All too often, people search for “why” someone suffers from addiction. Did something cause the addiction? Why, when growing up in the same household, might one sibling be impacted by addiction while other siblings are not? Parents or spouses often ask their child or partner WHY they have become addicted to drugs and alcohol. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to pinpoint why someone becomes addicted. Addiction is a complex illness that often does not have a single cause. However, we do know that the substance use disorder, or the use or misuse of drugs and alcohol, is almost always a symptom of a greater emotional, mental, psychological, or spiritual issue. There are always underlying causes and conditions related to addiction. Mental health issues, trauma, disconnection, and more often connect to the root issues that ultimately turn into the active addiction, the self-destructive patterns of drug and alcohol misuse, and the inability to stop no matter the desire or the consequences.
Another major piece that can often be found at the core of someone suffering from addiction is issues of attachment or an attachment disorder. Scientific research has demonstrated that individuals with insecure attachment will often turn to drugs and alcohol as an escape or a numbing agent due to terrible fears of intimacy and as an avenue to run from facing any feelings of emotional distress. Therefore, individuals with an attachment disorder are more susceptible to addiction and substance use disorder.
Attachment is a fundamental human need that involves the emotional bond between individuals. It is typically formed at birth between a child and its parents. Attachment theory is a psychological, evolutionary, and ethological theory concerning relationships between humans, with the most important tenet being that young children need to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for normal societal and emotional development. Attachment theory suggests that human beings have an innate need to form emotional bonds with other human beings, starting with parents or caregivers in very early childhood, and it is at this point in life that either healthy or unhealthy emotional attachments are created.
Attachment theory was first proposed by John Bowlby in the 1950s, suggesting that humans are born with an innate need for social contact and emotional attachment. According to Bowlby, children form emotional bonds with their caregivers (typically or most often with their mothers), in order to fulfill their basic human needs, including food, shelter, and security. These formed emotional bonds provide the child with a sense of safety and security, and these bonds formed in the beginning stages of life as a child shape that child’s future relationships and ongoing emotional well-being. Based on this theory, attachment disorders are then psychiatric illnesses that can develop in young children who have issues or problems in emotional attachments to others.
According to attachment theory, there are four main attachment styles:
Secure attachment is characterized by a child who is confident in their caregiver’s love and support, and who is able to explore their environment with an overall sense of security. A child with secure attachment, in the simplest terms, feels safe with their caregivers and in their environment. Avoidant attachment is characterized by a child who avoids or minimizes contact with their parent or caregiver, and who is often indifferent to the caregiver’s presence or absence. Ambivalent attachment is characterized by a child who is anxious and uncertain in their caregiver’s love and support, and who may cling to their parent or caregiver while also resisting their comfort. Disorganized attachment is characterized by a child who shows contradictory and confusing behaviors in response to their caregiver’s presence or absence, and who may display disorientation or dissociation.
Based on attachment theory and how young adults or adults grow up with a specific type of attachment style, there is an overwhelming link between attachment and addiction. Based on an individual’s attachment style, they may be more susceptible or less susceptible to suffering from addiction and substance use disorder. Individuals with insecure attachment styles, particularly those with either avoidant or ambivalent attachment styles, are more likely than other attachment styles to develop addictive behaviors, which can include drug and alcohol addiction but can also include other process addictions such as gambling addiction, sex addiction, shopping addiction, disordered eating patterns, or workaholism. This is due to the fact that insecure attachment can lead to a lack of emotional regulation and difficulties in coping with anxiety, fear, and stress. People that have insecure attachment styles may turn to drugs and alcohol (or other addictive behaviors) as a way to regulate their emotions, numb or avoid emotional altogether, or to cope with overwhelming issues of anxiety.
In addition to attachment style, attachment theory also suggests that the quality of attachment in early childhood can have long-lasting effects on an individual’s emotional and behavioral development. Research has demonstrated that children who experience insecure attachment in early childhood are more likely to develop addiction later in life. This is because insecure attachment can lead to a wide range of emotional and behavioral difficulties, including low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. These mental health issues can often easily lead into active addiction, as the person tries to deal with the issues of attachment as well as trying to manage their mental health issues.
For example, many individuals that were adopted suffer from attachment issues, and there is a high propensity of addiction in those that were adopted. It should be noted that the child may have been adopted into a safe, secure, loving home with parents who gave the child ongoing and healthy care and support. However, because attachments develop at such a young age, many adopted children develop attachment issues or disorders through no fault of the family that adopts them. Another example would be children who experience neglect or abuse in early childhood. These children may often develop insecure attachment styles as a result. These insecure attachment styles can lead to difficulties in emotional regulation and ways they are able to cope with or manage stress, ultimately setting them up for active addiction later in life. Similarly, children who experience a parental divorce or separation may also develop insecure attachment styles, especially if there is conflict, instability, or abuse in the home. Children in these scenarios can also develop insecure attachment styles, making them more susceptible to suffering from addiction.
Because addiction is often described as a “disease of loneliness”, there is little surprise that a child with an insecure attachment style is more likely to eventually become an adult dealing with an addiction or substance use disorder. Individuals that do not have safe, secure, and healthy bonds with others, or who feel insecure, alone, and isolated, often turn to drugs and alcohol to fill the hole that feel they are missing emotionally and spiritually. So, addiction and attachment are strongly associated, as insecure attachment styles easily feed into active addiction. In a sense, the drugs, alcohol, and lifestyle of active addiction create the illusion of a safe, secure relationship. The drugs and alcohol are filling the emptiness and loneliness that the individual has felt since childhood and has been unable to create with other human beings as they aged and matured.
Fortunately, both drug and alcohol addiction and attachment disorders are both treatable and can be treated concurrently for an individual dealing with both issues. As Johann Hari said, “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.” Therefore, when an individual goes to treatment for addiction, and it is identified that they may be suffering from an attachment disorder, the rehab or treatment center will approach treatment and recovery from an attachment perspective, focusing on mechanisms, methods, and approaches that create connections and strengthen the person’s relationship to themselves, others, and the world around them. Treatment will also begin to explore the individual’s relationship with substances and the associated behaviors, helping to create more healthy approaches, perceptions, and coping mechanisms. The good news is that most people in active addiction often have some difficulty in terms of attachments, so no situation or case is one that is impossible to treat or overcome. Addiction recovery as a whole is a manner in developing new, healthier, positive attachments, relationships, and perceptions, so just like addiction, a person with an attachment disorder can overcome a history of insecure attachments and create a thriving life of meaning in sobriety and recovery.
If you or someone you know needs help for addiction or co-occurring disorder issues, please give us a call. Maryland Addiction Recovery Center offers the most comprehensive dual-diagnosis addiction treatment in the Mid-Atlantic area. If we aren’t the best fit for you or your loved one, we will take the necessary time to work with you to find a treatment center or provider that better fits your needs. Please give us a call at (866) 929-4318 or email our team at [email protected]. For more information on all of our drug addiction, alcohol addiction, and co-occurring disorder services and recovery resources, please visit our website at www.marylandaddictionrecovery.com