The Trauma Behind Heavy Drinking

Gillian May

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As someone who’s personally lived through alcohol addiction and watched others cope with alcohol addiction, I know that this is not a simple problem that can be solved overnight. The reasons we drink are complex, much more than we once thought. As a former mental health nurse, I also have a unique perspective and passion for this topic.

I see so many people comment on alcoholism in a way that blames the alcoholic for their own misery. While it’s true that people need to take responsibility for their actions in life, it’s never simple to say, “well, you chose to drink so you can choose to stop.” Yes, we need to choose to stop, but the way we get there is a messy ride full of complicated socioeconomic, health-related, mental health, and cultural issues. If people were able to easily stop their addictions, then we wouldn’t even need to worry about it the way we do.

After going through my sobriety journey (and witnessing other journeys, too), I know that sobriety takes looking deeper into why we drink in the first place. Focusing all our energy only on “not drinking” isn’t going to work for the long haul. For example, you can’t just slap a bandaid on a wound and expect it to go away. You have to actually understand how the wound got there and work patiently to clean and extract the infection before it can heal. The same goes for getting sober.

So let’s go back to why we drink heavily in the first place. Research says that most people who drink heavily have some degree of adverse childhood experiences, which is a fancy word for trauma. It’s trauma that introduces us to the profound need to escape. And it doesn’t have to be the worst trauma ever, just enough to overwhelm us wanting to escape from the present moment.

And when we look at it that way, we can see that trauma may even be at the root of most of our escapist behaviors. And if that’s true, then heavy drinking is one of many ways we, as humans, escape our uncomfortable feelings. Other ways we escape are through the internet, tv, gambling, shopping, working, and even working out. Unfortunately, some ways to escape are more dangerous than others, which is why heavy drinking is so problematic.

If you notice, I’m not using the word alcoholism here — instead, I’m referring to heavy drinking. What people need to understand, and what experts have told us, is that heavy drinking is not vastly different than alcoholism, and it affects far more people than we care to admit. This lack of insight about our drinking is because we’ve lulled ourselves into thinking there’s a difference between people who are “alcoholics” versus people who like to drink a lot.

In 2016, alcohol and heavy drinking were the leading cause of death and disability in people ages 15–49 years old globally. And according to the WHO:

  • The average person in the US consumed 9.97 liters of pure alcohol this past year.
  • Heavy alcohol use contributes to 3 million deaths worldwide annually.
  • Alcohol plays a significant negative role in over 230 different diseases.
  • Alcohol causes significant harm to those around the drinker as well.

Heavy drinking is anything past the safe drinking standard, which is no more than 1 drink a day for women and 2 drinks a day for men. Also, we need to consider heavy episodic drinking as well, which is anything over 4 drinks on one occasion for a woman and more than 5 drinks on one occasion for a man. These facts are important because many people believe their drinking is safe simply because they may not drink every day. The truth is that heavy drinking is quite prevalent in many parts of the globe.

We also know that PTSD and trauma issues are very pervasive as well. In the US, around 70% of people have experienced trauma in their lifetime. One study shows that heavy alcohol use is correlated with heavy alcohol consumption in adults with PTSD or past trauma.

Those who end up engaging in heavy drinking likely do so to self-medicate. While this is an understandable goal, it also sets us up for worsening mental health and trauma-induced symptoms as well as a host of serious health problems. Understanding these facts can help us see our alcohol use for what it is — a potentially dangerous way to cope with the disturbing and uncomfortable aftermath of trauma and adverse experiences.

The more we shine a light on this, the more we can take matters into our hands. Defining the root causes of heavy drinking gets us away from the delusion that alcohol abuse is due to weakness or lack of concern for ourselves or others.

The other truth we can’t ignore is that trauma care is sorely lacking at the moment, and the demand is high. It makes sense that in the absence of mental health care, trauma therapy, or other accessible interventions, people are likely to choose self-medication. So instead of asking why the drinker chooses to self-medicate and doesn’t stop, maybe the question has to be — what do we do with all of our pain?

The more that people understand this, the more we can have new conversations that look at how we can help ourselves. How can we increase support for people working through trauma? And what can we do to heal so that we’re not forced to self-medicate with dangerous substances like alcohol?

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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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