Is It About the Alcohol or Is It About the Pain?

Gillian May
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As a former nurse and recovering alcoholic, I contemplate what my addiction meant to me and what it means to others too. These thoughts become even more profound when I think of my father, who I lost to alcohol addiction five years ago. And now, I just learned that another family member, who is very special to me, might be dying from alcohol addiction as well.

I’ve had a lot to process over the past several years; my addiction and those of my family. The first instinct is to feel angry and lash out at the alcohol or the alcoholic for “choosing” to destroy their lives. But what I sometimes forget, and what most people don’t realize, is that alcohol addiction is not about alcohol. It’s about pain and the amelioration of pain. Plain and simple.

People use alcohol for pain because it works. Not only does it work for mental pain but for physical pain too. However, what most alcoholics don’t know is that alcohol will make the pain worse. Unfortunately, we don’t realize this while we’re drinking. All we see is that those first few drinks seem to make everything better. And this pain relief becomes so precious to us that we’ll even forgive the worst hangovers just to get relief.

The problem with alcohol and pain is that you keep going around and around in a circle. You crave the pain relief of alcohol, which then creates more pain, and you have to keep drinking to keep the pain away. Alcoholics that drink all the time rarely go into withdrawal because they always have a steady supply of alcohol in their system. Unfortunately, over time, the body starts breaking down from the alcohol, which causes even more pain. Problems like depression and anxiety become much worse. The cycle never ends until you either die or quit.

Alcoholics become trapped in a terrible cycle, and the walls close in around them. But the worst part is that they often can’t see a way out. They can’t imagine their lives would be any better without the alcohol, and the withdrawal is so horrible that the person avoids it at all costs — which means they have to continue drinking. For them, there’s truly no way out. This is why the suicide rate for people with addictions is so high. Many of them can’t see any good that can come out of quitting the only thing that ever solved their pain problem.

To put it another way, if you had a disease or injury that caused pain and there was no hope of a cure, would you not medicate it? Would you not use anything possible to reduce the pain so you can feel ok for a moment?

Many alcoholics are in this kind of pain. Many have severe depression, many have a history of emotional and physical trauma, some have incurable physical illnesses, and many lack support and resources to help them solve these problems.
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We also happen to live at a time when capitalism and viruses are destroying the very fabric of our lives. Many of us don’t feel we fit into whatever strange world we’ve created. This makes for a lot of pain. Also, emotional pain is much more complex than physical pain. Most alcoholics are in emotional pain, and there’s nothing they can do about it.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not advocating for alcohol use in any way. Alcohol almost destroyed my life and is destroying the lives of my family members. I’d love to hate alcohol and blame it for everything that’s gone wrong, but I can’t because I used to be an alcoholic and know the kind of pain relief it gave me too. I quit because I was privileged enough to gather the resources, supports, and strength required to help me manage the pain that alcohol covered up. It’s that simple, and yet, that complex.

The other problem is that when you live in an alcoholic family, meaning that everyone abuses alcohol or unconsciously allows the abuse of alcohol (because why not, everyone for generations has always used alcohol), it’s tough to change your life and remove yourself from the only safe haven you’ve known. It’s one thing tho have one person with an alcohol problem and another to have everyone with an alcohol problem. When alcohol abuse is so pervasive in a family, it makes the addiction that much stronger.

The point is, there’s a much deeper reason behind alcohol abuse that most of us forget or don’t realize. “Curing” alcohol abuse or other substance use disorders are not a matter of guilting people into making better “choices.” We all make choices based on our needs. Pain relief is a powerful need that anyone who lives and breathes will crave if the pain becomes unmanageable. When I look at the eyes of my family members who succumbed to alcohol abuse, I see a lot of pain, and it breaks my heart.

If substance abuse interventions are going to work, they need to include significant interventions to help people cope with the pain first. Imagine if someone said, “I know you drink because you’re in pain; let’s see if we can try other things that will be more helpful for the pain than the alcohol.” I think many alcoholics might be open to that, but only if the interventions were truly supportive, non-judgmental, and proven to work.

The overwhelming presence of pain for those with addictions is also why I don’t think the absence of all substances works. In some cases, people need pain-relieving medications. For other people, the use of cannabis is required for them to get pain relief without the use of more dangerous substances. Harm reduction is the most important thing, as well as quality of life.

Because without interventions that truly reduce emotional and physical pain, the alcoholic will have no choice but to continue drinking.

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I'm a former nurse turned freelance writer. I have extensive experience in administration, frontline care, and education in mental health, public health, and geriatrics. However, after 20 years, I needed a change and always wanted to write. I have personal and family experience in mental health and addictions, so I'm passionate about advocacy and education in those areas. I'm also a traveler, photographer, and artist. I funnel all my various expertise into my writing and hope to provide valuable content that is entertaining and educational. Join my email list if you want to read more of my work - I also have a book on Alcoholic Liver Disease coming out in 2021.


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