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Alcohol addiction: The hunger of the soul

Updated: Sep 13, 2022

"The same question is always asked: why does a subject become addicted? Nobody gets up in the morning and decides to get addicted." - William Burroughs, 1977A fome da alma: Psicanálise, drogas e pulsão na modernidade

What is the answer?

Let's dive into Psychoanalysis:

Freud left us the concept of drive as something abstract, non-locatable, like a sensation that settles in the body and drives us to some behaviour, usually repressed because it is unacceptable by morals, the "higher" layer of our psyche.

If we are exposed to an uncomfortable noise, we can cover our ears or change rooms; if we are cold, we can put on a coat. But how can we deal with the sensation of a drive, or an insistent thought or the need, which seems uncontrollable, to make use of drugs or drink alcohol?

When the hunger of the soul surpasses that of the stomach

The spread of drug use in the 19th century contributed to the psychoanalytic formulation of the concept of drive. Freud stated that the psyche is governed by the pleasure principle and thus everything that brings pleasure is incorporated into the individual. When we postpone the satisfaction of pleasure, we are governed by the principle of reality, this being what frustrates us and makes us see the impediments that the real world brings to our pleasure (that more moralistic layer of our psyche).

The understanding of the problem of alcoholism or other addictions may pass through the notion of satisfaction, due to the fact that the chronic use of alcohol presents itself as insatiable. The play between satisfaction and dissatisfaction is primary in understanding the relationship of the individual with the social environment.

We can observe in our society a generalised acceptance of the consumption of substances which operate modifications to our mental functioning, among them, the most known and widespread being alcohol. Precisely because it is so widespread and accepted, many excesses have also begun to be seen as normative and devalued as symptoms of psychological problems.

Who dares question the habit of a restaurant worker who, every day, after working hours, has a few beers with his colleagues?

Alcohol as a "sadness reliever"

For example, "for a street dweller, alcoholic drink often has, in its use, the power of a blanket".

Freud too was adept at cocaine use and struggled to keep his consumptions balanced. He never gave up tobacco, however. His relationship with tobacco seems to have served as the necessary supplement to pursue his goals, assisting him as the creator of psychoanalysis. Satisfaction can operate in parallel to support achievement. But it is necessary to understand when it crosses the threshold of satisfaction to give way to an indispensable escape from anguish.

"Excessive alcohol consumption grows where work brutalises and poverty lurks. And excess is never a good outlet - whether it is excess work that oppresses or excess alcohol that is meant to support that oppression.

Current Conceptions

For a long time alcoholism and any kind of addiction were considered problems of moral weakness. Because of this, many patients or family members stopped seeking help, making the dependency picture even worse.

Actually, there are many factors that lead a person to develop an addiction: emotional imbalance, need to be accepted, low self-esteem, insecurity, search for status or the influence of commerce and the media. Some aspects of childhood can also interfere directly in the development of addictions, they are:

  • People who have had addicted parents tend to become adults with addictions or an aversion to compulsive behaviours, as children repeat or repel their parents' behaviours

  • People who had absent parents who were compensated with material goods grow up with the idea that anything external will be able to supply the love and emotional emptiness

  • People who have had all their needs promptly met also have a great tendency towards addictions, as they grow up without limits and with difficulty in dealing with frustrations, seeking pleasure at any cost

  • People who were rejected or compared too much to other children during childhood may develop addictions to feel accepted

  • People with low emotional intelligence and who do not know how to deal with their emotions find in addictions a way to escape from the inner world when anguish arises

One thing is certain, no amount of alcohol can fill an empty soul.

Based on:

Alencar, R. (2016). A fome da alma: Psicanálise, drogas e pulsão na modernidade [Dissertação de doutoramento, Instituto de Psicologia, Universidade de São Paulo, São Paulo, Brasil].

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