Addiction is a (Bad) Coping Mechanism

Addiction is a (Bad) Coping Mechanism


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.


How can I talk about what happened to me as though it is common – a near universalism as I am fond of saying? Because the vast majority of the people I get to know (especially the men – there is a gender component here) have co-occurring addictions to work.


Here’s a little fun fact. Enrollment in any of our support groups includes a direct conversation between me and the person interested in working with us. With almost no exceptions, within the first five minutes of that conversation, I know, without asking, what the person does for a living if that person is a man. If that person is a woman, I know how many kids she has, and their ages. With the men, I usually have to ask about their kids. With the women, I usually have to ask about work. We are talking about hundreds and hundreds of conversations. That’s kind of fascinating, isn’t it?


So that’s my brief take on the underlying causes of addiction – both the obvious and the subtle ones. But what I am coming to understand now is that when we identify underlying causes, that just gives us stories so we can explain our struggles to ourselves and others. Those tangible stories give us something to chew our way through a 45 minute therapy session. They are important. The stories get us unstuck and set us free from the frustration of the unknown. The stories obliterate the fallacy of willpower, morality and genetics. The stories are critical.


But there is something under the stories. There is a deeper discomfort that the stories cannot explain.


I have four kids. Two are young adults, and two are teenagers living at home. I am worried about all four of them. The beauty of having four kids is that each child gives me something unique and different about which to worry. A personality trait here and a concerning habit there. No two are alike, so I am blessed with variety in the nagging concerns department of my brain. I know that my wife and I continue to do the very best we can with them, but we also know that all four of their precious lives were impacted in different ways by my alcoholism. That is a heavy burden to carry. But we believe the mantras like Maya Angelou’s, “…when you know better, do better,” and we try hard to live in the present, releasing the past and admitting naivete about the future.


And they are good kids. No, actually, at the risk of sounding arrogant, they are great kids. The best, really. They are healthy. They are wicked smart. They are active. And they know their parents love them unconditionally (I’m sure they wish they were “loved” (as in, I’m only saying this because I love you) a little less sometimes)).


And yet, I worry.


I don’t have a single concern about their ability to get degrees and jobs. As the work ethic and interest in making a contribution diminishes in our society, I know they will be fine in all the tangible ways my parents worried about me. And if they pursue something that doesn’t work out, they will always be welcome back home with Sheri and me. Always. All four of them know it.


I worry about their joy and happiness. I worry about their relationship with technology. I worry about their inevitable experiences with alcohol and other drugs. I worry about their ability to feel and express empathy when they have not experienced trauma to make the trauma of others relatable. I worry that they won’t find peace and contentment, because for me, that’s the hardest accomplishment of all.


Maybe it’s not just me, since all of the world’s major religions have peace and contentment – living satisfied in the present – at their very core. So me and billions of other people are on the same quest. That kinda justifies my worry for the peace and contentment of my kids, don’t you think?


Here’s the point of all of this. If you are still reading, and still picking up what I am laying down, this is the payoff for your persistence.


Worrying about my kids is baseline. So far in my quest for peace and contentment, worrying about my kids is as good as it gets. For me, at least to this point in my personal growth and discovery, there is no such thing as lasting peace and contentment.


I am getting pretty good at appropriately deprioritizing work stress. When something breaks around the house, I fix it or get it fixed without thoughts about moving to a cabin in the mountains without electricity, gas or running water. I have avoided financial disaster for the first half of my life, and I’m reasonably convinced I’ll be able to avoid it for the second half as well (and I understand the U.S. bankruptcy laws well enough in case something unimaginable happens).


Sobriety doesn’t fix anything, but it is a prerequisite. As I move years away from alcoholism, I keep getting better at dealing with emotions, and prioritizing my own mental health. I run outside in the fresh air, not to lose weight, but because it is good for my nervous system and my mood. I hike in the mountains, not to accomplish a goal, but because it makes me feel alive like nothing else. I prioritize sleep, nutrition, hydration and music – not because I am selfish, but because I show up for others in a much more impactful way when I put my own needs first. I used to think of the concept of, “listening to what my body needs,” as a practice reserved for crying infants and tree-hugging hippie yogis. Now I listen at the first sign of discomfort because I’ve learned that my needs will never go away without attention.


But here’s the thing…even with all of this work and discovery, worry is still at my baseline. My wife worries about our kids all the time, and she always has. I spent decades putting other worries in front of concern for my offspring because I knew she worried enough for both of us, and because I’m a man (see the gender philosophizing above). As I’ve swatted those other worries away, the paranoia for the wellbeing of my flesh and blood is as close to peace and contentment as I can get so far. There is no consistent harmony. There is no comfort. Not yet, anyway. I’ll keep trying. As Big Tom famously said in the classic movie, Tommy Boy, “You’re either growing or you’re dying. There ain’t no third direction.” Onward.


So let’s just say you are like me.


Let’s say you have some underlying trauma. Maybe it is objectively awful like abuse. Maybe it is subtle and subjective and piled up slowly over the years.


Maybe you faced external pressure, and you internalized it.


Maybe you looked around, and you bought what society was selling about money, status and power.


And maybe, just maybe, you found the thing that helped you cope with it all. Since you are reading my blog about alcoholism, my guess is that your thing, like my thing, is alcohol.


But it doesn’t really matter. Your thing could be video games or weed or eating or control or technology or sex or meth or shopping or work or exercise or literally anything that brings relief. What the thing is that you use to cope doesn’t matter. The coping is the point. And if you live in this world, the need to cope is a universalism.


Addiction isn’t a moral failing or lack of willpower or a genetic defect. Addiction is a coping mechanism gone bad. It is relying on your thing for relief from stress rather than rejecting the existence of the stress. And the work involved in that rejection is so much easier said than done.


Look at me. I haven’t achieved peace and contentment. I am stuck at a fundamental baseline. But I’d rather be worried about my kids than wasting time worrying about a liquid toxin.


‘Cause that’s some serious progress.


If you are ready to make progress toward your baseline, and alcohol as a coping mechanism isn’t as effective as it used to be, we hope you’ll check out our SHOUT Sobriety program.

SHOUT Sobriety

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August 9, 2023
  • Reply
    July 14, 2023 at 5:12 am

    Great Article Matt….
    “erosion of self-esteem so slow and insidious that we can’t see our own decline” is so very true in my story. And the whole time I just thought I was coping.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      July 14, 2023 at 7:32 am

      Thanks for reading and relating, Mike!

  • Reply
    Brandt Norton
    August 13, 2023 at 1:45 pm

    i agree!! Addiction is a terrible coping mechanism. That’s why I am so blessed I found recovery. 13 years here

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      August 14, 2023 at 9:37 am

      Thanks for reading, and congrats on 13 years – so cool!

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