In order to effectively treat alcohol dependency, we must first understand the root cause. Is it a disease imposed on us by our genetic makeup? Is it triggered by chemical imbalances or psychological disorders? Or, could it be that early experiences and environment are to blame? According to a recent study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, unresolved issues from childhood do, in fact, contribute to adult alcohol dependence.

This study, performed by a team of researchers at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, compared 280 patients seeking treatment for alcohol dependence with 137 randomly-selected volunteers. The “non-drinking group” didn’t avoid alcohol completely – some drank more and some drank less, but on average they’d had a total of 205 drinks in the past 90 days, or about 2.3 drinks per day. In comparison, members of the “drinking” group consumed 1106 drinks over the previous 90 days, or about 12.3 drinks per day.

Of the drinking group, nearly half responded that they had experienced emotional abuse. The non-drinking group? Only 7.3 percent. Not surprisingly, rates of reported physical and sexual abuse were also higher within the drinking group.

The poet Charles Bukowski once wrote, “Drinking is an emotional thing,” and Edgar Allen Poe attributed his drug use to,  “ . . . the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories.” Today’s science supports what these artists understood intuitively: adults with unresolved emotional wounds are more likely to struggle with dependence.

But the fact of childhood abuse leading to alcohol dependence wasn’t the only metric  measured within this study. Researchers also utilized a test called the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire to explore the severity of abuse and dependence. The resulting data illustrates the theory that emotional abuse leads to alcohol dependence — moreover, the more severe the childhood abuse, the more drinks the person consumed as an adult. This reinforces the idea that for many, drinking is used as a coping mechanism to avoid feelings of sadness, rage, stress or other psychological conditions that cause discomfort. Alcohol is an escape.

Thankfully, this study doesn’t just uncover the cause of dependency  —  it also provides us with the solution. For years doctors and therapists have believed alcohol addiction itself to be the problem, when in actuality it is a symptom of a deeper underlying issue. In my experience, the most effective treatment method is one that focuses on healing the root causes of alcohol dependency, and this research is very helpful in illustrating just that point. The authors write, “Our data suggest that alcoholics with histories of childhood abuse may benefit from tailored treatment approaches that incorporate a focus on the long-term effects of childhood abuse and resulting psychiatric and psychosocial needs.”

Clearly, as this study shows, it’s more than just the current circumstances of life that result in alcohol abuse; rather it’s the events of the past which generate the whirlpool of dependence. Once past trauma has been cleared and healed, the road to sobriety is more smoothly paved.


Pax Prentiss is CEO of Passages Addiction Treatment Centers, author of the book The Alcoholism and Addiction Cure, and a 12-year survivor of heroin, cocaine and alcohol abuse. Join Pax on Facebook and on Twitter @passagesrehab.

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