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Addiction and the Attachment Wound

By: Lois Jordan, LCSW, LCDC

Lois Jordan sits on the board of Another Solution and is the owner and director of Solutions Outpatient Services, a substance abuse intensive outpatient treatment program in Dallas, Texas. Lois grew up in the affluent area of Highland Park, in Dallas, Texas, and has experienced the Golden Ghetto first-hand, both professionally and personally.


“It wouldn’t have mattered what it was. It was a huge hole in my life that was going to be filled by the right thing eventually, or it was going to be the wrong thing. Love was what was missing in my life. Love for myself. [This is] the best place I have ever been,” Keith Urban to Oprah regarding his recovery from addiction to alcohol and cocaine (November 2010).

“What is Addiction?” and “What is an Attachment Disorder?” I must express my overwhelming gratitude to Phillip J. Flores and his book Addiction as an Attachment Disorder. I have been sober since 1981, and I have been in the field of chemical dependency for over 34 years and not until I read his book, have I had such hope for the treatment of addicts and alcoholics. I have said jokingly. I am a “tri” addict. Whatever I “try,” I become addicted!

“Attachment issues are at the heart of every addict. Attachment to a compulsive activity is their disease. Many addicts have trouble in their attachments to others and, as a result, turn to substances in a desperate attempt to find relief,” said Michael Groat, Ph.D., director of Professionals in Crisis (PIC) Program at The Menninger Clinic.

Over time I have developed a definition of addiction as a pathological relationship with a mood or mind-altering substance or behavior that renders one powerless and produces harmful consequences. The reason I believe this definition is so relevant to the attachment issue is that the operative word is “relationship.” With attachment wounds resulting in disconnection from one’s self, and addiction resulting in disconnection from one’s self, the addict/alcoholic finds that the attachment to drugs and alcohol seem to “fill that huge hole,” as Keith Urban puts it.

We were born preprogrammed to bond with one very significant person – your primary caregiver, probably your mother. However, I am finding that siblings can also be significant in this important bonding.

Jordan and Lilly, Lois Jordan's Grandchildren smiling at each other experiencing attachment and joy
At one week of life, Lilly (right) is experiencing attachment with Jordan (left), her big sister. Notice the smile and expression of joy on Lilly's face.

This picture is of my two granddaughters Jordan (2 years old) and her little sister Lilly (1 week old). Non-verbal attunement is one of the indicators of attachment, and clearly, Jordan and Lilly are experiencing an important moment of attachment. The emotional attachment that grew between you and your caregiver was the first interactive relationship of your life, and it depended upon nonverbal communication. The bonding you experienced, determined how you would relate to other people throughout your life.

Brene Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, has spent the last seventeen years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. She is also the author of the bestselling books, The Gifts of Imperfection. I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t), and Connections. One of the fascinating things she discusses is the differences between shame proneness and guilt-proneness. She states that it was found that shame proneness in fifth-graders (that is, a susceptibility to shame) was a strong predictor of later school suspensions, drug use, and suicide attempts. On the other hand, guilt-prone fifth graders were more likely to later apply to college and to be involved in community service. They were less likely to make suicide attempts, use heroin, or drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Shame can be seen as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging. Shame is “I am a mistake,” and guilt is “I made a mistake.” We can clearly see the profound role that shame plays in attachment and, subsequently, addiction. Shame results in disconnection, lack of empathy and compassion, inability to be authentic, and lack of self-awareness.

Alcoholics Anonymous provides a unique healing environment and opportunity for those suffering from addictions and attachment issues. AA is the antitheses of feeling alienated, disconnected, and isolated. It provides a secure base where individuals can be authentic and real, learn the skills of empathy and compassion, and gain self-awareness. So AA not only is an environment to experience healing from attachment wounds but also to experience shame resilience.

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