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Why Drugs and Alcohol Can Be So Hard to Quit

Intoxication sometimes allows hidden “selves” to emerge.

Daniel Reche CC0 Creative Commons
Source: Daniel Reche CC0 Creative Commons

By David Braucher, LCSW, PhD

Addiction treatment programs have an alarming failure rate often attributed to the powerful chemical effects of drugs and alcohol. And yet many users never become addicted–even after prolonged exposure. One reason some people relapse repeatedly is that, for them, being intoxicated allows them to express feelings that are out of awareness when they are sober—hidden “selves” emerge.

This compelling aspect of the intoxicated state is often overlooked in treatment programs: addicts not only miss being “high” when they struggle with sobriety, but also the way the substance facilitates the expression of disowned parts of the self.

What Are Disowned Parts of the Self?

As our identity develops, we tend to feel more comfortable in expressing certain parts of ourselves and less comfortable with others. Stereotypically, men in our culture grow up feeling more at ease conveying aggression as opposed to vulnerability. This doesn’t mean that men don’t feel vulnerable, but that this experience is not often in conscious awareness. Similarly, a person raised in a family in which aggression is frowned upon may have a tendency to deny feeling angry and behave as if nothing gets to them.

What happens to the feelings that we are reluctant to acknowledge? Well, they don’t just disappear; they stay out of awareness and often we really don’t know that they are there. These are the disowned parts of the self.

Intoxication Allows Expression of the Disowned Parts of Self

Drugs and alcohol can loosen our inhibitions allowing us to express the parts of ourselves we usually hide. Think of the cliché of the macho man who, after a night of drinking, gets teary-eyed, hugs his best bud and tells him how much he loves him. In this scenario, drinking allows the expression of vulnerable feelings that normally reside outside of awareness.

Research on the medical use of various drugs such as Ketamine, LSD, and MDMA investigates how these drugs permit access to otherwise sequestered aspects of one’s personality. When these drugs are administered in a therapeutic setting they help people to understand and integrate otherwise disowned parts of self.


Take Sage, a successful medical professional who works long hours tending to the needs of her patients. At home, she is the go-to person for her extended family; whenever her relatives experience difficulties, she’s the one they turn to for advice. When sober, Sage is proud of her pivotal role in the family, even though she secretly wishes to be left alone with a good book.

When she drinks, Sage no longer assumes the role of the “strong one.” She often calls friends late into the night and keeps them on the phone for hours. She tells them how alone she feels and that there is no one looking out for her.

When drunk, Sage is able to express her longing and wish to be cared for. When she drinks, she can cry about her loneliness--she can feel sorry for how responsible she has had to be growing up the eldest of six children in a single-mother household. Sober, she has no access to these feelings. When Sage is reminded of what she said during a drunken conversation, she has no memory of it.


Max is a successful professional working at one of the most competitive companies in his business. He is in an on-again-off-again relationship with his girlfriend Mandy. When Max is sober he routinely expresses his love for and dependency on Mandy. He has a difficult time letting Mandy leave for work, often gently coaxing her to stay with him in bed just a little bit longer. Although he is aware of his dissatisfaction with Mandy’s relative lack of emotional openness, he doesn’t complain. Afraid of being abandoned, he avoids starting an argument. Discord in his childhood home eventually led to the dissolution of his parents’ marriage.

When Max is high, usually on a combination of alcohol and marijuana, he can easily express his discontent with Mandy. Often after a night of partying, he becomes enraged at her for seemingly small infractions. He has broken up with her numerous times because she was paying too much attention to another guy at a party: “You would rather talk to that guy than me.”

Max often tries to make up with Mandy the following day. He struggles to understand how he gets so out of control. Back in touch with his fear of losing Mandy, he disowns the angry and dissatisfied parts of himself. He is unable to express his legitimate concerns when he is sober, a time when he would be more capable of having a constructive discussion.

Where We Go from Here

Despite repeated attempts to stop using, Sage and Max frequently fall off the wagon. The work cut out for them in therapy is to learn to tolerate uncomfortable feelings. Instead of dismissing these parts of themselves as just “being messy,” they must realize that these feelings are legitimate—indeed, very important—aspects of who they are. If they can find a way to express the hidden and disowned parts of themselves when they are sober, they might more easily sustain sobriety.

David Braucher, L.C.S.W., Ph.D. is a Graduate of The William Alanson White Institute and Past-President of the White Society. He is on the Editorial Board of the journal, Contemporary Psychoanalysis, and Executive Editor of the blog, Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action. He is a supervisor and member of the faculty of White’s Intensive Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Program. He has lectured at the NYU School of Social Work. He writes on relationships and is in private practice in The West Village/Chelsea in Manhattan.

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