Healing Attachments to Conquer Addiction

By The Fix staff 09/05/17

Someone who has a disorganized attachment has always been longing for that unconditional sensation or feeling. Then they try heroin and it hits the same brain receptor that the oxytocin hits.

 A therapist comforts her patient

When Dr. Alia Kaneaiakala first started learning about attachment theory she realized almost right away that it was a window to understanding many people with substance use disorder. Today Kaneaiakala, a psychologist and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, is the chief clinical officer of Phoenix Rising, a behavioral health center in Southern California. She integrates attachment theory into her work with people in recovery regularly. Here Kaneaiakala sits down with The Fix to explain why this is such a powerful approach.

The Fix: Attachment theory started with the work of John Bowlby, a London psychiatrist who treated emotionally disturbed children. Since then there’s been a lot more work into attachment theory. Help us understand on a basic level what attachment theory is.

Kaneaiakala: As human beings you need to have a safe haven and a secure base. If we have two parents that are good enough (which is an actual therapeutic term) and a fairly stable home, that’s what we get.

To have that stability you only need a parent that is there for you 70 percent of the time. That gives that secure base which means you always know where home is. You can go out and explore in the world and come back and you have that secure base. The safe haven is that unconditional space. You might be in trouble, you might push on boundaries but you have it.

The Fix: Attachment styles form by the time a child is about two years old. What happens if they didn’t have a safe haven and secure base?

Kaneaiakala: Someone who has a disorganized attachment has always been longing for that unconditional sensation or feeling. It’s that oxytocin that comes in these moments of definite connection and closeness, like cuddling a child or breastfeeding a baby.

It’s part of what we’re supposed to have and how we’re supposed to grow. We need other people to know that we’re ok. If that’s missing, the human body may not know what it feels like but it will know that there’s a deficit.

The Fix: Is that why many people with attachment issues turn to drugs or alcohol?

Kaneaiakala: Those who have a disorganized attachment maybe never got what they needed from their parents. They missed that unconditional feeling. They try substances and it may patch over that need. Then they try heroin and it hits the same brain receptor that the oxytocin hits.

All of a sudden they have that sensation that they never really knew they were missing, but the moment they get it they realize it wasn’t there and they want more of it. It becomes a pseudo attachment, or false attachment, and they start giving it to themselves whenever they can.

The Fix: Does taking a hit really provide the same feeling as being loved?

Kaneaiakala: It’s very similar. All of a sudden they’ve had this sensation that they’ve always wanted and they want more of it. The most difficult part is that it feels better for us human beings when it comes with the connection, the knowing that we are loved and cared for by another human. Then it touches the core of us.

When we get it from a substance it doesn’t fill us up. We don’t internalize it the same way. If we have a parent or a loved one that has cared for us and they’re there for us no matter what we get to internalize that love and take it with us. It becomes part of our own safety and security. None of that comes with a substance. It provides that feeling for a moment, but it doesn’t stay, which then creates more of a longing for it. You need more of it and you pull away from people and turn more to the substances.

The Fix: If attachment styles are set in childhood how can we heal them as adults?

Kaneaiakala: For people to heal they have to have a corrective healing experience or a corrective emotional response. They need to learn it’s not going to always be the way it has always been.

Children take in their world view by 8 or 9. If their little world was pretty safe they take on the idea that the world at large is safe. If by that age their world doesn’t seem safe then they project that onto the bigger world. Most of our clients come in that’s part of their experience. We try to show them that we’re safe people.

The Fix: What does that actually look like in terms of how Phoenix Rising is run?

Kaneaiakala: We treat it more like it’s a home environment. We do family lunches. We treat them as people and family. We had a client who was having major dental problems. We literally tucked him in on the couch, put a blanket over him and let him sleep. That was a turning point. He talks about that and his face gets this almost childlike grin because it meant so much to him.

We do the clinical work, we set the boundaries, but we try to offer them moments of actual care taking when we see the opportunity arise. Clients leave and come back, which becomes part of their secure base. They know that we respond and are here for them. We’re trying to give them that corrective experience to show that people can be genuine and truly want to be on your side.

Phoenix Rising provides behavior health care services in southern California. Find out more at https://phoenixrisingbehavioral.com/ and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

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