Daniel Sonkin, PHD. Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist HOME | CONTACT | ABOUT
header articles

Alcohol, Drugs and Violence

Research data indicates that a large percentage of individuals who have a problem with violence also use alcohol or other drugs to one degree or another. Of these, over two thirds become violent while under the influence of these substances. Statistics such as these could lead you to believe that there is a relationship between alcohol and drug use and violence. And in fact, there is a strong relationship. When I first began to work with abusers I thought that if a person solved his substance abuse problem, his violence problem would also be solved. I sent clients who were addicted to alcohol or other drugs to treatment programs that handled those problems. Many of them contacted us months later saying that they were no longer using those chemicals, but they were still being violent. On the other hand programs around the country have found when they have tried to treat the violence without solving the alcohol or drug problem, men have did not have success stopping their violence.

My experience tells me that people who completely cease their use of alcohol and other drugs are in a better position to stop their violence. Perhaps you ask, "What if I don't have an alcohol or drug problem but just drink occassionally?" If a person drinks or uses and then becomes violent then, that in itself, tells says he/she has a problem with alcohol and drugs. Being able to stop all use for a period of time can also be one way to test whether or not he has a substance abuse problem. However, even the occassional drinker needs to abstain for a period to: 1) determine the role of alcohol and other drugs in his life; and 2) avoid skating on thin ice while learning how to change his behavior. The last thing you need is something that will increase the chance that you'll become violent.

Although there are no conclusive studies indicating that alcohol or other drugs cause domestic violence, a person is certainly less inhibited while under the influence of drugs or alcohol and may do things that he might not ordinarily do while sober. Studies indicate that alcohol intoxication and drug use increases the lethality of a man's violence. Because alcohol or other drugs do no cause the violence therfore their use cannot not be used as an excuse for violence. Likewise, according the law, intoxication cannot be used as a defense in criminal court. The laws in many states specifically say that even if a person commits an act while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs he is still responsible for that act. The law assumes that the person using the substance is aware of the possible consequences of being drunk or high and therefore is responsible for taking the substance in the first place.

Unless you completely abstain from chemical use you are not likely to stop your violence. What if you can't stop? We encourage you to get an assessment from a qualified chemical dependency counselor to determine if you need separate chemical dependency treatment.

The Vocabulary of Chemical Dependency

Many people make a distinction between alcohol and drugs because one is illegal and the other is not. Their logic goes, "....if alcohol is legal, it must not be as physically or psychologically bad for a person as drugs." In addition, many also believe that drugs are addictive substances and alcohol is not. Webster defines a drug as "....a substance acting on the nervous system, such as a depressant or stimulant, that can cause an addiction." Alcohol sure fits this description. In fact, throughout time, alcohol has been used as a central nervous system depressant to numb a person to pain. We also know that alcohol, even though it's legal, can be quite addictive, and leads to the disease of alcoholism. So according to Webster, alcohol is one type of drug both because of it's effect on the body and it's addictive qualities.

The distinction between alcohol and other drugs seems to be more arbitrary than one based on fact. The only difference between alcohol and pot or cocaine is that a person can legally use alcohol after a certain age, whereas drugs are always illegal. However, just because something is legal it doesn't mean that it's good for you. Since alcohol has the same properties as other drugs we don't make this distinction. Therefore we use the term chemicals to describe any mood altering substance (alcohol, pot, cocaine. speed, downers, prescription tranquilizers, etc.) that can be addictive and potentially dangerous to one's physical or emtional health, or the safety and health of others.

The Effects of Chemicals

All types of chemicals are very powerful and potentially dangerous substances that are readily available in this society. They are frequently used, and abused, by men and women of all ages and backgrounds. The unemployed construction worker who is trying to feed his family will turn to chemicals as a way to cope with the shame of not earning a living. The corporation executive who makes over $100,000 a year uses to cope with the fear that he is not performing up to his boss's expectations and may lose his job to an up and coming young executive. There are many different types of chemicals that have various physiologic effects on the body, but in general, the abuse of any chemical may have any one or a number of the following consequences.

  • They can all be addictive, either physiclally or psychologically.
  • They can all be physically damaging to the body and mind.
  • Over time an addiction will cause a person to compromise his values.
  • Their use may cover up deeper emotional problems.
  • Their use may be a way of running away from feelings.
  • Their use can lead to family or work problems.
  • Their use can lead to problems with the law.

Aside from these general effects, each chemical has it's own physical effect on the brain that affects a person's behavior, their violence in particular.

Chemicals and Violence

Since it is a drug, alcohol has specific effects on your body and behavior. Alcohol is a depressant, although it may give a person the temporary feeling that he is able to do or say anything. However, all studies have shown that neither mental nor physical abilities are improved, and in fact they get progressively worse as increasing amounts of alcohol are consumed. Because of its depressant effect on the brain, a person under the influence has less control of his behaviors. For example, a person's response time in stopping a car is decreased with consumption of alcohol. Or a person may say something insulting to a friend that he definitely would not say when sober. It is understandable that an argument could develop when one or both persons are under the influence. It is also understandable that a person who ordinarily would agree he has no right to hit his partner, might be violent when intoxicated.

Most persons are also less aware of their emotional state when they are under the influence. He may not know he is angry or sad until it reaches the point that he can no longer hold those feelings in. Other persons who usually repress their emotions may not be able to when they are under the influence. Men who have difficulty facing the personal or professional stresses in their lives are likely to use alcohol in low to moderate amounts as a way to numb themselves to the feelings that may result from those stresses. Think about it for a moment. You have just come home from work with all its daily problems, and you either don't want to or don't know how to deal with your wife and her problems as well. So you have a couple of drinks. It does take the edge off those feelings. It gives you the illusion of calming down. But, if you have a habit of avoiding problems and a history of violence, you might as well be putting bullets in the gun. This pattern of avoiding problems through alcohol can also be a symptom of alcoholism or chemical dependency.

Like alcohol, other drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, opiates (heroin), amphetamines (speed), hallucinogens (acid) and barbiturates (downers) are not known to specifically cause violence, but are likely to put a person in a state of mind where he is to be more irritable or agitated both during use and between uses. Like alcohol, drug users have compromised judgement while under the inflluence. They are not thinking clearly, may over react emotionally and will behave in ways that endanger their life and the lives of others. Some individuals may become out of touch with reality, fearful and paranoid during their use of drugs.

All chemicals are toxins and poison the body. People die from overdose, acute physical reactions, or irresponsible behavior while under the influence. More often, users die a lingering death from chronic health problems. These chemicals also poison your mental health. They don't solve problems or take away pain in the long run, even though they can help a person deny their problems in the short run. The more that emotional pain is denied, the difficult to solve their problems become.

Whatever the reason a person uses or the effects it has on their body and mind, the use of any chemicals makes violence a more likely outcome of conflict in a relationship. Therefore, no matter what your drug of choice, we strongly recommend that a person stop all drug use while attempting to learn to control his violence. If stopping is difficult, you probably have a problem, and it would be helpful to talk with a drug counselor.

The Effects of Your Chemical Use

Exercise #1

What affects has your chemical use had on your life? Does it have any of the effects on your emotions or behavior that we've mentioned above? For example; "We fight a lot about my spending money on pot" or "I have become violent" or "I get more easily agitated by family problems" or "I become verbally abusive."

  • _______________________________________
  • _______________________________________
  • _______________________________________
  • _______________________________________

The Stages of Chemical Use

In order to better determine if alcohol or drugs are a problem in your life it is important to first understand the progression of chemical dependency. Like domestic violence, alcoholism and drug addiction are progressive diseases that have particular characteristics that develop over time. The following model can be used to describe the addiction process to any mood altering chemical(s). This progression generally looks like this:

Experimentation >> Moderate Use >> Abuse >> Dependency >> Death

When a person uses alcohol or another drug for the first time it is called experimental use. This type of use may happen once or twice and last for only a very short period of time. After such use, the person decides either that he/she likes it and wants to continue or that he/she doesn't want to use again. This experimentation may occur out of curiosity or peer pressure, but in either case the person decides whether or not he/she liked the experience. If the person didn't like the effects, he/she will no longer use that substance. However, if the person does decide to use again he/she quickly moves into the second stage of the process, moderate use.

During the second stage of this process, moderate use, a person's use patterns are fairly predictable. Drinking may occur on weekends, in social settings or with dinner. The amount of alcohol or drugs used will vary from person to person. Most importantly, there are likely to be few or no consequences directly related to use. Work life and relationships are not directly affected by the use of the substance. However, if there is a consequence as a result of use, a person will be able to recognize that there needs to be a change in his using behavior and ultimately is able to control the use so as to avoid additional consequnces. For example, Joe was at a party where he drank more than he could handle. He got into his car and started driving, but before to long he realized that he was unable to drive safely. He pulled over to the side and thought about his options. He could either continue to drive and risk a ticket or an accident, or he could walk to the nearest phone and call a cab. He decided to take the safe route and walk. It was about two miles to the nearest phone. He had already walked half way when it began to rain. Of course he had left his umbrella and coat at home that night. By the time he got home it was nearly four o'clock in the morning. He was soaked, developed a serious cold and was laid up for a week. That experience taught him a lesson. Getting drunk wasn't worth all the hassles. He never drank that much again.

When a person crosses over the line from moderate use to abuse he/she is beginning to depend on the substance for it's physiological and psychological effects. A person's body undergoes changes that make that person less sensitive to the effects of the substance. In other words, the person has to use more to get the same effect. The person continues to use for psychological reasons, such avoiding family or work problems, or hiding from feelings. During this stage the physical need is becoming greater. There is typically a great deal of denial at this stage - - the person is convinced that drinking or using is not a problem and he/she can stop whenever they please. Rationalizations, excuses, and blaming are used whenever others confront him/her about the problem. The abuser has difficulty seeing how his/her use affects those around him. Therefore, he doesn't try to alter his use in spite of the concerns of family members, friends or co-workers. Over time the abuser's use may increase in frequency and amount. Problems will begin to develop in all areas of life. Interpersonal and work relationships may show signs of stress. They may begin to get in trouble with the law. Previous patterns of work and home life may change for the worse. Health may begin to deteriorate.

As a person continues to use he/she will develop physiological and psychological dependancy. They will be compulsive about using. When that person does use he/she will not be able to control their consumption. They won't be able to have just one drink, one joint or one line of cocaine. They may need to use every day in order to avoid severe withdrawal symptoms. Others may have a pattern of periodic binging separated by a few days, weeks or months of no or low use. This person may appear to have it together, but people they are close to both at home and work will become increasingly aware of how alcohol or drugs are affecting their life.

By this time in the process, the chemically dependent person's life is becoming unmanageable. They may be continually involved with the law, having frequent interpersonal problem -- such as violence -- and troubles on the job. Problems are beginning to materialize in all areas of life. Most importantly, the chemically dependent person is in such denial that he/she refuses to see the relationship between their use and their problems. They blame others or uses excuses as a way of avoiding responsibility for their problems. In addition to their own problems, the chemically dependent person also affects the lives of other people. This is seen most commonly through violence, driving while under the influence, encouraging others to use and serving as a poor role model for his children. Our friend in the last example would be blaming his wife for not leaving the umbrella in the car, or more likely would have kept on driving in the first place. If he was arrested for drunk driving he would have been angry at everyone else but himself. He wouldn't have seen the relationship between his drinking and his getting a ticket.

The chemically dependent person may experience severe withdrawal symptoms, such as the DT's, headaches, anxiety, depression and hot flashes. He/she may develop severe irreversible physical damage to the body, such as lungs, nasal passages, liver, heart, brain and kidneys. Many moderate to severe alcoholics or drug addicts are also seriously malnourished. As use progresses, the person reaches the final stage of chemical dependency, death. This may occur as a result of an overdose, by mixing chemicals or by getting into an accident.

A person's using pattern develops after that first experimental use. The length of time it takes a person to reach the end of the process will vary. A person may use chemicals for years before becoming chemically dependent, or can show signs of chemical dependency right from the first experience. If you have a family history of alcoholism or drug addiction, you are more susceptible to becoming chemically dependent.

How do you find out if you are or are becoming chemically dependent? Get an assessment from a qualified chemical dependency counselor. At the end of this chapter are suggestions as to where you can get help.

Chemical Use Patterns

Exercise #2

People use chemicals for different reasons. Which of these patterns can you identify in yourself?

  • ____ To relax
  • ____To fit in the crowd
  • ____ Because of peer pressure
  • ____ To better relate to friends or family
  • ____ To avoid friends or familly
  • ____ To avoid feeling depressed
  • ____ To avoid feeling angry
  • ____ To avoid an argument
  • ____ To escape problems at work
  • ____ To escape problems at home
  • ____ To feel better about yourself
  • ____ To feel better about others
  • ____ To avoid feeling lonely
  • ____ To feel like you belong to a group
  • ____ To have fun
  • ____ To get high
  • ____ To get drunk
  • ____ To go to sleep
  • ____ To feel more relaxed about having sex
  • ____ To stuff feelings
  • ____Other:________________________________________
  • ____Other:________________________________________
  • ____Other:________________________________________

Many of these reasons are chemical abuse patterns, therefore it's possible that you are becoming chemically dependent. Now is the time to nip the problem in the bud, before the consequences become more serious. Do you really need to use? If so, get help. If not, stop now so that you can get a better control over your behavior. Remember to ask yourself, "Am I willing to go to any length to stop my violence?"

Chemical Dependency Questionaire

Exercise #3

The following questionnaire is designed to determine if you or someone you know has a problem with chemicals. If you do find that your suspicions are true about yourself or your partner, get help. Unless this problem is addressed, the chance that violence will contiune is very great. Answer each question with a "yes" or "no".


  • Do you occasionally use heavily after a disappointment, a quarrel or when the boss gives you a hard time?
  • When you have trouble or feel under pressure, do you always use more heavily than usual?
  • Have you noticed that you are able to handle more alcohol or drugs than you did when you were first using?
  • Did you ever wake up on the "morning after" and discover that you could not remember part of the evening before, even though your friends tell you that you did not "pass out"?
  • When using with other people, do you try to have a little more when others will not know it?
  • Are there certain occasions when you feel uncomfortable if alcohol or drugs are not available?
  • Have you recently noticed that when you begin using you are in more of a hurry to get the first hit than you used to be?
  • Do you sometimes feel a little guilty about your use?
  • Are you secretly irritated when your family or friends discuss your use?
  • Have you recently noticed an increase in the frequency of your memory "blackouts"?
  • Do you often find that you wish to continue using after your friends say they have had enough?
  • Do you usually have a reason for the occasions when you use heavily?
  • When you are sober, do you often regret things you have done or said while high?
  • Have you tried switching drugs or following different plans for controlling or cutting down on your use?
  • Have you often failed to keep the promises you have made to yourself about controlling or cutting down on your use?
  • Have you ever tried to control your use by making a change in your jobs, or moving to a new location?
  • Do you try to avoid family or close friends while you are using?
  • Are you having an increasing number of financial and work problems?
  • Do more people seem to be treating you unfairly without good reason?
  • Do you eat very little or irregularly when you are using?
  • Do you sometimes have the "shakes" in the morning and find that it helps to have a little drink or a hit?
  • Have you recently noticed that you cannot use as much as you once did?
  • Do you sometimes stay drunk or high for several days at a time?
  • Do you sometimes feel very depressed and wonder whether life is worth living?
  • Sometimes after periods of using, do you see or hear things that aren't there?
  • Do you get terribly frightened after you have been using heavily?

If you answered "yes" to any of the questions, you have some of the symptoms that may indicate alcohol or drug abuse. Remember, you can recover. Treatment for alcohol and drug abuse is available. For more information, contact your local or nearest office of the National Council on Alcoholism.

Where To Get Help

A person with an alcohol or drug problem can find help just about anywhere. The Yellow Pages has listings under "Alcoholism Information and Treatment Centers" and "Drug Abuse and Addiction Information and Treatment Centers". "Alcoholics Anonymous" is also listed in the white pages. Programs can be residential, hospital based, outpatient, self help or any combination.

Residential programs can be either privately owned or non-profit agencies. A person may stay in the program anywhere from a month to over a year. The advantage of the residential program is that you live with other recovering alcoholics or drug abusers so that you get the continual support you need to stop using. There is always someone there to talk to. Programs vary as to how structured they are and how much counseling you receive. However, the main purpose of the residential program is to help the recovering alcoholic or drug abuser make the necessary changes in his life so that he won't need alcohol or other drugs.

Hospital based programs are short term residential programs. The client receives four to twelve weeks of intensive treatment, usually including Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, individual and group counseling, family counseling and medication, if needed. This is followed by an after-care program for a period of time. Many hospital and residential programs also have an outpatient component of individual or group counseling. In addition, there are many alcohol and drug programs in the community that offer weekly counseling for you and your family.

Although talking to counselors can be very helpful in addressing this problem, it can be equally helpful to talk with someone who has already been where you have, and can tell you what you can expect in the days ahead. The most well-known self-help programs are Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. These programs offer meetings every day, practically throughout the day in larger cities, for persons with alcohol and drug problems. Although going to this meeting may seem difficult, inconvenient and awkward, it is important to develop the necessary support that will help you stop drinking or using. At the same time you will have established contacts, so if you have the urge to go back to your old habits you know where and who you can go to for support. AL-ANON family groups holds meetings like AA, but these meetings are for persons who are family and friends of alcoholics. In addition to AA and AL-ANON there are groups and counselors in your community that specialize in helping adult children of alcoholics or ACA.

Persons who attend AA, ALANON or NA will have what's known as a sponsor help them through the early stages of recovery. A sponsor is a person who is already well into his recovery. Your sponsor is a person to call when you feel the urge to drink, use or act out in other ways. He is someone with whom you can discuss your difficulties and successes during your recovery. He is someone who has experienced many of the same emotions you are feeling inside. He has walked and is still walking the same path as you. Most importantly, he is someone who has worked and is still working the steps to recovery.

The Twelve Steps of AA and NA are the key to sobriety. They are rules for healthy and positive living. The twelve steps can help any person who is trying to overcome personal difficulties. Some men who have been to AA or NA have stated that they were turned off to the mention of God. It is important to know that AA and NA are not religions, nor do they advocate any one particular religion. However, they do advocate spirituality as an important part of the recovery process. Religion is a particular system of faith and worship that advocates for a particular God or Gods, whereas spirituality is a personal quest that doesn't necessarily involve any religion's God. The reason why AA advocates the seeking of a higher power is because alcoholics and drug addicts are notorious for wanting to do things their way. This is called self-willing; "I can do it myself, I don't need any help." The truth is he hasn't done it himself, and he is out of control of his chemical use. He needs to turn to a higher power that will help overcome his urges, some greater force that will remind him of what he needs to do to stay sober.

Aside from spirituality, following the twelve steps will improve a person's life in many ways. When men ask "How can I get sober or recover from my violence problems?", the answer is in the word "HOW", honesty, openness and willingness. You need to be honest with yourself and others. You need to be open to the twelve steps and the AA or NA fellowship, and you need to be willing to go to all lengths to get sober and stop your violence. That's how AA and NA works.

If chemicals are a problem in your life it will be necessary to face it if you expect to stop your violent behavior. Get an assessment by a qualitified chemical dependency counselor and get treatment if it's recommended. We have found that men who continue to use any mood altering chemicals will not benefit as much from anger and violence counseling as those who abstain. Therefore, we encourage you to stop all use for a period of time until you have your behavior under control. Perhaps you will discover that you don't need chemicals at all.