist, health provider in a rural indigenous community, and musician, assumed his addictive behavior was pathological and needing to be gotten rid of rather than understanding it as a response to something. “Instead of ‘I just use drugs because I’m broken’, I began to understand that it helped me survive. It provided comfort, joy, a sense of belonging and basic human social needs that we are culturally, systemically deprived of in a capitalist culture. Family is one of the social structures is key to systemic control. I don’t blame the abusive mother and negligent father because they’re a product of the economic system that created their behavior. I don’t blame the abnormal child, either.” He described the tension between wanting to reduce the social stigma, legal consequences, and shame for his clients who use drugs while also relating to their desire to stop using heroin because that was something he needed to do to restore relationships and appropriate boundaries in his own life, as well.
Regardless of their philosophical approach to their own recovery or the time and perspective they have from their own compulsive self-soothing, the colleagues I interviewed were able to respond autobiographically to the concept of addictive behavior as boundary setting behavior. They did so in ways that were novel, insightful, and self-affirming. For myself, this concept has helped evaluate risk, identify skill deficits, and hold my own history with compassion. I have had hundreds of clients in addiction treatment who have found it useful, too. With vulnerability and humility, I offer it to you.
About Author Sonya Denise Ullrich, MS, SEP, ABMP.
Sonya Denise Ullrich, APCC, SEP is a practitioner with twelve years of experience in somatic trauma resolution and twenty years in manual therapies. She has a background in Somatic Experiencing, Feldenkrais, PACT couple therapy, and human ecology. She currently practices somatic psychotherapy throughout San Diego county, assists trainings in touch skills for trauma resolution, coordinates regional events for the California Association for Professional Clinical Counselors, and teaches workshops on touch skills for couples.
She worked in a range of addiction treatment settings in California and Arizona and has developed addiction treatment programming based on somatic trauma resolution and attachment theory. She is passionate about interdisciplinary social science and global health. She is pursuing opportunities to research the use of touch cross-culturally and use participatory methods to develop culturally appropriate programming for trauma resolution.
Learn more about her work online.