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Addiction and the Demon Drink (Part 3)

This third article in the series for The Euro Weekly News continues our look at our relationship with alcohol and the problem it can become when healthy and appropriate use moves towards problematic use and addiction. 

Why does this shift occur for some of use? Last time we looked at how alcohol, while actually a depressant, can be used to stimulate, sooth and numb, depending upon our psychological state and mood, and the quantity of the drug we take. Now some people can take some alcohol, feel the effect, like it, and feel no need to go further.  Others do not work this way and continue to drink.  It is as if they have no float-switch or regulator to say stop now, or for a while at least. Why this happens is a complicated question to answer, and in psychotherapy the answer is often made up of a series of reasons particular to the individual. We can take a look at some now.

 For many people, the sense of relief from the “symptoms” they experience through using their drug of choice is so significant that, for them, they want more of that “good” feeling. They can be like children, wanting more and more chocolate and, with no adult around to provide the boundary; they eat and eat until they are sick.  What this might point to in the adult is that often there have been no solid role models around to teach the child how to regulate themselves – this internalised parent is missing if you like.  Furthermore there is also the possibility that a child has learned that excessive use of alcohol is a realistic way of regulating mood from a parent who also used alcohol in this way. Remember in Part 1 of this series, I talked of there being more than one-million children in the U.K. in households where a care-giver has a serious problem with alcohol use. 

 There is medical research seeking to point to the existence of an addictive or alcoholic gene, but whether or not this delivers something conclusive (and useable), living in an alcoholic household increases the generational risk of developing such problems.  In addition in such homes there is a much greater chance that the child will experience emotional, physical or sexual abuse. These factors in themselves sometimes are found at the root of addictive behaviours in the victim.

 Another factor at work is that of habituation. Put into other words, what is happening here is that the more frequently an individual’s system is exposed to a drug, the more it begins to tolerate it. As a consequence, more and more is needed to achieve the same physiological and psychological effect, but of course the individual is taking larger and larger quantities of the drug into their body, or taking greater risks in their behaviour to get the same relief or high.  Effectively they poison their bodies and there is danger here too when someone has tried to end their addiction, and then they relapse and begin to use again at the level they left off. The tolerance or habituating effect is gone or reduced and the effects can be fatal.

 Many years ago when first studying psychology, I learned two important things. Firstly that anything that is pleasurable is potentially addictive and secondly, that no drug has one effect.  These two basic truths are seen over and over again and explain why we see people who have problematic relations to / are addicted to particular things.  Some we laugh at and don’t take very seriously, like “addictions” to chocolate, shopping, sex or exercise.  But even here, the impact on individuals and their families – the side-effects if you like - can be profound when they get out of control. Somehow we are more able to identify with the difficulties than can arise out of excessive use of alcohol, drugs, gambling, and self-harm.  The issue here is that the addiction can come to be seen as the problem – which of course it is in an all too real sense – when the underlying causes of it are what really must be tackled to stand a chance of moving on and regaining control of our lives.