Addiction is a (Bad) Coping Mechanism | Sober and Unashamed

Matt Salis
8 min readJul 12, 2023

Addiction is a coping mechanism.

It is not weakness or a moral failing. Addiction is not a choice, although with rare mental and behavioral health education, we can avoid making lifestyle decisions that set us up for disaster. Addiction has very little to do with genetics, and much more to do with generational trauma and familial patterns that can result in a family tree dripping with alcoholics.

That first paragraph is thick with stuff it took me over a decade to learn. You don’t have to understand it all. But if you can’t reject the fallacy that addiction is about willpower, genes and morality, then you’re stuck, and none of the rest of this is going to make any sense.

Every addiction has an underlying cause. In most cases, including mine, we should use the plural (causes) when looking for tangible incidents, mindsets and influences. If we think of underlying causes as one or a series of stories, we can find the cognitively graspable things for which we use alcohol as a coping mechanism. When it comes to identifying underlying causes, some people, unfortunately, have an easier time than others, because the “thing” is objectively traumatic like child abuse or sexual abuse or the unprocessed death of someone close. But for many of us, the underlying causes are more subjective. There wasn’t one cataclysmic incident, but rather, a pattern of erosion of self-esteem so slow and insidious that we can’t see our own decline while we live through it.

Some of us struggle to identify the tangible underlying causes. We say things like, “I had a good childhood. My parents loved me, we had plenty of food and material things, I had friends, and I never really felt unsafe. I was blessed, so it feels wrong to try to pin my addiction on anything that happened to me.” The longer we keep digging, keep doing the work of recovery, we usually find a drive to succeed financially that was imposed on us at home and in society. At some point, those external nudges get internalized, and we align our self-worth to a scoreboard of all of those arbitrary culturally success definitions like money, status and power. Pretty soon, we are chasing goals that have no hope whatsoever of making us happy. So we drink, and the pain diminishes for a while. And that works until it doesn’t.

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Matt Salis

I live in Denver, Colorado, with my wife and four kids. I write and speak about addiction and recovery. Please follow my blog at SoberAndUnashamed.com.