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February 14, 2018
by Dr. Alia Kaneaiakala

Integration of Pseudo Attachment Therapy in Addiction Recovery

February 14, 2018 16:00 by Dr. Alia Kaneaiakala

When considering the possible factors that might lead a person to begin abusing drugs or alcohol, one thinks of financial worries, job stress, difficulty in a marriage, a mental health disorder, past trauma, or some other condition that would lead to self-medicating.  While these are all valid considerations that might explain addictive behavior, it may be something much more fundamental that is the root cause for the compulsive use of a substance.  Something that originated in the earliest days of one’s life.

Attachment between a baby or young child and their mother or primary caregiver is intrinsic to the child developing a healthy sense of security.  The emotional connection and resulting attachment between a child and mother sets the stage for healthy relating in the world at large.  A child whose need for a secure environment is not satisfied, either by a dysfunctional attachment or an absent caregiver, is likely to seek the sense of security and fulfillment they seek in alternative ways later in life.  Often that culminates in compulsive use of a substance, such as drugs or alcohol, or the expression of disordered behavior, such as gambling or sex addiction.

The child turned adult is probably not even aware of the deep-seated need he was deprived of as a child.  As an adult, he or she goes through life subconsciously trying to fill up a vacant space inside that was never occupied by a healthy attachment.  Driven to find something to replace the absent bond, the individual seeks solace in substances or other risky behaviors.  The alcohol becomes the new attachment.  The drugs fill up the empty space.  Compulsive sexual behavior is acted out from a quest to connect, to attach to another human being.  Whatever the significant relationship was that was lacking or dysfunctional in childhood becomes replaced with addiction.

Pseudo Attachment and Addiction

A child who formed a secure attachment with their mother or primary caregiver achieves a healthy, normal sense of safety and security.  When that sense of safety was not developed or provided, the child develops coping mechanisms that help him or her establish an alternative safe haven.  Not all children deprived of a healthy attachment in childhood become substance abusers as adults.  

Many find other methods or sources to satisfy the need for an emotional safe zone, although those may be obsessive or compulsive in nature as well.  Someone attaching to their professional identity to derive that sense of security and belonging can result in a workaholic. Another may form unhealthy attachments to food, acquiring an eating disorder.  Whatever attachment this latent quest for security homes in on, chances are it has the features of compulsive, dysfunctional behavior.

With regard to substance abuse and addiction as a consequence of attachment disorder, the individual seeking a meaningful attachment has developed a relationship with their substance of choice.  The substance and the user’s identity become intrinsically entwined, like lovers.  The attachment that forms in addiction is born of the need to fill the void, and therefore becomes an extremely difficult bond to break.  The substance fulfills emotional needs, in the eyes of the addict.  For the addict to choose to “break up” with their lover, so to speak, and walk away is a key reason why relapse is so common.  The addict in early recovery who has not come to terms with the source issue, through pseudo attachment therapy, still yearns for their lost love.

Treating Addiction with Pseudo Attachment Therapy

The individual who first seeks solace in drugs or alcohol to assuage feelings of anxiety or depression related to early childhood attachment deficits doesn’t set out to become dependent on the substance.  The use of the substance as a form of self-medication for mitigating uncomfortable feelings of, say, social anxiety or general insecurity simply was employed to take the edge off one’s emotional pain.  As tolerance increased, however, more of the substance was consumed to maintain the sought after effect.  Over time, neural pathways become remapped and chemical addiction takes root.

In order to effectively treat someone with a drug or alcohol addiction it is essential that, through individual psychotherapy, root issues are identified as potential causal factors.  Without delving into the individual’s emotional landscape to examine early childhood attachments—whether they were healthy or dysfunctional—the recovery will be short-lived.  Through careful, compassionate guidance by a clinician trained in pseudo attachment therapy, an existing disordered attachment originating in early childhood can hold the key that unlocks that aha! moment for the client.  

Pseudo attachment therapy helps these individuals become aware of the connection between healthy attachment in their early childhood and their use of drugs or alcohol as a tool to soothe and comfort that ache while providing a source of, albeit disordered, security for them—aka, a “pseudo” attachment.  This insight can be a fundamental breakthrough in addiction treatment.

Pseudo attachment therapy methodically increases the client’s awareness of how they sought a secure attachment in a substance as a replacement for what they never received in their earliest years.  They never got that roadmap to adulthood based on a sense of security and safety.  For various reasons, that fundamental building block was withheld or denied, saddling them with a lifelong yearning for what they never got as kids.  With an understanding of this, as provided via pseudo attachment therapy, they become empowered to walk away from their disordered lover, the pseudo attachment, and change their life for the better.

About the Author

Dr. Alia Kaneaiakala the Chief Clinical Officer of Phoenix Rising Behavioral Health Care Services is a Psychologist and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Dr. Kaneaiakala has over 10 years of experience in this industry and enjoys working with all populations. She brings a unique and creative clinical approach to treatment.


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