Both addicts and codependents often find a need to do some serious soul-searching upon entering recovery. In doing so, we often learn that our problems started long before we initially thought they did. Quite often, some of our behavior patterns first presented themselves years before we identified them. And in some cases, they might even start from early childhood. This is especially the case when we suffered traumatic abuse. But if you think that abuse must be violent or sexual in nature, then you’re gravely mistaken. In fact, emotional abuse can be a debilitating experience, the effects of which we sometimes feel for decades.
To the casual observer, addicts and codependents suffer from wildly different symptoms. If we look closely, however, we see that at least some of their behaviors bear remarkable resemblance to one another. For instance, both addicts and codependents often experience troubles in managing their relationships. These troubles aren’t always identical, but they can be in many cases. This is because, while we may think of addicts and codependents as two separate categories, they do often overlap. It isn’t uncommon to meet people who attend meetings at both AA and Al-Anon, or both Nar-Anon and NA. And if you listen to these people’s stories, you’ll often hear numerous accounts of emotional abuse.
Sometimes emotional abuse occurs in childhood. Others do not experience it until later in life, perhaps upon entering a spousal relationship. But no matter when we first encounter emotional abuse, and no matter which form it takes, it has the propensity to change our thinking and our behavior in fundamental ways. Those who suffer emotional abuse must therefore learn to identify it, as well as any deep-seated symptoms they may exhibit. Then, they must learn how to overcome their abuse in recovery. We’ll cover these topics below.
Forms of Emotional Abuse
Emotional abuse takes many forms. The form with which we might be most familiar is someone who makes us feel worthless. Nothing we do is ever good enough. They meet all of our actions with criticism. This type of abuser belittles their spouse or child endlessly, constantly telling them that they’re stupid, ugly, or just plain no good. To them, every sign of weakness indicates a complete lack of strength. Not only do they remark upon every single one of our shortcomings, but they do their best to convince us that our shortcomings are the only thing that defines us. This abuser leaves us feeling absolutely humiliated.
This type of emotional abuse sometimes coincides with another—control. More often than not, abusive controlling behaviors take place in spousal relationships. It isn’t uncommon for a parent to tell their child what they’re allowed to eat, or when they aren’t allowed to leave the house. A parent likely isn’t doing this abusively, unless they’re doing it by way of threats and intimidation. But when a spouse tries to control your social life, it’s usually a different story. Perhaps they do so out of distrust, or simply a need for control in general. Either way, staying in this sort of relationship can be incredibly unhealthy. If your spouse constantly hacks into your emails or snoops through your text messages, you might very well be in a controlling relationship. Remember that it’s no one’s right to isolate you.
On the other side of the spectrum, you’ll find neglect. This type of emotional abuse presents itself in both spousal and parental relationships. A spouse or parent hardly gives us the time of day. Even when we do something wrong, they might not seem to care. In many ways, these types of abusers can make us feel even more worthless than the ones who insult and terrorize us at every turn. They make us feel rejected and ignored. If we have siblings, they might leave us alone to take care of them before we’re truly old enough to do so properly.
There are many other forms of emotional abuse. For instance, while not the same sort of control discussed above, many parents exploit their children. They live vicariously through them, forcing them to engage in activities that the child might not want to pursue. Other parents corrupt their children, using drugs in front of them and perhaps even forcing them to drink or use drugs as well. To this abuser, the child simply exists for their own entertainment. On the spousal front, one of the more extreme forms of emotional abuse is gaslighting. This is when someone convinces us that our memory is off, causing us to feel as if we may be going crazy. It’s one of the most extreme forms of deception, and it often damages the victim’s mentality in potentially extreme ways.
How Abuse Changes Us
Some forms of emotional abuse have different effects than others. A person who constantly feels belittled, neglected or exploited may come to feel that everyone views them in the same light as their abuser. They try to counteract this feeling by doing things to gain favor from others. Perhaps they start hanging out with addicts and alcoholics, feeling that such people will never abandon them as long as they keep using. Or in the case of codependents, they try to become saviors. Such people wind up in a cyclical pattern of abusive relationships, and this cycle isn’t always easy to break.
There are those who break this cycle early, but this doesn’t mean they’re free and clear. Those who avoid abusive relationships often still find themselves mentally and emotionally affected by the past. We may become hypersensitive, prone to feelings of anger or depression. Perhaps we feel guilt, even when our behaviors do not warrant such a feeling. And depending upon the nature of the emotional abuse we suffered, we may even find ourselves perpetually fearful in the presence of others. This makes it difficult to manage successful relationships that might otherwise be good for us. Even worse, it makes it difficult for us to feel comfortable with ourselves. We neglect our emotional health, as we see ourselves as people who do not deserve happiness. After being denied happiness for so long, how could we see ourselves any differently?
In the case of those who suffer emotional abuse by addicts and alcoholics, it isn’t uncommon to develop substance abuse problems. This is especially true of those who were corrupted by a parent and either permitted or even forced to drink or use drugs. But anyone who suffers emotional abuse, regardless of whether or not the abuser had a substance problem, may develop addiction as they get older. Drugs and alcohol help quell the rage and depression that arise from years of torment. The problem is that they only work for so long. Eventually, we’re left with far more problems than we faced before we started using.
As noted above, many also seek to relieve the pain of their emotional abuse through codependency. Again, we shouldn’t assume that addicts and alcoholics can’t be codependents as well. Anyone who relies upon the attention of others to distract them from their own pain likely suffers from codependency. These individuals may also engage in enabling behaviors so that the dependent will always need their help. This may not be a conscious goal, but it’s certainly common among codependents. But whether we suffer from codependency, addiction or both, we must learn to recover. And in the process of doing so, we must learn to overcome the scars of our emotional abuse.
Overcoming Emotional Abuse
Recovery from emotional abuse can be difficult to monitor. When someone recovers from physical injury, they can see the wounds begin to heal. But when we suffer emotional abuse, the scars lie deep beneath the surface. We may not know just how deeply they run until something picks at them and sets us off. And if we struggle with addiction or codependency, this just might be enough to spur us toward our old behaviors.
The best way to nurture our emotional well-being while in recovery is through a healthy dose of love and support. Addicts and alcoholics can find such support in groups such as AA and NA. Codependents find this support in groups such as Al-Anon and Nar-Anon. But there are those who, for one reason or another, may not identify or agree with the message of these groups. In this case, isolation still shouldn’t be deemed accessible. No matter where you find it, you need to seek out an extensive support network. You likely have numerous friends and family members who care about you. Start there.
Support helps, but those who suffer emotional abuse often require professional help as well. Therapy helps us work out our underlying emotions, identifying ways in which the past informs our present thoughts and behaviors. Those who suffered particularly traumatic emotional abuse might consider EMDR, a specialized form of trauma therapy. This form of therapy helps people overcome the past without repressing it. Over time, we must learn to accept our past without repeating it or taking it out on others. This will lead us down the path to true healing.
EMDR is among the many tools we offer at Amethyst Recovery, along with basic cognitive behavioral therapy. If you feel that past emotional abuse plays a role in your addiction, contact us for more information about our programs. Not only will you learn to face your own past, but you’ll see how your addiction just might inflict a form of abuse on those you love. That will no longer be a problem once you embrace sobriety. If past emotional abuse continues to play an active role in your life, then please, seek help today—for yourself, as well as for those who love you.