Signs of Addiction Can Be Subtle Among Professional Helpers

An interesting article appeared online regarding the more subtle signs of addiction. The author, Ms. Melanie Haiken claims that knowing whether someone you love has a problem with drugs or alcohol is not always as obvious as you might think. People tend to stereotype the typical alcoholic as someone staggering around with a bottle in a paper bag. Many addicted people have fallen prey to “managed” habits and they are quite skilled in covering up their addictive behavior. She shares some of the secret signs of addiction which include numerous covert behaviors that help the addict to hide what they are doing.

I believe this to be particularly true for helping professionals who have gotten into addictive patterns as a way to distract themselves from the Second-Hand Shock they have developed over time. Self-medicating is a common, albeit counter-productive and potentially dangerous, method for quieting and numbing the overstimulated mind and body that results from absorbing trauma content. Alcohol, Vicodin, Hydrocodone, Oxycodone, Valium and other benzodiazepines, Cocaine, Marijuana, and  other stimulants all rank high among drugs of choice for professional helpers.

Most people who work in a helping system are too close and too involved to clearly recognize the addictive process when they are in it.  If and when they become addicted, they become”sophisticated” addicts until they have a rock bottom experience that brings them to their knees.  Many of them come from addictive and/or dysfunctional families and are unwittingly replaying their unresolved historical pain.

Frequently, colleagues and peers enable the addicted professional by ignoring or minimizing the issue. They fear the loss of work and loss of professional respect. Spouses and families will tend to let it go on too long because they fear loss of their lifestyle and discovery by the community. They are enabling the helper, rather than acknowledging the price helper is paying for the precious work they do.

I believe that addiction is a more pervasive problem in the helping professional community than is documented or acknowledged.  In Vicki Carpel Miller’s and my study of Vicarious Trauma, we found a strong correlation between the neuroscience of Vicarious Trauma and the neuroscience of Addiction.  We found that many professionals are addicted to helping, itself.

Vicki and I want to raise awareness of this problem and encourage others to address it in the spirit of caring for our helpers who struggle with addiction and with their own psychological and spiritual well-being on a daily basis. Addiction is not really the problem, it is the “solution” for the struggling helper who can not tolerate the pain of Second-Hand Shock.

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