Rebuilding Trust in Recovery

Photo by Everton Vila on Unsplash

Trust can be an elusive thing, but we know when we have it and we know when it’s gone. The other day someone told me their goal was to “earn back the trust I have lost.” In recovery from addiction, return to trusting can be a long road.

When did the trust arrive? How long did it take? When did the trust leave? Trust can sneak out the back door without saying a word or can give a thousand kisses and stay for dessert before it finally exits. A slow goodbye to trust is often a painful one, and in many ways takes the longest to return because, in reality, it really wanted to stay.

A discussion about trust begins usefully with an exploration of what trust is. Again, we know when we have it, we know when we don’t, but what is it exactly?

  • Trust is being able to feel completely relaxed, real, and show up as ourselves. We usually aren’t asking ourselves “Do I trust myself?” or “Do I trust this person?” when we experience trust. We can relax and be ourselves, trust is implied and felt.
  • Trust is built on honesty, integrity, and consistency. Building trust in a relationship involves doing what we say we will do and meaning what we say. Building trust with ourselves involves following through with what we set out to do. Especially in rebuilding relationships, consistency is key to healing broken trust. It’s knowing someone will follow through without having to double-check.
  • There is honor and respect in trust.
  • Trust is graceful. Trusting someone isn’t thinking they will never make a mistake, but knowing that they will acknowledge or make it right.
  • Trust is conscious. When we trust ourselves, we know that we will make the right or best choice when faced with a tough decision.
  • Trust comes with roles, at times. Doctors, lawyers, teachers are all imbued with a certain degree of trust just by stepping into the role. When their role is unknown, we may or may not trust them.
  • Trust is a thought, a feeling, and an action. Because trust is conscious, there is an aspect that is driven by choice. Trust is also a feeling. There is an aspect of trust that involves intuitive knowing. Thoughtful action builds trust.

Addiction can damage trust in both obvious and vastly unpredictable ways. When one partner has been anesthetized or checked out for months or years and the other has been wakefully watching this play out, then clearly the one who has been watching this whole thing is going to have some feelings about what they have been seeing. Rebuilding trust may include listening to each other about what that time has been like without being reactive or defensive. It can also include getting individual support in order to have a space to spew without emotionally injuring the other partner.

While trust may say a quick or short goodbye, it often takes a while to return back to say hello and make itself at home. Just because it doesn’t happen overnight, doesn’t mean that it’s not happening. Because an aspect of trust is consistency, it generally takes time to observe a change in behavior or settle into a new dynamic.

Addiction is it’s own kind of trauma. It is both traumatizing to inundate our bodies with harmful chemicals and behaviors, and the things we do while influenced by those things is traumatizing. It is traumatizing to witness someone doing that to themselves. Due to the traumatic nature of addiction, rebuilding trust in self and others in recovery also includes regulating our emotions and returning to baseline.

During traumatic incidents, people often become dysregulated. They may become hypo- or hyper- aroused. Hypo arousal looks like shutdown, withdrawal, escape. Sometimes the use of drugs or alcohol itself is an attempt to regulate by providing these feelings. This thought is common: “I need to relax after a hard day with this drink.” Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, a highway to hypo arousal. In contrast, hyperarousal can look like yelling, feeling out of control, anxiety, or impulsivity.

Returning to baseline means that people have time to feel neutral, not hypo or hyper-aroused. It means that the nervous system is stable. We don’t make a whole lot of progress emotionally when our body is screaming at us physically. A great example of that is the feeling of being hangry.

Returning to baseline is a process. Self-care builds both self-trust and trust in a relationship. Especially in an adult relationship, if I can trust my partner or my adult relative to take care of themselves, I am at ease. I don’t have to worry or have an imbalanced nervous system. When addiction is removed, partners can return to successful coregulation, rebuilding trust as a feeling.

One of the most challenging aspects of addiction is the loss of trust in ourselves. The compulsive nature of addiction erodes self-trust. Just like it erodes almost every other way of endearing the self: self-care, self-awareness, self-knowledge. Some people say that addiction is selfish, but I see the self so lost that it is barely there to even recognize itself. Recovery is a reemergence of the self and growth of self-trust.

Certainly, with some chemical addictions, the theories of the functioning of the brain indicate that the part of our brain that has the ability to make choices is hijacked by the addiction process. Recovery involves healing our ability to make and trust our choices.

If trust of another or trust in yourself is saying a long goodbye or maybe slammed the door a while ago, I encourage looking at how trust shows up in your life currently. Trust is here even when we feel we’ve lost it. We all trust the sun to rise and set. We trust the exhale to come after the inhale. We trust our bodies to do their magical processes. Finding trust in ourselves can look like witnessing trust in the very nature of things. After finding it there, slowly building consistency in small behaviors and daily practices can help rebuild lost trust in any relationship.