Alcoholism, Like Many Addictions, Is About Pain

Gillian May
Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash

It was more than coincidence that I quit drinking alcohol a few months before my father died of alcoholic liver disease five years ago. I didn’t exactly know he was going to die, but I had watched him become more disabled in the year before his death. He had alcoholic liver disease, a condition that haunts many alcoholics because it can sneak up on you pretty quickly.

I didn’t want to be sick all the time like my father. And unfortunately, that’s where I was headed — constant headaches, nerve pain, bloating, digestive problems, tremors, and a foggy brain. Yes, alcohol makes you sick, yet 85.6% of the US population has consumed alcohol in the past year. Also, 25.8% of US people over 18 engage in binge drinking, which is very heavy drinking.

Why do we drink so much if we know that alcohol makes us sick? Well, that’s because initially alcohol also makes you feel numb and we want to feel numb instead of feeling all the pain we have on a day-to-day basis. The truth is, alcoholism, like many addictions, is about pain. Many of us are in terrible pain, either physically or emotionally and alcohol helps with this even if it’s only briefly.

It’s important we understand this fact about alcohol and other addictions because, without this crucial understanding, we may never truly be able to help people with their addictions. Alcohol use is often driven by pain and according to research, may have a cyclical relationship. Meaning that pain drives people to drink, but drinking also brings more pain, which makes people drink more.

People who abuse alcohol also could benefit from understanding this important relationship. Often, those of us who drink heavily may not understand the nature of our relationship with alcohol. I know I didn’t. I drank because it was a habit that gave me a sense of comfort. But it wasn’t until I quit drinking that I realized how pain really influenced my alcohol use.

It’s no wonder then, that with the pandemic, alcohol use went way up. One study shows that heavy alcohol use went up by 60% during the pandemic with most people citing stress as the number one reason they were drinking more. Stress is a source of emotional and physical pain and as such, no wonder people were turning to alcohol more during the pandemic.

My father was in chronic pain most of his life. He had diabetic nerve damage and compressed discs in his back. He also suffered from crippling depression since his teen years. He drank to quiet the demons in his head and soften the electrical pain from his nerves. Little did he know though that drinking was actually making these conditions much worse. I often say a little prayer that he wasn’t around during the pandemic because he would have suffered a lot through it.

The point is, pain is an important reason why people drink or engage in any addiction for that matter. The more we look at this important factor, the more we may be able to unravel the mysteries behind alcohol abuse and other addictions. One animal study shows that when pain is involved, animals are more likely to choose a substance to help them deal with pain too.

So what can we do with this knowledge? First, we need to stop demonizing people with addictions. They are human beings in pain and have found something to help them quell it. Most people who are in chronic unrelenting pain will find something to help them cope with it. This is what’s happening to people with addictions. The more the general public understands this, the more we can work from compassion rather than criminalization.

Secondly, it’s worth advocating for more research and treatment strategies that address underlying pain conditions as a way to also treat addictions. In other words, if we start at the root, we will see better results.

Lastly, the more we talk about this in the general public, the more that people with addictions can gather the information they need to make better decisions. Had I understood that my addiction was related to untreated pain, it would have made a difference to me. I may have even quit sooner and found better recovery strategies.

Many relapses happen because the first few months without the addictive substance feel like you’re an exposed nerve. You feel physically and emotionally raw, which is in itself, painful. It’s so tempting to go back to the addiction because you’re feeling all the pain at once. Perhaps the more we understand the relationship of pain, the more we can create sobriety strategies that protect people.

I’m pretty sure if my father could speak to the masses from wherever he is, he would say that pain was his number one reason for continuing to drink despite knowing the health repercussions.

In the words of Dr. Gabor Mate, instead of asking why the addiction, we should be asking why the pain?

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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.


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