By Staff Writer
Your family, friends, or coworkers are trying to make you go to rehab, but you don’t need it. You’re just having a little fun, going through a tough phase, or handling things the best way you can.
You may honestly believe that. But when everyone knows you have a problem but you, you’re probably in denial. Your drug or alcohol use has had a negative impact on your relationships, your job, your health, your finances, or some other area of your life but you can’t or won’t see it because that might mean having to give up your habit and face some difficult issues.
Addicts are often the last ones to recognize their disease and will blame everything but the addiction as their lives fall apart. Going through denial does not make an addict a liar, manipulator, or a bad person. Denial is an automatic psychological response to stress, conflict, and pain – a defense mechanism that helps people handle stress in the only way they currently know how. Their thoughts are so jumbled and their heads so fogged by substance abuse, they cannot distinguish the truth from a lie.
The Stages of Denial
Many addicts go through a number of stages of denial before finally admitting they have a problem with drugs or alcohol.
Stage 1: The addict minimizes his substance abuse problem by saying he is using less than he is or underestimating the seriousness of the problem. In some cases, the addict may lack accurate information about the disease of addiction and truly believes his use does not rise to level of addiction.
Stage 2: As it gets more difficult to minimize the problem, the addict begins making up excuses or elaborate stories to justify his drinking or drug use. An addict in this stage of denial will often argue, “If you had my problems, you’d use drugs, too.”
Stage 3: As the addict’s loved ones and friends become less tolerant of the excuses, the addict becomes angry or defensive, blaming others for her problems rather than accepting personal responsibility. For example, an alcoholic’s marriage is falling apart because of her drinking, but she blames her spouse for all of the couple’s problems.
In some cases, individuals already in recovery may revisit the stages of denial, believing they can use drugs or alcohol moderately without relapsing or believing they can safely use a drug other than the one they were addicted to before. Many recovering addicts will need to revisit a substance abuse treatment program or 12-Step program to internalize lasting change.
Throughout each of these stages, there are common patterns denial can take. Do you recognize any of these?
• Let’s talk about anything but the problem (avoidance)
• I don’t have a problem (absolute denial)
• My drinking/drug use is not that bad (minimizing)
• I have a good reason to drink or use drugs (rationalizing)
• It’s not my fault – it’s yours (blaming)
• Other people drink or use drugs more than me, so I don’t have a problem (comparing)
• I’ll accept help if you do what I want (manipulating)
• I’ll say whatever you want to hear as long as you leave me alone (compliance)
• I feel fine so I couldn’t have a problem (flight into health)
• Nothing can make it better so I may as well not try (strategic hopelessness)
• I’m not hurting anyone else and I have the right to drink or use drugs if I want (democratic disease state)
Denial of an addiction is unhealthy and destructive and keeps the addict from living in reality. Denial can last for months, years, or even a lifetime. Ironically, as the 12 Steps of AA make clear, an addict must acknowledge his powerlessness over his addiction in order to reclaim the ability to lead a healthy, drug-free life.
Overcoming denial often requires a number of steps and efforts by loved ones:
• Be willing to admit that there is a problem and avoid enabling or co-dependent behaviors. These will only prolong the addiction and draw you further into your loved one’s disease.
• Talk to the addict by gently and honestly expressing your emotions and your pain and asking him to share his perception of the situation.
• If your efforts aren’t working, arrange an intervention, either with a group of loved ones and friends or by using a professional interventionist. By expressing your concerns and factually and non-judgmentally pointing out troubling behaviors, you may be able to convince the addict to get help.
• Call an addiction treatment center for more information or tips on getting a loved one into treatment.
• If the addict refuses to accept treatment, move on, seek support for yourself, and try reaching out to the addict again at a later date.
The mind is a powerful thing, but it can be used for bad when a person is stuck in denial. It can also be used for good, as when a person commits to recovery and corrects negative or unrealistic thinking. The addict may not be able to make this turnaround on her own. Call the National Resource Center at (877) 637-6237 for more information on how you can help a loved one in denial.