When we are in our addiction, we are blind to it. Alcoholism and all other addictions come with built in denial. The patient does not know that they are ill. They have no real concept of how severe the situation is and they are frequently not willing to talk about it at all. (Larson, 1998)
That makes recovery a bit difficult. In the mind of the addict, recovery just isn’t necessary. The addicts response when first confronted with his situation is: I DO NOT HAVE A PROBLEM!!! It is an emphatic response, often with anger and indignation that such a thing might even be proposed. The more anger and indignation, the more probability that there is a problem. One of the many painful frustrations for family and friends is watching someone they love, losing their life to addiction while they seem completely unaware of it.
The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) describes addiction as a cunning and baffling disease. (Bill W, 2001) Indeed all addictions may be so described. Addictions steal our sense of, and contact with, reality. It is part of our blindness. We weave such an intricate web of rationalizations and justifications to allow our addictive behavior, that we become engulfed by the darkness of our lies of denial and are blinded. Drunkenness is excused as, “Just letting off a little steam.” Smoking marijuana as, “It’s the only thing that helps me relax.” We use Meth not because we are addicts but say, “I have to work two jobs and need the help staying awake.”
The truth is this: WE ARE ADDICTS. WE DO NOT REALIZE WE ARE ADDICTS, AND WE WILL DO WHATEVER WE HAVE TO DO, AND SAY WHATEVER WE HAVE TO SAY, TO CONTINUE TO BE ADDICTS.
To gain the comfort of acting out in their lives, addicts employ the truth and reality bending benefits of denial. Denial is the hall pass to our addiction. Denial can help us justify our acting out or even hide it completely, even from our own eyes. One sex addict emphatically said, “I was NOT a sex addict. I was NOT that guy!” He really didn’t believe he was until he recognized that he was doing what a sex addict does. That is some of the hardest work of recovery; recognizing, coming to terms with, and gaining freedom from the addict’s patterns of denial.
Unfortunately, we lie to ourselves as much as we lie to others. “I need this,” or “No one will know,” even “I am not hurting anyone.” The list of thinking errors or denial patterns is very long. Addicts are very creative people. Often, the more intelligent they are, the better addicts they become. Terence Gorski MA has identified the patterns of denial in his book, Denial Management Counseling (Gorski, 2000). These patterns are:
Minimizing and Absolute Denial. Some addicts are like our friend Ron, using Absolute Denial, I am NOT that guy! He also throws in a little Minimizing for good measure, Yes, I had some problems with affairs, but….
One of the classic reasons that individuals cannot recognize themselves as addicts is that they don’t meet their definition or their mind’s picture of what an addict is. It is the perfect setup for Minimizing:
Elton was a pretty high functioning alcoholic. He taught high school, didn’t miss work, and was very well respected by both colleagues and students. In John’s mind an alcoholic was the guy in that Christmas movie with Jimmy Stewart. The unshaven guy, disheveled, stumbling in and out of bars, begging for drinks. Elton was nothing like that, so there was no way he could convict himself of being a drunk. Reality is that alcoholics come in all kinds of packages, and Elton came to understand this when he was driving home from work with a very high blood/alcohol content and was the cause of a terrible accident that took someone’s life. He couldn’t deny that he was a drunk anymore.
An extreme example of Absolute Denial is given by an undercover agent on Clark County’s Drug Task Force: If we are following a car with marijuana, cocaine or heroin, as soon as we are discovered, windows come down and drugs fly out the window; however, Meth users believe they won’t get caught.
When I pull over a meth guy, and I get him out of the car, I ask, “Do you have any drugs on you?” Invariably the answer is no. When I search his pants, and a stash is found he instantly blurts out, “These aren’t my pants!”
Now my first question upon stopping a suspect is, “Uhh, are those your pants?”
Meth addicts can really bend reality with denial. Their drug of choice profoundly harms the brain, creating a surge of thinking errors. The thinking and denial patterns progress to a point of being so distorted and illogical that anyone else can easily recognize the lie. The meth addict thinks it is believable. He is quite indignant when we can’t accept his explanation. This is Absolute Denial on steroids! The meth addict is so trapped in his thinking that getting out is impossible without a great deal of help. Help that he doesn’t see as necessary.
It is not uncommon to hear a heavy drug user minimize by saying, No way I am an addict. I don’t use needles. It keeps the addict in the, What I am doing is not that bad category! It allows us to escape the reality of who we have become.
Shary and Frank had been married almost 15 years, had one child and the appearance of the picture perfect relationship. Everyone loved my husband, Shary thought. Then she found a long history of e-mails and internet activity that painted a picture of many affairs and betrayals. A very common form of absolute denial looks like this:
When I confronted him, it was terrible. He accused me of spying on him and of violating his privacy.
“You owe me an explanation,” I said.
He was angry and hostile and said he didn’t owe me anything. He thought that he hadn’t done anything wrong.
You would think he caught me doing all those things by the way he was acting! He tried to kick us out of the house and has been taking everything that he can. He is being vicious. The one person that I thought I could always count on and trust was leading a secret life.
Addicts love to use anger and indignation as an alternative to admitting their addictions. As in Shary’s case, it can get ugly. Many spouses and friends, in their confusion, hurt and fear, back down from the angry, bellowing addict. Being loud and angry doesn’t change anything. If you are an addict, you are an addict, no matter how loud you beller.
Denial by Avoidance. An Avoider is happy to talk about anything that does not involve his drug or alcohol use. He has become an expert at manipulation to keep the spotlight off of him and his use. He uses a variety of techniques to practice his form of denial.
He is great at changing the focus by asking provocative questions that put attention on others. He loves to put others down and gets a double payoff. It makes him feel better about himself, and it focuses attention away from his use. He might say, So, I saw the cops over at your house last week…what was going on? Or, John said you weren’t at the AA meeting last night and he thought you were out drinking instead…so what’s going on?
Users of Avoidance become masters at being vague. I guess, maybe, I drink socially, I smoke occasionally, is the flavor of their conversation. They are purposefully unspecific and unclear to avoid others knowing their reality (Najavits, 2002).
Avoiders may also like to create a lot of drama. They love to keep things stirred up. Always at the expense of others. The benefit is again creating a smoke screen that helps hide their own behaviors and situation from public knowledge.
Denial by Rationalization. This addict always has a good reason. Excuses were created for rationalizers: I drink because I am depressed. Pot is the only thing that relieves the pain. Rationalizers punch their own ticket to get on the addiction train. They rationalize themselves right into trouble.
Good rationalizers have enough truth and logic that we accept what they say without question. Individuals of high intellect are especially good at this form of denial.
Denial by Blaming. Blamers have never been at fault for anything. There is always someone or something else to blame. Blamers create resentment to their advantage. Your nagging is impossible to live with…who wouldn’t drink? By creating a victim role for themselves, they feel justified in using. Everyone wants to feel sympathy for a victim. We want to be nice people. Blamers set us up. Making us feel just enough sympathy for them that we do not question their solutions.
Denial by Comparing. Those that compare are close cousins to the minimizers. They take comfort in the fact that they aren’t as bad as that guy. They often take the next step in logic and deduce for themselves that they are not addicts.
John’s brother was in and out of rehab most of his adult life. He seemed unable to shake the demons. John spent a great deal of time and money trying to help his brother. It never occurred to him that he was also an alcoholic (even while drinking a fifth a day), because he didn’t have the problems his brother did.
Comparing sounds like this; Yeah, I use some, but I’m not out of control, I am sure not like that tweaked out Jerry. Now that guy has a problem, you should be talking to him! The addict is very comforted that he is not Jerry, evan to the point that he can completely excuse his own addiction as not that bad. This isn’t very far from, I do not have a problem.
I am Better, Therefore, I am Well, Denial. There is a phenomena in recovery that creates this denial pattern. When recovery is begun with some sincerity, progress is made. There are immediate results. Clarity begins to return, guilt and shame are eased, and the addict feels better than they have felt for some time. After this it is easy for the belief to come that healing has happened and is accomplished. They are sure that their using wasn’t that bad, and often believe they can use on a limited basis without harm. Those who fall into this trap, are soon back in their addictive behaviors.
Denial by Hopelessness. Hopelessness is especially problematic for long time addicts. You can only try to quit so many times without success, before the point or belief is reached that quitting is not possible. Giving up hope soon follows. When hope is lost, the addiction game has moved to a whole new level, and recovery becomes much more difficult. Even reaching out or seeking help becomes impractical in the addicts mind.
Addicts affected by hopelessness can allow themselves unlimited involvement in their addiction. After all, there is nothing that can be done. They believe, This is my fate.
Denial by Right. This addict recognizes what he is doing, admits his addiction, but claims the right to continue his self destruction. I have the right to kill myself! Leave me alone! It is a very common denial pattern among adolescent males and is often founded on anger and shame.
Throughout the process of recovery when we encounter denial, we should apply the Recovery Attitude of Accountability. Accountability is the antidote for denial.
We should measure recovery progress in terms of behavior and not words. Addicts are master word manipulators. Words can easily paint any picture we wish. That is why denial serves the addict’s purpose. Behaviors reveal the true intention of the heart. Whether with ourselves or those with whom we are trying to rebuild relationships, don’t listen to the words. Watch the behaviors.
It is easy to say, I am no longer going to lie to you. The truth and the reality will be revealed over time, as honesty is displayed repeatedly and dishonesty is absent. But he said he had changed are the most often uttered words of spouses who have been disappointed, yet again. The words of an addict cannot be trusted. Only consistent, reliable behavior can be believed.
Denial patterns are presented when the client uses his addict voice. I am not as bad as John. I don’t have a problem. I am past help. The raising of the addict’s voice is a very important therapeutic moment. The clinician has opportunity to further recovery by pointing these statements out and identifying them. At this moment the client may be introduced to the addict within, a meeting that is often quite surprising to the addict.