What I've Learned About Pain Management

By Nic Sheff 11/07/12

I drank and used to escape the pain I was in but my problems only magnified. As it turns out, the clichés are true: the only way to get over those feelings is to go through them.

How it all started Photo via

Most everyone agrees, at this point, that addiction is a disease. 

Or at least a genetic abnormality.

In fact scientists are damn close to isolating the specific gene.

I know in my own case that it’s clear how that predisposition manifested itself the first time I ever got drunk. My friend and I were 11 years old. We stole alcohol from the bar of a rented ski cabin up in Tahoe, mixing small amounts of the different liquors in a Snapple bottle so the grownups wouldn’t notice any was missing. For me it’s an old story at this point—practically a legend. I drank some, he drank some. He hated the way it tasted and stopped. I loved the way it made me feel and drank the whole goddamn thing—and then I puked for like an hour.

Something in my brain was turned on that night after feeling the very first effects of that alcohol. Some switch had been flipped. 

It’s not just about drugs and alcohol. It’s about anything we, as human beings, use to avoid feeling the pain of our own existence. 

And, as I would come to learn later, that “switch” would get flipped on whenever I took drugs or alcohol into my system. 

Because once I started, I couldn’t stop. There was no getting around that. 

I believe it is the direct result of my congenital alcoholism. My grandfather drank himself to death. And, on that side of the family—a bunch of Arkansas rednecks (with some Native American thrown in, most likely not, in any way, consensually, I’m ashamed to admit)—there are alcoholics going back as far as anyone can possibly remember. 

So it makes sense that I would have this whole alcoholism thing.

That is, it makes sense why, because of my genetic make-up, once I start drinking or using, I find it nearly impossible to stop.

But from what I can tell, my genetic abnormality shouldn’t be able to make me start drinking or using again.

So then why was it, that after suffering devastating consequences—the devastation of my family, the loss of literally everything I owned, horrible infections, excruciating detoxes, having to abandon all my hopes and dreams for the future—I would continually make the conscious decision to start using again, knowing damn well what I was getting myself into?

I guess the only answer is that I honestly didn’t care anymore. 

I wanted to die.

That is, I wanted to use and then die.

Or use until I died.

After all, I told myself, it was better to live a short life blissed out on drugs than a lifetime of pain and misery.

Those seemed like the only two options for me.

Because I was, truly, in a tremendous amount of pain.

I mean, I really was.

But why was that?  

Why, when I wasn’t getting high, was my life so full of that pain and misery? 

In some ways, that seems to me the only question worth asking—both for myself and for every addict of every kind. 

Because it’s not just about drugs and alcohol. It’s about anything we, as human beings, use to avoid feeling the pain of our own existence. Acting out compulsively with sex, relationships, video games, TV, gambling, food, exercise or whatever else stems from the desire and need to escape the very real and deep-rooted sorrow in each one of us.

And certainly there must be a tremendous amount of this sorrow and pain in people because addiction, in one form or another, has reached epidemic proportions. It touches, at least by proxy, most everybody (or pretty close to it). 

I’d even go so far as to say that our culture encourages addiction by promoting dependence on distraction in all its many forms—although that’s another column altogether.

So does it stand to reason then that all people, to one degree or another, are in pain and suffering?

Is it an epidemic of pain in our society  that’s actively fueling this epidemic of addiction?

I think that it must be, yes.

Only, what is this pain? Where does it come from?

Of course, I can’t speak for anyone else but I have absolutely nothing terribly tragic to blame for mine. I’ve been very lucky my whole life and have had to face few hardships.

Sure, my parents divorced when I was four or five. And, sure, I had problems with my step dad. And, sure, I felt like my mom left me when I was little because she moved down to LA from San Francisco and I only got to see her a couple of times a year. And, sure, I saw a homeless guy get run over by a car right in front of me when I was around eight or nine. And yes, growing up in San Francisco in the late 80’s, we had a lot of family friends who were diagnosed with HIV and two that I was very close to died. 

But none of that is anything special or exceptionally traumatic.

I’ve known plenty of people who had the most horrible things imaginable happen to them when they were little and they didn’t end up addicted to anything. They’re living good, honest, productive lives. They are functioning members of society. They don’t fantasize about killing themselves or using drugs until they die.

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Nic Sheff is the author of two memoirs about his struggles with addiction: the New York Times bestselling Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines and We All Fall Down: Living with Addiction. Nic lives in Los Angeles, California where he writes for film and television. Find Nic on Twitter.