man screaming with fingers in his ears

Addiction: Denial and Recovery

It is often so frustrating for the family of an addict or alcoholic to convince him or her to seek treatment for their condition.

For the family, it can be incredibly exasperating that the affected person does not even acknowledge that they have a problem with addiction.

In such a situation, the addict is actually exhibiting a definite symptom of addiction: Denial.

Denial is also defined by psychologists as “irrational thinking”. Not really surprising, for a person who has been damaging his or her brain with mind-altering substances for a significant period.

However, denial can be traced to two main reasons in the context of addiction:

  • Protecting the dignity of the addict, and
  • Avoiding the pain of reality

Society does not look kindly on the addict or alcoholic, viewing their condition as a result of poor choices, lack of proper upbringing, or immoral acts.

It has some uncomfortable labels (“junkie”, “boozer”, “scum”, “drunkard”) to describe them. Obviously, the affected person would not like to be viewed as such and tries their best to appear “normal”.

They begin to project an image of normalcy. Gradually, they begin to fall into the trap of believing in the image.

But it’s merely an image, not the reality. In this way, it is a self-defence mechanism to protect their personal dignity.

Secondly, an addict’s life is replete with incidents of dysfunction, accidents, conflicts, maybe even occurrences of crime and violence.

Such a life generates significant emotions of guilt, shame and fear.

Such negative feelings are most uncomfortable to sustain, so the addict begins to avoid looking at, or acknowledging these incidents, thereby ‘burying’ the associated emotions.

To continue to avoid feeling such emotions, he or she continues the use of substances, which builds a wall of denial around him or her.

The ‘wall’ of denial

door with a sign stating "not an entry"

This wall is often reinforced by enabling behaviours of people around the addict, who ‘love’ and ‘care’ for the affected person.

Family involvement in the recovery process becomes critical, as their behaviour to needs to change.

If and when the addict recognises and acknowledges the reality of addiction, it means he or she has to do something about it: stopping the using, going through withdrawal and accompanying craving, changing lifestyle, friends, behaviour, thinking.

Maybe, it will have to start with going into rehab. All this appears like a monumental, almost impossible, task.

The addict would rather continue on the familiar path of using and manipulating, at which he is now apparently very adept.

There are several types of denial, such as minimising, rationalising, justifying and blaming.

An addict may use any or a mix of these, creating a mesmerising web of dishonesty and diversions.

As long as the individual believes that there is no problem, or the problem is not significant, he or she is not likely to take a solution. Therefore, there is resistance to treatment.

Denial management is the first step

As long as the person is in denial, recovery cannot begin. It is important that the denial is broken for the alcoholic or addict to consider the change.

Denial management is an important part of treatment. In fact, it is the first stage. It is a step toward the individual facing and accepting reality, which can be painful for him or her.

As 12 Steps programs expound in the first step: admitted one’s “powerlessness” and “unmanageability”. It is truly the acceptance of reality.

A meaningful and sustainable recovery can be built only on a solid foundation of reality and truth. That means Denial has to be broken and the individual is ready to progress further in recovery, with rigorous honesty.

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