Psychology For Writers: Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol has played a central role in almost all human cultures since the Stone Age. Interestingly, there’s evidence that the development of agriculture – a turning point in human civilization – was based on the cultivation of grain for beer….oh, and for bread. Alcohol is there to toast a birth, celebrate a wedding, or take the edge off a long day. It’s a tasty, feel good activity that is central to most of our social activities.

But like delicious carbohydrates and pain-numbing oxycodone, humans can consume some things to an unhealthy degree. With its accessibility and social acceptance, it’s not surprising that almost 4% of all deaths globally can be attributed to alcohol. In fact, depending on where you live, anywhere from 1% in Africa up to a whopping 11% in Eastern Europe of people will have an alcohol addiction. Nor is it surprising that there’s an entire arm of psychology dedicated to understanding it, and treating it.

There are two reasons a person drinks alcohol – seeking a positive feeling or avoiding a negative one. In moderate amounts this is no different to taking paracetamol or playing Candy Crush. So, if you have a character that loves glass of wine or a six-pack at the end of the day, do they have an addiction?

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In diagnostic terms (and psychologists do love a box to squeeze people into), the essential feature of an alcohol use disorder is that an individual continues using alcohol despite significant alcohol-related problems. So if your character can’t drive their kids to school, if their wife is threatening to leave them, or if their liver is slowly being pickled and they keep going, then they have a problem.

This is what they are likely to experience:

The Need for More (and More)

Thanks to our body’s ability to develop a tolerance for any substance that is regularly pumped into it, your character will need to consume larger and larger amounts over time to achieve the effect they are looking for. They may move onto ‘harder’ alcoholic beverages (hello cheap vodka) or drink for longer as they chase the reason they started drinking in the first place (i.e. avoiding a negative or seeking a positive).

Their Need for Alcohol Dominates their Life

Once a dependence is established, satisfying the addiction will become your character’s priority. Your character will go to great lengths to obtain alcohol, including crime once the savings run dry. In addition, the drive to keep their blood alcohol at a satisfactory level can mean they will consume alcohol in situations in which it is physically hazardous (e.g. driving or swimming).

They Keep Drinking Despite its Negative Impact

Recurrent alcohol consumption will have an impact on multiple domains in your character’s life, the following being the main ones:

  • Social – if all of your friends have an alcohol use disorder this is unlikely to have much impact. But in reality, your character will probably have a wider network of friends and family. Your character’s partner/children/friends are likely to be adversely impacted by the unreliability of an recurrent drinker, the financial strain of a driving need to keep buying alcohol, and the disinhibition that comes with being drunk (which can range from embarrassing activity in public, to arguments, to abuse).
  • Occupational – your character’s work/school world will feel the effects by their alcohol addiction. Although it depends on the context, it’s easy to predict that being hungover isn’t very conducive to arriving to work on time. Nor is being drunk such a good idea if you’re a taxi driver. I’m also going to hazard that having your mind clouded by alcohol isn’t what you want in your surgeon as you head into the operating room.
  • Physical – Finally, individuals with an alcohol use disorder may continue to consume alcohol despite the knowledge that continued consumption poses significant physical (e.g. blackouts, liver disease) and psychological (e.g. depression) consequences. The reality is that excessive, regular consumption of alcohol is can affect nearly every organ system, and is commonly associated with gastritis, stomach ulcers, liver cirrhosis, pancreatitis, and an elevated rate of several cancers and heart disease. In addition, alcohol use disorder is associated with increased rates of accidents, violence and suicide.

It’s Really, Really Hard to Quit

All drugs directly activate the brain reward system, in fact, they produce such an intense activation of the reward system that instead of achieving that rush through adaptive behaviors, the individual will keep coming back to this pretty darned maladaptive way. This means your character is likely to have a persistent desire, maybe even several unsuccessful attempts, to cut down or control alcohol use.

What complicates things more is the physiological dependence the body develops to alcohol. Your character is likely to experience craving; a strong desire or urge to use alcohol to the point where it’s hard to think of anything else, and withdrawal. In fact, the withdrawal from alcohol can be so unpleasant and intense that your character may continue to consume alcohol despite adverse consequences, just to avoid or to relieve withdrawal symptoms.

This means that alcohol use disorder can be characterized by periods of remission and relapse. A decision to stop drinking, often in response to a crisis, is likely to be followed by a period of weeks or more of abstinence, which is often followed by periods of controlled drinking. The reality is however, once alcohol intake resumes, it’s highly likely that consumption will rapidly escalate and your character will be dealing with the same problems as before.

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Do you recognise any of these symptoms in your character? Can you use this information to create a more complex, authentic individual stumbling through the pages of your manuscript? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Have a wonderful week,


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Tamar also writes fiction!


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